Alferov was born in Vitebsk, Byelorussian SSR, Soviet Union, to a Belarusian father, Ivan Karpovich Alferov, a factory manager, and a Jewish mother, Anna Vladimirovna Rosenblum. Zhores was named after French socialist Jean Jaurès while his older brother was named Marx after Karl Marx. In 1947 he completed high school 42 in Minsk and started Belarusian Polytechnic Academy. In 1952, he graduated from V. I. Ulyanov (Lenin) Electrotechnical Institute in Leningrad. Since 1953 he has worked in the Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences. From the Institute, he earned several scientific degrees: a Candidate of Sciences in Technology in 1961 and a Doctor of Sciences in Physics and Mathematics in 1970. He has been Director of the Institute from 1987 to 2003. He was elected a corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1972, and a full member in 1979. From 1989, he has been Vice-President of the USSR Academy of Sciences and President of its Saint Petersburg Scientific Center. Since 1995 he is a member of the State Duma on the list of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. In 2000 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics together with Herbert Kroemer, "for developing semiconductor heterostructures used in high-speed- and optoelectronics".
Since 1962, he has been working in the area of semiconductor heterostructures. His contributions to physics and Technology of semiconductor heterostructures, especially investigations of injection properties, development of lasers, solar cells, LED's, and epitaxy processes have led to the creation of modern heterostructure physics and electronics.
Alferov was elected to the Russian Parliament, the State Duma in 1995 as a deputy for the political party Our Home is Russia, generally considered to be supportive of the policies of President Boris Yeltsin. In 1999 he was elected again, this time on the list of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. He was re-elected in 2003 and again in 2007, when he was placed second on the party's federal electoral list behind Gennady Zyuganov and ahead of Nikolai Kharitonov, even though he is not a member of the party. He was one of the signers of the Open letter to the President Vladimir V. Putin from the Members of the Russian Academy of Sciences against clericalisation of Russia.