Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev was educated in the Corps of Pages at the imperial court.
After graduating from the Corps of Pages, at the age of seventeen Nikolay Ignatyev became an officer of the Russian Guards, serving with His Majesty's Hussar Guards Regiment. Ignatyev was then appointed to the General Staff and become adjutant to the general commanding in the Estonian military district. He was promoted to major in 1856.
In 1858 he led a mission to Central Asia, where he concluded a treaty of friendship and trade with the khan of Bukhara. The following year he was sent to Peking to conclude a treaty defining the eastern Russo-Chinese border. His negotiations were at first unsuccessful, but, taking advantage of an Anglo-French siege of Peking (1860), he convinced the Chinese that Russia was a friendly power and succeeded in negotiating the Treaty of Peking (1860). In that treaty China recognized Russia as master of all the lands on the left bank of the Amur River as well as of those between the Ussuri River and the Pacific Ocean, thereby allowing Russia to construct the city of Vladivostok and become a major power in the northern Pacific region.
After returning from China, Ignatyev became head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Asian department, which had jurisdiction over Russia’s relations with the Ottoman Empire as well as with the Far East; in 1864 he was appointed ambassador to Constantinople (now Istanbul). Influenced greatly by pan-Slavism and hoping to liberate the Christian Slavs within the Ottoman Empire from Turkish rule, he encouraged the autonomous principality of Serbia to wage a war, which ended unsuccessfully, against the Turks (1876–77) and the Bulgarians to revolt, also unsuccessfully, against their Turk rulers (1876). In 1878, however, after Russia had defeated the Turks in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, Ignatyev negotiated the Treaty of San Stefano, which granted Serbia complete independence from the Turks, created a state of Bulgaria, and was generally favourable to Russia. But the western European powers objected to this settlement; when Ignatyev was unable to prevent them from replacing it with the Treaty of Berlin (1878), which was distinctly less advantageous to Russia, he was forced to retire.
After Alexander III ascended the throne (1881), Ignatyev was named minister of interior. Although he was a conservative, who made provisions for extraordinary security measures to go into effect should revolutionary disorders occur, and also an extreme nationalist, who allowed pogroms against the Jews to be conducted unchecked (1881), Ignatyev also carried out liberal reforms planned by his predecessor, including implementations of the act that had emancipated the serfs in 1861.
He also retained his Slavophile ideals and in 1882 proposed that the tsar reestablish the 17th-century political institution—the zemsky sobor. Alexander, mistakenly fearing that Ignatyev was suggesting the creation of a constitutional form of government, dismissed him (May 1882). Ignatyev later was chairman of a committee that developed a reform program for the government of Russia’s Central Asian territories (1884), but he never again held a highly influential post.
Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev died on June 20, 1908.
On May 20, 1862, in Wiesbaden Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev married Ekaterina Leonidovna Golitsyna. They would have eight children, six boys and two daughters, but their first child died in infancy.