Maya Plisetskaya was born in Moscow into a prominent Jewish family. She went to school in Spitzbergen, where her father worked as an engineer and mine director.
In 1938, her father, Michael Plisetski was executed during the Stalinist purges, possibly because he had hired a friend who had been a secretary to Leon Trotsky. Her mother Rachel Messerer-Plisetskaya (aka Ra Messerer), a silent-film actress, was arrested and sent to a labor camp (Gulag) in Kazakhstan, together with Maya’s seven-month old baby brother. Thereupon Maya was adopted by her maternal aunt, the ballerina Sulamith Messerer, until her mother was released in 1941.
Maya studied under the great ballerina of imperial school, Elizaveta Gerdt. She first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre when she had just turned 11 years of age. In 1943, she graduated from the choreographic school and joined the Bolshoi Ballet, where she would perform until 1990.