Sergei Kiriyenko's grandfather, Yakov Israitel, made his name as a devoted communist and member of the Cheka, and Vladimir Lenin awarded him with an inscribed pistol for his good service to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Sergei Kiriyenko, son of a Jewish father, was born in Sukhumi, the capital of the Abkhaz ASSR, and grew up in Sochi, in southern Russia. He adopted Ukrainian surname of his mother. After graduation from high school, Kiriyenko enrolled in the shipbuilding faculty at the Nizhny Novgorod (Gorky) Water Transport Engineers Institute, where his divorced father taught.
Kiriyenko was appointed Prime Minister after the dismissal of Viktor Chernomyrdin's Second Cabinet. The State Duma, dominated by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, twice refused to confirm his appointment but president Boris Yeltsin nominated him a third time and Kiriyenko was confirmed.
Along with Deputy Prime minister Boris Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais, Kirienko became known as one of "young reformists". They tried to improve the Russia's economy using International Monetary Fund credits, and it elevated the national debt to the level of $22.6 billion.
Kirienko's cabinet defaulted the GKO-OFZ government bond coupons which led to devaluation of the Russian ruble and 1998 Russian financial crisis. Responsible for the crisis, the prime minister resigned on 23 August.
In 2004 Novaya Gazeta printed seven articles by columnist Georgy Rozhnov, which accused Kiriyenko of embezzling US$4.8 billion of International Monetary Fund funds in 1998 when he was Prime Minister of Russia. The newspaper based the accusations on a letter allegedly written to Colin Powell and signed by US Congressmen Philip Crane, Mike Pence, Charlie Norwood, Dan Burton and Henry Bonilla and posted on the website of the American Defense Council. The newspaper went on to claim that Kiriyenko had used some of the embezzled funds to purchase real estate in the United States. The Moscow newspaper, The eXile, announced it had sent the letter as a prank, but later claimed that this had been a joke. In response, Kiriyenko sued Novaya Gazeta and Rozhnov for libel, and in passing judgement in favour of Kiriyenko the court ordered Novaya Gazeta to retract all publications relating to the accusations, and noted "Novaya gazeta’s content on the missing IMF funds include a great deal of unproven information" and also went on to say that the newspaper "is obliged to publish only officially proven information linking Mr Kiriyenko with embezzlement."
Together with Boris Nemtsov, and Irina Hakamada, Kirienko formed the Union of the Right forces. The party finished fourth on 1999 elections.
Kirienko was appointed to head Rosatom, the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, on November 30, 2005. He is also chairman of the board of directors of the vertically integrated Atomenergoprom nuclear company.
He said on 18 September 2006 while in Vienna, that the reactor in the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran should be operational by September 2007 and the plant itself will be active in November 2007. He advocated President Vladimir Putin's idea of creating an international system of uranium enrichment centers. A uranium enrichment center could be operational in Russia in 2007. Responding to a reporter's question, Kiriyenko said that the Bushehr power plant would not affect nuclear non-proliferation and that there was nothing preventing Iran-Russia energy cooperation. The Government of Russia planned to deliver nuclear fuel to the plant in March 2007. After a delay of some three years, Kiriyenko said 21 August 2010's arrival of nuclear fuel at Iran's Bushehr I marks "an event of crucial importance" that proves that "Russia always fulfills its international obligations." Spent nuclear fuel from the plant will be sent back to Russia.