From 1877 to 1881, he studied at the University of St. Petersburg, earning his doctorate several years later in 1887. From 1881 to 1891, he took part in numerous expeditions to Siberia, the Caucasus, Persia, Japan, et al. In 1887 he became an associate professor in St. Petersburg, later becoming director of the herpetology department at the Zoological Museum of the Academy of Sciences (1895).
In 1903 he relocated as a professor to the Kharkiv University. In 1919 he was elected a member at the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Among his written works were Herpetologia Caucasica (1913), and volumes on reptiles and amphibians that were part of the series "Fauna of Russia and Adjacent Countries".
He is the taxonomic authority of 26 reptile species. The viper Vipera nikolskii (Nikolsky's adder) and the turtle subspecies Testudo graeca nikolskii (Nikolsky's tortoise) are named in his honor. Today in Russia, the "Nikolsky Herpetological Society" commemorates his name.
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