Mikhail Pletnev was born in Archangelsk, which is located in the north of Russia on the coast of the White Sea. By the time Pletnev began piano studies at age seven, with pianist Julia Shaskina, his family had moved to the central Russian City of Kazan in Tatarstan. Pletnev demonstrated promise and was enrolled at age 13 in Evgeny Timakin's piano preparatory class at the Moscow Central Music School. At 14, Pletnev earned the Grand Prix awarded by the International Jeunesses Musicales in Paris, and at 15 he transferred into master classes headed by Yakov Flier at the Moscow Conservatory. It was under Flier that Pletnev's talent really took wing, and after taking the gold medal at the All-Union Competition in 1977, Pletnev won the coveted gold at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1978. "Having rehearsed for the Tchaikovsky Competition under (Flier's) guiding hand," Pletnev once remembered, "I effectively performed there in his name."
Having paid his dues in the tough Russian competition circuit, Pletnev was now free to tour, and appeared on the concert circuit to worldwide acclaim. Critics from London, to New York, and to Tokyo alike praised Pletnev's interpretations of Scarlatti, Liszt, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, and other primarily mainstream piano composers. Some critics likened Pletnev's approach to that of Michelangeli or Horowitz. In particular, Pletnev is recognized by his affinity for Tchaikovsky, and the pianist has prepared his own transcriptions of Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker, as well as recasting his opera Eugene Onegin as a ballet.
As the Berlin Wall came down, Pletnev was in the process of founding and organizing the Russian National Orchestra in Moscow. Since that time Pletnev has appeared less often in public as a pianist; he took up the mantle of conductor of the RNO and held the post until 1999. The orchestra under Pletnev made several critically acclaimed recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, including an award-winning set of Tchaikovsky's six symphonies released in 1996. Pletnev also took the orchestra on a tour to the United States during the 1992-1993 season. In addition to his world-class skills with the baton and at the keyboard, Pletnev is also a better-than-average amateur violinist, and finds the time to compose orchestral pieces and chamber music.