Kalinin finished his education at a local school in 1889 and worked for a time on a farm. He moved to Saint Petersburg, where he found employment as a metal worker in 1895. He also worked as a butler and then as a railway worker at Tbilisi depot, where he met Sergei Alliluyev, the father of Stalin's second wife.
A peasant by birth, Kalinin became an industrial worker in the city of St. Petersburg in 1893, joined the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party in 1898, and became one of the first supporters in Russia of Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik faction. He played an active role in the party’s revolutionary functions (he was arrested in 1899 and again in 1903) and participated in the Russian Revolution of 1905 in St. Petersburg. In 1912 he became a candidate member of the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee, a member of their Russian bureau, and cofounder of their newspaper Pravda (“Truth”).
After the Bolshevik coup d’état (November 1917), he served as mayor of Petrograd (St. Petersburg). In March 1919 he became head of the Soviet state—i.e., chairman of the central executive committee of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. (In 1924 his title was changed to chairman of the All-Union Central Executive Committee, and from 1938 until March 1946 his official post was chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.) In December 1925 he also became a full member of the Politburo of the party’s Central Committee.
Although Kalinin tended to favour the party’s right wing in intraparty disputes over industrial and agricultural policies in the 1920s, in crucial votes he supported Joseph Stalin. As a result, he not only survived the purges of the 1930s, during which Stalin eliminated his political rivals, but also retained his high party and government offices until shortly before his death.
In 1906, he married the ethnic Estonian Ekaterina Lorberg (1882–1960).