Sofia Kovalevskaya (née Korvin-Krukovskaya), was born on January 15, 1850 in Moscow, the second of three children. Her father, Vasily Vasilyevich Korvin-Krukovsky, was a man of Polish descent and was Lieutenant-General of Artillery who served in the Imperial Russian Army. Her mother, Yelizaveta Fedorovna Schubert, was a scholarly woman of German ancestry and Sofia's grandmother was Romani. She was the second child born to the couple; her sister, Anna, was six years older. Five years after her birth, her brother, Fedor, was born. Sophia was raised primarily by a serf nurse named Praskovia. As a child she was nicknamed "Little Sparrow" because she was small and energetic.
When Sophia was eight years old her father, then 59, resigned his commission in the army and moved the family to his country estate in Palibino. At this time he also hired a Polish tutor, Iosif Ignatevich Matevich, and an English governess, Margarita Frantsevna Smith, to supervise his children. In her memoir, Kovalevsky portrays herself as a sad and lonely child who felt unloved. Her sister garnered much attention for being the oldest and her brother was the pride of his parents because he was the only son. However, she eventually developed a special bond with her father and became his favorite child when her intellectual potential became apparent.
Sophia was also close to her father's older brother, Petr Vasilevich Korvin-Krukovsky. He was a well-read man who shared with his niece his political views and knowledge on various subjects, including mathematics. Her introduction to advanced mathematics came as an accident. When the Korvin-Krukovsky family moved to Palibino, they re-decorated their home. When they ran out of wallpaper for the nursery, her father used sheets of old school notes instead. The notes were on differential integral analysis and were her first encounter with calculus.