Born of parents who were petty tradesmen of serf descent, Tikhonov trained as a clerk, graduating from the St. Petersburg School of Commerce in 1911. He volunteered for the army at the outbreak of World War I and served in a hussar regiment. He entered the Red Army in 1918 and was demobilized in 1922.
His cycle of war stories Voennye koni (Military Horses, 1927) is "perceptive and well constructed."
He served on the Finnish front in the Winter War and was in Leningrad for the Siege.
In 1944 he became chair of the Union of Soviet Writers, but was dismissed by Joseph Stalin in 1946 for being too tolerant of Zoshchenko and Akhmatova. However, he remained an important figure in Soviet literary circles, and he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1957.
Some of his well-known ballads are "Ballada o gvozdyakh" ("Ballad About Nails"), "Ballada o sinem pakete" ("Ballad of the Blue Parcel"), and "Dezertir" ("The Deserter"). Tikhonov was the first chairman of the Soviet Peace Committee, serving from 1949 to 1979.