Nazarbayev was born in Chemolgan, a rural town near Almaty, when Kazakhstan was one of the republics of the Soviet Union.

After leaving school, Nazarbayev took up a one-year, government-funded scholarship at the Karaganda Steel Mill in Temirtau. He also spent time training at a steel plant in Dniprodzerzhynsk. By the age of twenty, he was earning a relatively good wage doing "incredibly heavy and dangerous work" in the blast furnace.

Nazarbayev joined the Communist Party in 1962, becoming a prominent member of the Young Communist League and full-time worker for the party, and attended the Karagandy Polytechnic Institute. He was appointed secretary of the Communist Party Committee of the Karaganda Metallurgical Kombinat in 1972, and four years later became Second Secretary of the Karaganda Regional Party Committee.

In his role as a bureaucrat, Nazarbayev dealt with legal papers, logistical problems, and industrial disputes, as well as meeting workers to solve individual issues.

In 1984, Nazarbayev became the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan (Chairman of the Council of Ministers), under Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan.

He was named First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh SSR in 1989 and was elected as the nation's first president following its independence from the Soviet Union. He holds the title "Leader of the Nation".

Despite his resignation, he is behind the throne of the country. His resignation is often considered to be an attempt to turn him into a Lee Kuan Yew type of public figure. In the month since resigning, he had met with South Korean President Moon Jae In and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during their visit to the country. Notably, their meetings with Nazarbayev took place separately from their meetings with President Tokayev, who is the de facto head of state. Two days after leaving office, he attended the Nauryz cleebrations where he was greeted by the civilian population. In regards to accommodations as the first president, it is known that his personal office (now known as (Kokorda) has been moved to a different location in the capital from the presidential palace. It was also reported in late April 2019 that Nazarbayev also maintains a private jet for official and private visits.

He has embarked on two foreign visits since leaving office, to Beijing and Moscow. The former visit took place during the 8th Belt and Road Forum while the latter taking place during the 2019 Moscow Victory Day Parade. In late May, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced the naming of Nazarbayev as the honorary President of the Turkic Council.