Yakov Sverdlov

Yakov Sverdlov

Yakov Sverdlov, the son of a Jewish engraver, was born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1885. When he was a student he became involved in radical politics and in 1902 joined the Social Democratic Party. He quickly became a supporter of the Bolshevik faction led by Vladimir Lenin.

Sverdlov took part in the 1905 Revolution and developed a reputation as one of the party's leading orators. Arrested in June, 1906, and was imprisoned for three years. On his release in 1909 he moved to Moscow but he was now a well-known revolutionary and was soon arrested and deported to Siberia.

Sverdlov escaped in 1910 but was re-arrested and sentenced to four years in prison. He made several unsuccessful attempts to escape and on one occasion nearly died after spending several hours in icy water. In the autumn of 1912 Sverdlov managed to escape and reach St Petersburg. He worked on Pravda until he was betrayed by the double agent Roman Malinovsky and was exiled to Turukhansk in Siberia. Here he met Joseph Stalin, who was also in exile. Sverdlov found him a difficult man to work with as he was "too much of an egoist in everyday life."

After the February Revolution and the abdication of Nicholas II, Sverdlov was released and he returned to Petrograd where he became a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee. Together with Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Sverdlov was a strong advocate of an armed uprising and helped organize the October Revolution.

A close ally of Vladimir Lenin, Sverdlov played an important role in persuading leading Bolsheviks to accept the controversial decisions to close down the Constituent Assembly and the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. It was claimed that Lenin provided the theories and Sverdlov made sure they worked. Despite his young age, Sverdlov was expected to be Lenin's choice as the party's next leader.

In 1919 Sverdlov toured the country making speeches encouraging people to support the Bolsheviks in the struggle against the White Army. While in Oryol he got he was a victim of the influenza epidemic that was spreading all of Europe.Yakov Sverdlov died, aged thirty-three, on 16th March, 1919.

Primary Sources

 

(1) The Granat Encyclopaedia of the Russian Revolution was published by the Soviet government in 1924. The encyclopaedia included a collection of autobiographies and biographies of over two hundred people involved in the Russian Revolution.

Despite the burden of a large family and difficult financial circumstances, his father tried to give his children an education. Thus on 30 April 1896, Sverdlov was admitted to the Nizhny Novgorod provincial Gymnasium. There he spent four full years, during which time the family's financial position worsened considerably, and he fell foul of the teachers. He rebelled violently against the school routine and the arid scholasticism.

Political consciousness was awakened in him at an early age. He developed a growing desire to devote all his energies to the interests of the working class. After the Gymnasium, Sverdlov found work as an apprentice in the chemist's shop at Kanavin. Here he came into contact with the working masses for the first time. Near Kanavin were timber works with a large number of workers. He won over the craftsmen at his father's flat already served as a hiding-place for visiting Party activists and as a store for illegal literature and even arms.

(2) In his book, The Russian Revolution, Nikolai Sukhanov describes meeting Yakov Sverdov for the first time in 1917.

Standing on the platform of the Tram I was extraordinarily irritable and gloomy. A short fellow with a modest look was standing near us, with a pince-nez, a black goatee, and flashing Jewish eyes. Seeing my mood he set about cheering me up, and tried to distract me with some advice about the route. But I answered him disagreeably and monosyllabically.

"Who's that?" I asked, when we left the tram.

"That's our old party worker, Sverdlov."

In my bad temper I should undoubtedly have cheered up and laughed a great deal if someone had told me that in a fortnight this man would be the titular head of the Russian Republic.

(3) In his biography of Vladimir Lenin the Russian exile, David Shub, described the role played by Yakov Sverdlov in closing down the Constituent Assembly.

In accordance with custom, the parliament was opened by the oldest deputy. From the Socialist Revolutionary benches rose Shvetzov, a veteran of the People's Will. As he mounted the platform, Bolshevik deputies began slamming their desks while soldiers and sailors pounded the floor with their rifles.

Shvetzov finally found a lull in the noise to say: "The meeting of the Constituent Assembly is opened." An outburst of catcalls greeted his words.

Sverdlov then mounted the platform, pushed the old man aside, and declared in his loud, rich voice that the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet of workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies had empowered him to open the meeting of the Constituent Assembly. Then on behalf of the committee he read the "Declaration of Rights of the Labouring and Exploited Masses", written by Lenin, Stalin and Bukharin. The declaration demanded that all state power be vested in the Soviets, thereby destroying the very meaning of the Constituent Assembly.

(4) Georges Haupt, Makers of the Russian Revolution (1969)

As from August 1917, Sverdlov controlled the organizational bureau of the Central Committee and its five-man secretariat, and with Dzerzhinsky he was the head of the Central Committee's military commission. In Lenin's absence, in October 1917, it was he who presided at Central Committee meetings.

Lenin's constant supporter, Sverdlov showed in these critical circumstances that his loyalty was absolute. He was indeed the only member of the Central Committee to support Lenin unhesitatingly in the tumultuous and agonizing debates of 1917 and 1918, which often put the leader in the minority.

(5) Vladimir Lenin, tribute to Yakov Sverslov (March, 1919)

If we have succeeded in bearing for over a year those burdens that fell on a narrow circle of selfless revolutionaries, if the leading groups could solve the most difficult problems in such strict unanimity, it is only because a prominent position in them was occupied by such an exceptionally talented organizer as Sverdlov.

He alone succeeded in assembling an amazing personal knowledge of the leaders of the proletarian movement, he alone succeeded in cultivating over many years the practical flair, the organizational ability and the indisputable authority which enabled him to to direct single-handed the Vista, the most crucial branch of the government which would normally require a group of men to control.

Such a man we shall never be able to replace, if by that we mean finding one comrade who combines all these abilities. The tasks which he performed alone will now be entrusted to a group of people who, by following in his footsteps, will continue his work.