Ivan Smirnov, the son of a peasant farmer, was born in Ryazan, Russia. The family moved to Moscow but his father soon died and his mother worked as a domestic servant.
After a brief formal education Smirnov found work in a local factory. In 1898 he was recruited into the Social Democratic Labour Party by students in Moscow. The following year he was arrested and deported to Siberia for five years.
Smirnov escaped in 1900 and went to work in a tannery in Tver. He took part in a strike in May, 1904, and this resulted in him being imprisoned. Soon after his release he was involved in the 1905 Revolution and once again he was arrested and deported to Irkutsk.
He returned to Moscow after his imprisonment but in 1909 he was arrested for distributing illegal propaganda. Deported to Narym he escaped in 1913 and settled in Kharkov. A few months later he was back in prison where he remained until being forced to join the Russian Army in 1916.
Once again he escaped and returned to Moscow where he help organize the strikes that led to the February Revolution. He also joined the Executive Committee of Soldiers Deputies.
During the Civil War Smirnov became a member of the Fifth Army. After the defeat of Alexander Kolchak he was made Chairman of the Siberian Revolutionary Committee. However, his support of Leon Trotsky resulted in him being ousted from power in 1922.
Smirnov was an active member of the Left Opposition and in 1927 was expelled from the Communist Party. In 1934 the new head of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, arrested Smirnov, Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, and thirteen others and accused them of being involved with Leon Trotsky in a plot to murder Joseph Stalin and other party leaders. He was found guilty and executed in 1936.