Nadezhda von Meck began life as Nadezhda Filaretovna Frolovskaya, in a family which owned great landed estates. Her father, Filaret Frolovsky, embraced his love of music from an early age, while from her mother, Anastasia Dimitryevna Potemkina, she learned energy, determination, and business acumen.
In her youth a serious student of music, Nadezhda became a capable pianist with a good knowledge of the classical repertoire. She also mastered some foreign languages, learned to appreciate the visual arts, and read widely in literature and history, and philosophy, especially the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and the Russian idealist Vladimir Solovyov.
At seventeen, Nadezhda was married to Karl Otto Georg von Meck, a 27-year-old engineer and the son of Major Otto Adam von Meck by his marriage to Wilhelmine Hafferberg – Baltic Germans from Riga. Together they had thirteen children, of whom eleven survived to adulthood.
As a government official, Karl von Meck's life was uneventful, and his work was poorly paid. With several children quickly added to his responsibilities, however, he was reluctant to make a break with a steady post.
Nadezhda von Meck saw things very differently. To her, filling the roles of mother, nurse, governess, dressmaker, housekeeper, and valet was far easier to bear than the humiliation of seeing her husband as a cog in the machine of a government organization. Neither did fulfilling all those domestic duties lower her resolve or weaken her energy in urging him to make a break. Russia, desperately short of railways, was expanding its communications network rapidly, and Nadezhda was far-sighted enough to see that a future for her husband lay there. She continually exerted pressure on him to find a partner with capital and to join the boom in Russian railway construction.
Meck finally gave in to his wife's urgings and resigned from the civil service, at which point they had an income of only twenty kopecks a day on which to live. Nadezhda was right, though, to trust her husband's talent as an engineer. In 1860, there were only 100 miles of railroad track laid in Russia. Twenty years later, there were over 15,000 miles of lines. Much of this explosion was due to Karl von Meck, and his investments made him a multi-millionaire. The railway lines for which he was responsible included that from Kursk to Kiev and the highly profitable Moscow to Ryazan line, with its effective monopoly of grain transportation from the Black Earth Region of Central Russia.
In 1876, Karl von Meck died suddenly, leaving a will which gave Nadezhda control of his vast financial holdings. This included two railway networks, large landed estates, and several million rubles in investments. With seven of their eleven children still at home, Nadezhda von Meck concentrated on her business affairs and on the education of the children still dependent on her. She sold one of Meck's railway companies and ran the other one with the help of her brother and her eldest son, Vladimir.