1885: A Jew Becomes Leader of Russia, if Not for Long

Perhaps Yakov Sverdlov’s stint as top Bolshevik was dimmed in memory by his untimely death at age 33, under very mysterious circumstances indeed.

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Yakov Sverdlov, in an undated photograph.
Yakov Sverdlov, in an undated photograph.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

June 3, 1885 is the birthdate of Yakov Sverdlov, the Bolshevik agitator who helped Vladimir Lenin to realize his vision and was even briefly the head of state of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federal Republic. If his name is not well-known today, at least in the West, it’s probably because of his early death, at 33, under mysterious circumstances that are still in dispute.

Yakov Mikhalovich Sverdlov was born in Nizhny Novgorod, a big city (called Gorky from 1932-990) about 400 kilometers east of Moscow. His father was Mikhail “Moishe” Izrailevich Sverdlov, an engraver who sometimes forged official stamps and documents to support his family.

It was a time of revolutionary fervor and Moishe was highly politicized: He allowed his home to be used to store weapons and to shelter revolutionaries. Yakov, one of six children, was around 15 when his mother, Elizaveta Solomonova, died. After her death, Moishe converted himself and his children to Russian Orthodoxy before remarrying.

Yakov was expelled from school due to truancy and poor behavior and by 1902, he had joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party. When it split the next year he joined the more radical, Bolshevik side of the Menshevik-Bolshevikdivision.

From then on, Sverdlov’s life was devoted to politics, spending much of it in prison or internal exile.

Stalin’s lousy manners

After the short-lived 1905 revolution against the czarist regime, he became a political organizer in the Ural mountains. In 1906 he was arrested for the first of 14 times, repeatedly escaping and being recaptured. In between he married twice and had several children.

In 1913, after yet another arrest, Sverdlov was sent into internal exile in Turukhansk, in Eastern Siberia, sharing a home with fellow Bolshevik Joseph Stalin.

They apparently began as friends, but their relations declined after several years together. According to the online Russiapedia, Stalin’s bad manners annoyed Sverdlov, who also didn’t appreciate it when Stalin named his dog Yasha, a diminutive of Yakov.

After the February 1917 revolution, Sverdlov returned to St. Petersburg, the capital. He became head of the Bolshevik Secretariat, in effect head of personnel. Already close to party head Lenin, he now worked in lockstep with him in subverting Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government.

In the critical period before the Bolsheviks seized power, Sverdlov was instrumental in shutting down the Russian parliament. He also pushed for Russia to negotiate the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which allowed it to sue for peace in World War I, and was behind many acts of violence against supporters of the czar.

The murder of the Romanovs

Historians are divided over Sverdlov’s role in the Romanovs’ execution in Yekaterinburg on July 16, 1918.

In his diaries, Leon Trotsky quotes Sverdlov telling him that he, Lenin and other party leaders decided to kill the czar and his immediate family, while other sources dismiss the report as mere folklore.

In any case, as chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee from the revolution until his death a little over a year later, Sverdlov was the nominal head of state, although it’s generally acknowledged that Lenin called the shots.

Sverdlov died in Moscow, on March 16, 1919. According to one version, it was after contracting influenza on a political trip to Kharkiv, while a second version holds that he was killed by anti-Semitic workers in Oryol, in the Urals, and the crime was covered up by the authorities.

And as Stalin succeeded Sverdlov in his post, there has also been speculation that he engineered his colleague’s murder.

Yekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk, in his memory, in 1924. Today, it is once again Yekaterinburg.

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