Alexander Kerensky was born in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk) on the Volga River on 4 May 1881 and was the eldest son in the family. His father, Fyodor Mikhailovich Kerensky, was a teacher and director of the local gymnasium and was later promoted to Inspector of public schools. His maternal grandfather was head of the Topographical Bureau of the Kazan Military District. His mother, Nadezhda Aleksandrovna (née Adler), with the first-named Nadezhda (meaning "Hope"; her patronymic last or "maiden" name was Kalmykova), was the daughter of a former serf who had had to purchase his freedom before serfdom was abolished in 1861. He subsequently embarked upon a mercantile career, in which he prospered, allowing him to move his business to Moscow, where he continued his success, becoming a wealthy Moscow merchant.
Kerensky's father was the teacher of Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin), and members of the Kerensky and Ulyanov families were friends. In 1889, when Kerensky was eight, the family moved to Tashkent, where his father had been appointed the main inspector of public schools (superintendent). Alexander graduated with honours in 1899. The same year he entered St. Petersburg University, where he studied history and philology. The next year he switched to law. He earned his law degree in 1904 and married Olga Lvovna Baranovskaya, the daughter of a Russian general, the same year. Kerensky joined the Narodnik movement and worked as a legal counsel to victims of the Revolution of 1905. At the end of 1904, he was jailed on suspicion of belonging to a militant group. Afterwards he gained a reputation for his work as a defence lawyer in a number of political trials of revolutionaries.
In 1912, Kerensky became widely known when he visited the goldfields at the Lena River and published material about the Lena Minefields incident. In the same year, Kerensky was elected to the Fourth Duma as a member of the Trudoviks, a moderate, non-Marxist labour party founded by Alexis Aladin that was associated with the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, and joined a Freemason society uniting the anti-monarchy forces that strived for the democratic renewal of Russia. He was a brilliant orator and skilled parliamentary leader of the socialist opposition to the government of Tsar Nicholas II. On May 28, 1914 Kerensky appealed to Rodzianko with a request from the Council of elders to inform the Tsar that to succeed in war he must: 1) change his domestic policy, 2) proclaim a General Amnesty for political prisoners, 3) restore the Constitution of Finland, 4) declare the autonomy of Poland, 5) provide national minorities autonomy in the field of culture, 6) abolish restrictions against Jews, 7) end religious intolerance, 8) stop the harassment of legal trade union organizations.
Kerensky was an active member of the irregular freemasonic lodge, the Grand Orient of Russia’s Peoples, which derived from the Grand Orient of France. Kerensky was Secretary General of the Grand Orient of Russia's Peoples and stood down following his ascent to government in July 1917. He was succeeded by Menshevik, Alexander Halpern.
In response to bitter resentments held against the imperial favorite Grigori Rasputin in the midst of Russia's failing effort in World War I, Kerensky, at the opening of the Duma on 2 November 1916, called the imperial ministers "hired assassins" and "cowards", and alleged that they were "guided by the contemptible Grishka Rasputin!" Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich, Prince Lvov and general Mikhail Alekseyev attempted to persuade the emperor Nicholas II to send away the empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Rasputin's steadfast patron, either to the Livadia Palace in Yalta or to England. Mikhail Rodzianko, Zinaida Yusupova (the mother of Felix Yusupov), Alexandra's sister Elisabeth, Grand Duchess Victoria and the empress's mother-in-law Maria Feodorovna also tried to influence and pressure the imperial couple to remove Rasputin from his position of influence within the imperial household, but without success. According to Kerensky, Rasputin had terrorised the empress by threatening to return to his native village.