Ivan Léonidov was raised on an isolated farmstead in the province of Tver Oblast. The son of a farmer and woodsman, he went to work as a casual labourer at the docks in Petrograd. When an icon painter noticed Léonidov's drawing skills, he became his apprentice.
In 1919 Léonidov attended the Svomas free art studios in Tver. From 1921-27 he studied at the VKhUTEMAS in Moscow under the tutelage of Alexander Vesnin at which point his attention switched from painting to architecture.
His unexecuted diploma project in 1927 for the Lenin Institute and Library, Moscow, brought him international recognition. The scheme was prominently displayed at the Exhibition of Contemporary Architecture, Moscow, and was published in the OSA Group journal Sovremennaya arkhitektura. He then went on to teach at the VKhUTEMAS between 1928-30.
From 1931-33 he worked in the Giprogor and Mossovet and from 1934-41 he joined the studio of Moisei Ginzburg at the People's Commissariat for heavy industry.