Born in France of an American father and a French mother, John LeDonne graduated from the Lycée Descartes in Tours and did all his undergraduate and graduate work at Columbia University (Ph.D., 1962).  With an early interest in Russian regionalism, he chose a dissertation topic on the formation of economic regions after 1917, selecting Ukraine and the Urals. 

John LeDonne began his career teaching at a four-year college in New York. In the 1970s, he shifted his primary attention  to research and publishing. He held several distinguished fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, the Hokkaido University (Japan), the Kennan Institute for Advanced Study, and the Russian Research Center at Harvard. 

John LeDonne came to the Davis Center in 1984 with the sole support of Edward Keenan and Mark Raeff and taught Imperial Russian History and Foreign Policy following the retirement of Richard Pipes. In 2010, he became a member of the Ukrainian Research Institute.  Since his arrival at Harvard, John LeDonne has published 5 books and numerous articles. One third of his last book, Forging a Unitary State: Russia's Management of the Eurasian Space 1650-1850 (2020), deals with Ukraine.