Khrushchev was born on 15 April 1894,[b] in Kalinovka, a village in what is now Russia's Kursk Oblast, near the present Ukrainian border. His parents, Sergei Khrushchev and Ksenia Khrushcheva, were poor peasants of Russian origin, and had a daughter two years Nikita's junior, Irina. Sergei Khrushchev was employed in a number of positions in the Donbas area of far eastern Ukraine, working as a railwayman, as a miner, and laboring in a brick factory. Wages were much higher in the Donbas than in the Kursk region, and Sergei Khrushchev generally left his family in Kalinovka, returning there when he had enough money.
Khrushchev and his first wife Euphrasinia (Yefrosinia) in 1916
Kalinovka was a peasant village; Khrushchev's teacher, Lydia Shevchenko, later stated that she had never seen a village as poor as Kalinovka had been. Nikita worked as a herdsboy from an early age. He was schooled for a total of four years, part in the village parochial school and part under Shevchenko's tutelage in Kalinovka's state school. According to Khrushchev in his memoirs, Shevchenko was a freethinker who upset the villagers by not attending church, and when her brother visited, he gave the boy books which had been banned by the Imperial Government. She urged Nikita to seek further education, but family finances did not permit this.
In 1908, Sergei Khrushchev moved to the Donbas city of Yuzovka (now Donetsk, Ukraine); fourteen-year-old Nikita followed later that year, while Ksenia Khrushcheva and her daughter came after. Yuzovka, which was renamed Stalino in 1924 and Donetsk in 1961, was at the heart of one of the most industrialized areas of the Russian Empire. After the boy worked briefly in other fields, Khrushchev's parents found him a place as a metal fitter's apprentice. Upon completing that apprenticeship, the teenage Khrushchev was hired by a factory. He lost that job when he collected money for the families of the victims of the Lena Goldfields Massacre, and was hired to mend underground equipment by a mine in nearby Rutchenkovo, where his father was the union organizer, and he helped distribute copies and organize public readings of Pravda. He later stated that he considered emigrating to the United States for better wages, but did not do so.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Khrushchev was exempt from conscription because he was a skilled metal worker. He was employed by a workshop that serviced ten mines, and he was involved in several strikes that demanded higher pay, better working conditions, and an end to the war. In 1914, he married Yefrosinia Pisareva, daughter of the elevator operator at the Rutchenkovo mine. In 1915, they had a daughter, Yulia, and in 1917, a son, Leonid.
After the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917, the new Russian Provisional Government in Petrograd had little influence over Ukraine. Khrushchev was elected to the worker's council (or soviet) in Rutchenkovo, and in May he became its chairman. He did not join the Bolsheviks until 1918, a year in which the Russian Civil War, between the Bolsheviks and a coalition of opponents known as the White Army, began in earnest. His biographer, William Taubman, suggests that Khrushchev's delay in affiliating himself with the Bolsheviks was because he felt closer to the Mensheviks who prioritized economic progress, whereas the Bolsheviks sought political power. In his memoirs, Khrushchev indicated that he waited because there were many groups, and it was difficult to keep them all straight.
In March 1918, as the Bolshevik government concluded a separate peace with the Central Powers, the Germans occupied the Donbas and Khrushchev fled to Kalinovka. In late 1918 or early 1919 he was mobilized into the Red Army as a political commissar. The post of political commissar had recently been introduced as the Bolsheviks came to rely less on worker activists and more on military recruits; its functions included indoctrination of recruits in the tenets of Bolshevism, and promoting troop morale and battle readiness. Beginning as commissar to a construction platoon, Khrushchev rose to become commissar to a construction battalion and was sent from the front for a two-month political course. The young commissar came under fire many times, though many of the war stories he would tell in later life dealt more with his (and his troops') cultural awkwardness, rather than with combat. In 1921, the civil war ended, and Khrushchev was demobilized and assigned as commissar to a labor brigade in the Donbas, where he and his men lived in poor conditions.
The wars had caused widespread devastation and famine, and one of the victims of the hunger and disease was Khrushchev's wife, Yefrosinia, who died of typhus in Kalinovka while Khrushchev was in the army. The commissar returned for the funeral and, loyal to his Bolshevik principles, refused to allow his wife's coffin to enter the local church. With the only way into the churchyard through the church, he had the coffin lifted and passed over the fence into the burial ground, shocking the village.