Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow, the daughter of Ivan Vladimirovich Tsvetaev, a professor of Fine Art at the University of Moscow, who later founded the Alexander III Museum (known from 1937 as the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts). (The Tsvetayev family name evokes association with flowers - the Russian word цвет (tsvet) means "color" or "flower".) Tsvetaeva's mother, Maria Alexandrovna Meyn, Ivan's second wife, was a concert pianist, highly literate, with German and Polish ancestry. Growing up in considerable material comfort, Tsvetaeva would later come to identify herself with the Polish aristocracy.
Tsvetaeva's two half-siblings, Valeria and Andrei, were the children of Ivan's deceased first wife, Varvara Dmitrievna Ilovaiskaya, daughter of the historian Dmitry Ilovaisky. Tsvetaeva's only full sister, Anastasia, was born in 1894. The children quarrelled frequently and occasionally violently. There was considerable tension between Tsvetaeva's mother and Varvara's children, and Tsvetaeva's father maintained close contact with Varvara's family. Tsvetaeva's father was kind, but deeply wrapped up in his studies and distant from his family. He was also still deeply in love with his first wife; he would never get over her. Maria Tsvetaeva had had a love affair before her marriage, from which she never recovered. Maria Tsvetaeva disapproved of Marina's poetic inclination; she wanted her daughter to become a pianist, holding the opinion that her poetry was poor.
In 1902 Tsvetaeva's mother contracted tuberculosis. A change in climate was believed to help cure the disease, and so the family travelled abroad until shortly before her death in 1906, when Tsvetaeva was 14. They lived for a while by the sea at Nervi, near Genoa. There, away from the rigid constraints of a bourgeois Muscovite life, Tsvetaeva was able for the first time to run free, climb cliffs, and vent her imagination in childhood games. There were many Russian émigré revolutionaries residing at that time in Nervi, who may have had some influence on the young Tsvetaeva.
In June 1904 Tsvetaeva was sent to school in Lausanne. Changes in the Tsvetaev residence led to several changes in school, and during the course of her travels she acquired the Italian, French, and German languages. She gave up the strict musical studies that her mother had imposed and turned to poetry. She wrote "With a mother like her, I had only one choice: to become a poet".
In 1908, aged 16, Tsvetaeva studied literary history at the Sorbonne. During this time, a major revolutionary change was occurring within Russian poetry: the flowering of the Russian Symbolist movement, and this movement was to colour most of her later work. It was not the theory which was to attract her, but the poetry and the gravity which writers such as Andrey Bely and Aleksandr Blok were capable of generating. Her own first collection of poems, Vecherny Albom (Evening Album), self-published in 1910, promoted her considerable reputation as a poet. It was well received, although her early poetry was held to be insipid compared to her later work. It attracted the attention of the poet and critic Maximilian Voloshin, whom Tsvetaeva described after his death in A Living Word About a Living Man. Voloshin came to see Tsvetaeva and soon became her friend and mentor.