He was born to an old Don Cossack family that had settled in Siberia. His father was a Collegiate Registrar, a civil service rank that often served as postmasters. In 1854, as a result of his father being reassigned, the family moved to the village of Sukhobuzimskoye, where he began his primary education.
In 1859, his father died of tuberculosis so the family returned to Krasnoyarsk and were forced to rent the second floor of their house to make ends meet. He began drawing while attending the district school and was encouraged by the local art teacher. His first formal work dates from 1862, but his family could not afford to continue his education and he became a clerk in a government office. This brought him into contact with Pavel Zamyatin, the Governor of Yenisei, who was able to find him a patron; Pyotr Kuznetsov, a local merchant who owned several small gold mines.