Peretz Smolenskin was born in Monastyrshchina, Mogilev Governorate, Russian Empire (in present-day Smolensk Oblast, Russia). His family came from Smolensk. His older brother was seized by the Czar's army and never returned. His father, falsely accused of a crime, was a fugitive for over two years and died when Peretz was eleven. At the age of 12, Smolenskin left home to study at a yeshiva for five years. He began reading secular books and learning Russian under the influence of the Haskalah movement. He traveled through southern Russia and the Crimea, supporting himself by singing in choirs and preaching in synagogues. In 1862, he settled in Odessa where he studied music and languages. He worked there as a Hebrew teacher. In 1867, he published his first story. During his travels through Rumania, Germany and Bohemia, he acquired Turkish nationality. In Vienna he founded a Hebrew journal that became a literary platform for the Haskalah movement and the early Jewish nationalist movement. He was stricken with tuberculosis in 1883. His last novel, The Inheritance, was completed shortly before his death.
He died on February 1, 1885 in Merano.
Smolenskin was a leader in the revolt of young Jews against medievalism and a proponent of Jewish nationalism. His Hebrew periodical, The Dawn (Ha-shahar השחר), was highly influential in these spheres. Shortly before his death he became deeply interested in schemes for the colonization of Palestine, and was associated with Laurence Oliphant. Smolenskin was the first to dissociate Messianic ideals from theological concomitants.
His six novels create a kaleidoscope of Jewish life in which he rejects the notion of the westernized Jew.
Smolenskin's novel A Wanderer on the Path of Life (Ha-toeh be-darkhe ha-Hayyim, התועה בדרכי החיים) is the story of an orphan, Joseph, and his life in the ghetto. Burial of the Ass (Kevurat Hamor קבורת חמור) appeared in 1874. A third novel, The Inheritance (Ha-yerushah הירושה), published in 1880-1881, depicts life in Odessa and Romania.