Ernst Neizvestny was born in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg, Russia) in 1926. His father Iosif was the son of the owner of a printing shop in the Urals region and the grandson of Yosl Neizvestny, a Jewish cantonist (until 1856 – a youth drafted into the tsarist army for life-long service) The last name Neizvestny (literally: "unknown") was given to Yosl when he was a cantonist. During the civil war in Russia, Iosif served in the White Army – contrary to the widely held view that all Jews had supported the Red Army. After the civil war, he became a physician. Ernst's mother Bella Dizhur became a Soviet writer after the revolution. In the 1980s she wrote a poem about Janusz Korczak.
Neizvestny began to study drawing prior to the Soviet-German war. In 1942, he entered an art school affiliated with the Academy of Arts of the USSR. In the same year, the school and the Academy were evacuated to the Soviet Central Asia. In 1942 also, Neizvestny forged his birth year in his documents, changing it from 1926 to 1925 in order to be conscripted into the Red Army. He was accepted to officers' school. In 1943, following a fight with a Red Army officer, Neizvestny was demoted to private and sent to the front lines as a soldier in a penal battalion. After he was wounded, Neizvestny was reinstated as a lieutenant. He served in the airborne troops on the 2nd Ukrainian Front.
The war ended for Neizvestny in April 1945. In that month, during Red Army operations in Austria, his platoon was ordered to attack the enemy under heavy fire. In the face of great fear exhibited by his platoon and its reluctance to get up out of its trenches, Neizvestny stood up from the trenches alone in a "solitary attack". Only then was he followed by his soldiers. He was seriously wounded. His comrades who found him took him for dead. With a bullet in his spinal cord, almost paralyzed and unable to breathe – he indeed appeared lifeless. A death notice was sent to his parents. He was also "posthumously" awarded the order of the Red Star. However, on the way to the morgue, Neizvestny fell from the military truck, and the "dead man" cried out in pain. His healing took years, and for a long time after the war he could only walk with crutches.
After the war, Neizvestny became a renowned sculptor. Following his quarrel with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the Manege exhibition in Moscow in 1962, he was expelled from the Union of Soviet Artists. There was something paradoxical about his expulsions, first from the Union of Soviet Artists and, eventually, from the Soviet Union and the continuing criticism he received from the Soviet authorities, given the fact that he never was a political dissident.
Despite the fact that his artistic style was not welcomed by the Soviet "gendarmes of art" (his artistic style from the 1960s through the 1980s may be identified as expressionistic), and, furthermore, the subjects of some of his works were unconventional, Neizvestny never regarded himself a dissident artist. Rather he considered himself to be a monumentalist sculptor and was quite willing to create works on commission from the Soviet state. Nevertheless, in 1976, when he was already well known in the West, Neizvestny was forced to emigrate from the Soviet Union. He first moved to Switzerland, then to the USA. Between the early 1960s and his emigration from the Soviet Union, the artist created more than 850 sculptures.
The well-known Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestnyi, holder of the Red Star decoration, passed away on August 9, 2016, at the age of 91.