Zyuganov was born in Mymrino, a farming village in Oryol Oblast, south of Moscow. The son and grandson of schoolteachers, he followed in their footsteps: after graduating from a secondary school, his first job was working there for one year as a physics teacher in 1961.
In 1962, he enrolled into the Department of Physics and Mathematics of Oryol Pedagogical Institute. From 1963 to 1966, he served in the Red Army's Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Intelligence. Zyuganov joined the Communist Party in 1966.
He returned to the teachers' college in 1966. Three years older than most members of the sophomore class, he was already a party member—a position of prestige—and a popular college athlete. On his return, he also married his wife, Nadezhda. He completed his degree in 1969.
Zyuganov taught mathematics but soon turned to party work in the Oryol oblast, beginning in 1967. He became the First Secretary of the local Komsomol and the regional chief for ideology and propaganda. He emerged as a popular politician in the area. Among many other functions, Zyuganov organized parties and dances as a local Komsomol leader while he was rising through the ranks of the vast network of party apparatchiks. Zyuganov rose to be second secretary, or second in command, of the party in Oryol.
He enrolled at an elite party school in Moscow, the Academy of Social Sciences in 1978, completing his doctor nauk, a post-doctoral degree, in 1980. He then returned to Oryol to become regional party chief for ideology and propaganda until 1983. In 1983, he was given a high-level position in Moscow as an instructor in the Communist Party propaganda department.
Zyuganov emerged as a leading critic of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost in the party's Agitation and Propaganda division (later the Ideological division), a hotbed of opposition to reform. As the party began to crumble in the late 1980s, Zyuganov took the side of hard-liners against reforms that would ultimately culminate in the end of CPSU rule and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Zyuganov wrote several influential papers in the early 1990s attacking Yeltsin and calling for a return to the socialism of the pre-Gorbachev days. As the Communist Party of the Soviet Union fell into disarray, Zyuganov helped form the new Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), and became one of seven secretaries of the new group's Central Committee and in 1993 its chairman. Outside observers were surprised by the survival of Zyuganov's Communist Party into the post-Soviet era.
Quickly emerging as post-communist Russia's leading opposition leader, Zyuganov stressed the overall decline in living standards corresponding with the dismantlement of Soviet socialism. Economic power was left concentrated in the hands of a tiny share of the population, violent crime increased, and ethnic groups throughout Russia embarked on campaigns, sometimes violent, to win autonomy. Thus, many in Russia longed for a return to the days of socialism, when a strong central government guaranteed personal and economic security. Russians left behind in the new capitalist Russia emerged as Zyuganov's unwavering supporters: workers, clerks, bureaucrats, some professionals, and, above all others, the elderly. Zyuganov succeeded in combining Communist ideas with Russian nationalism, his Communist Party of the Russian Federation joined hands with numerous other left-wing and right-wing nationalist forces, forming a common 'national-patriotic alliance.'
In the 1995 parliamentary elections, the newly revitalized Communist Party of the Russian Federation made a strong showing, and its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, emerged as a serious challenger to President Boris Yeltsin. Zyuganov entered the Russian presidential election, 1996, as the standard-bearer of the Russian Communist Party. Co-opting Russian nationalism, he attacked the infiltration of Western ideals into Russian society and portrayed Russia as a great nation that had been dismantled from within by traitors in cahoots with Western capitalists who sought the dissolution of Soviet power in order to exploit Russia's boundless resources.
In the election on June 16, Zyuganov finished second with 32%, trailing only Yeltsin, who captured 35%. Zyuganov prepared for the July 3 runoff election with confidence. He ran a campaign focusing on the president's ill health and pledged to return Russia to its Soviet days of glory. Yeltsin, however, relentlessly exploited his advantages of incumbency, patronage, and financial backing; thus, Yeltsin gained most from the elimination of the many smaller parties and the support of Alexander Lebed and eventually won the two-man showdown.
Political observers suggested that Zyuganov was still a force to be reckoned with in Russian politics and that his next task would be to remake the communists into a strong opposition. But after the December 1999 parliamentary elections, the number of Communist seats in the Duma was reduced. Communist support started to ebb, given the widespread electoral support at the time for the government's invasion of Chechnya in September 1999 and the popularity of Yeltsin's new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who was widely seen as the ailing Yeltsin's heir apparent. Moreover, Communist support suffered as the extremely unpopular Yeltsin fell out of public life.
Thus, no one was surprised when Zyuganov placed a distant second behind Vladimir Putin in the March 2000 presidential elections. In 2004, Zyuganov did not even bother to run against Putin, who secured a landslide reelection victory.
Zyuganov has also been Chairman of the Union of Communist Parties - Communist Party of the Soviet Union (UCP-CPSU) since 2001, replacing Oleg Shenin.
In January 2008 Zyuganov challenged Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's chosen successor, to an open, televised debate, however, Medvedev's team has refused to take part, citing lack of time as an excuse. In the election, he garnered nearly 20% of the votes, though he vowed to challenge the result in court.