He was brought up and educated in the family of Princess Ekaterina Dashkova, his distant relation. As President of the Russian Academy, Dashkova secured his admission into the academy and helped popularize his tragedies and folk songs among the Russian elite. The poet went blind at the age of 20, after which his popularity soared and he came to be sentimentally styled a Russian Milton.
Emperor Paul also treated Nikolev kindly and referred to him as "L"aveugle clairvoyant".
Nikolev had a theatre of serf actors at his estate near Moscow, where he staged his own plays.