Eisenstein was born to a middle-class family in Riga, Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire in the Governorate of Livonia), but his family moved frequently in his early years, as Eisenstein continued to do throughout his life. His father, the famous architect Mikhail Osipovich Eisenstein, was born in Kiev Oblast, to a Jewish merchant family originating from Vasylkiv. The family had converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. His mother, Julia Ivanovna Konetskaya, was from a Russian Orthodox family. She was the daughter of a prosperous merchant. Julia left Riga the same year as the Russian Revolution of 1905, taking Sergei with her to St. Petersburg. Her son would return at times to see his father, who joined them around 1910. Divorce followed and Julia left the family to live in France. Eisenstein was raised as an Orthodox Christian, but became an atheist later on.
At the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering, Sergei studied architecture and engineering, the profession of his father. In 1918 Sergei left school and joined the Red Army to serve the Bolshevik Revolution, although his father Mikhail supported the opposite side. This brought his father to Germany after the defeat of the Tsarist government, and Sergei to Petrograd, Vologda, and Dvinsk. In 1920, Sergei was transferred to a command position in Minsk, after success providing propaganda for the October Revolution. At this time, he was exposed to Kabuki theatre and studied Japanese, learning some 300 kanji characters, which he cited as an influence on his pictorial development. These studies would lead him to travel to Japan.
In 1920 Eisenstein moved to Moscow, and began his career in theatre working for Proletkult. His productions there were entitled Gas Masks, Listen Moscow, and Wiseman. Eisenstein would then work as a designer for Vsevolod Meyerhold. In 1923 Eisenstein began his career as a theorist, by writing The Montage of Attractions for LEF. Eisenstein's first film, Glumov's Diary (for the theatre production Wiseman), was also made in that same year with Dziga Vertov hired initially as an "instructor."
Strike (1925) was Eisenstein's first full-length feature film. Battleship Potemkin (1925) was acclaimed critically worldwide. It was mostly his international critical renown which enabled Eisenstein to direct October (aka Ten Days That Shook The World) as part of a grand tenth anniversary celebration of the October Revolution of 1917, and then The General Line (aka Old and New). The critics of the outside world praised them, but at home, Eisenstein's focus in these films on structural issues such as camera angles, crowd movements, and montage brought him and like-minded others, such as Vsevolod Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko, under fire from the Soviet film community, forcing him to issue public articles of self-criticism and commitments to reform his cinematic visions to conform to the increasingly specific doctrines of socialist realism.
In the autumn of 1928, with October still under fire in many Soviet quarters, Eisenstein left the Soviet Union for a tour of Europe, accompanied by his perennial film collaborator Grigori Aleksandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse. Officially, the trip was supposed to allow Eisenstein and company to learn about sound motion pictures and to present the famous Soviet artists in person to the capitalist West. For Eisenstein, however, it was also an opportunity to see landscapes and cultures outside those found within the Soviet Union. He spent the next two years touring and lecturing in Berlin, Zürich, London, and Paris. In 1929, in Switzerland, Eisenstein supervised an educational documentary about abortion directed by Tissé entitled Frauennot - Frauenglück.