Elena Firsova was born in Leningrad on 21 March 1950 into a family of scientists who moved to Moscow in 1956.  She studied at the Moscow Conservatory (1970-75) and soon established contact of a crucial musical importance with the composer Edison Denisov and Philip Hershkovitz, the pupil of Anton von Webern. In 1972 she married the composer Dmitri Smirnov and they have two children, Philip and Alissa.

Since 1979 she has received commissions from the BBC and Westdeutscher Rundfunk. She has been composer in residence at Bard College, USA (1990), St John's College, Cambridge (1992), and later in the same year, at Dartington Hall, Devon. From 1993 to 1997 she was a visiting professor and composer in residence at Keele University. Since 1999 she has taught composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester.

She has written about a hundred compositions in many different genres and has recently been commissioned by the Brodsky Quartet, Manchester Wind Orchestra, Schubert Ensemble, Freden Festival and EXPO 2000 (Hanover).