Natalie Wood was born Natalia Zakharenko on July 20, 1938, in San Francisco to Russian and Ukrainian immigrant parents Maria Stepanovna (née Zudilova; 1912–1996) and Nikolai Stepanovich Zakharenko (c. 1912–1980). Nikolai was a son of two Ukrainians from Kharkiv, then part of the Russian Empire: Stephan Zakharenko and Eudoxia Sauchenko. Nikolai was born in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East. As a child, he immigrated with his mother and two brothers to Montreal, Quebec. Later they moved to San Francisco. There, he worked as a day laborer and carpenter.
Natalia's mother was born in Barnaul, southern Siberia. Her father Stepan worked in a chocolate factory in Russia. He was killed in street fighting between Red and White Russian soldiers in 1918 during the Russian Civil War. After Stepan's death, Maria's mother left the country with her children, resettling as a refugee in the Chinese city of Harbin. Maria married Alexander Tatuloff, in China, and had a daughter, Olga (1927–2015).
Natalie liked to describe her family as having been either gypsies or landowning aristocrats in Russia. In her youth, her mother had dreamed of becoming an actress or ballet dancer. As an adult, she stated, "I'm very Russian, you know." She spoke both English and Russian with an American accent.
Shortly after Natalia was born in San Francisco, her family moved to Santa Rosa in nearby Sonoma County. Natalia (often called "Natasha", the Russian diminutive) was noticed by members of a crew during a film shoot in downtown Santa Rosa. Her mother soon moved the family to Los Angeles in order to pursue a film career for her daughter. After Natalia started acting as a child, David Lewis and William Goetz, studio executives at RKO Radio Pictures, changed her name to "Natalie Wood".
Wood's younger sister, Svetlana Gurdin (the family had changed their surname), was born in Santa Monica after the move. Now known as Lana Wood, she also became an actress.