Vladimir Dmitriyevich Bonch-Bruyevich was born in Moscow to a land surveyor family who came from the Mogilev province and belonged to the nobility of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Between 1884–1889 he studied at the Moscow Institute of Surveying and graduated from the school of land surveying. He returned to Moscow in 1892 and entered the "Moscow Workers' Union" and distributed illegal literature. Since 1895 he was active in the social-democratic circles. In 1896 he emigrated to Switzerland and organized shipments of Russian revolutionary literature and printing equipment and became an active member of Iskra.
One of Bonch-Bruyevich's research interests were Russia's dissenting religious minorities ("sects"), which were usually persecuted to various extent by both the established Orthodox Church and the Tsarist government. In the late 1890s, he collaborated with Vladimir Chertkov and Leo Tolstoy, in particular in the arrangement of the Doukhobors' emigration to Canada in 1899. Bonch-Bruyevich sailed with the Doukhobors, and spent a year with them in Canada. During that time, he was able to record much of their orally transmitted tradition, in particular the Doukhobor "psalms" (hymns). He published them later (1909) as "The Doukhobor Book of Life" (Russian: «Животная книга духоборцев», Zhivotnaya Kniga Dukhobortsev).
Between 1903–1905 he was the head of the expedition of the Central Committee of the RSDLP (Geneva) and one of the founders of the archive. In 1905 he returned to Russia and worked in the newspaper "New Life." In 1905 he participated in the preparation for an armed uprising in Saint Petersburg and organized the underground storage of weapons.
Between 1906–1907 he was the secretary and member of the editorial board of a journal. Between 1908–1918 he led the Bolshevik publishing house "The Life and Knowledge." Since 1912 he was a member of the editorial board of the newspaper Pravda. During this time he was repeatedly arrested, but did not serve a long prison sentence.
In 1917 he was a member of the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet, the interim editor of the newspaper "The Worker and Soldier" (another name for "Evening Petersburg"). He was managing the affairs of the Council of People's Commissars until October 1920.