Yakov Mikhaylovich Sverdlov (1885-1919) was a leading Bolshevik organiser and, as chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, was the first de facto president of the Russian Soviet Republic.
It would only be a small exaggeration to say that a biography of Sverdlov is in large measure a history of the birth, development and eventual triumph of the Bolsheviks, so involved was he in every crucial stage in the party's life until 1919.
From allying with Lenin at the 1903 Second Congress of the Russia Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) over organisation questions (which led to the Menshevik-Bolshevik split), to his careful work in preparing the 1917 October Revolution with Trotsky in the Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC), Sverdlov was, in the words of Anatoly Lunacharsky, “a tireless fighter for social democracy, for Bolshevism.”
Sverdlov was born to Jewish parents in Nizhni-Novgorod on 3 June 1885. His father, a skilled engraver, arranged for Sverdlov to attend school as a boy of ten. He left after five years, taking a job at a pharmacy, though spending much of his spare time at a bookshop run by an old member of the Narodniks (Populists). It was there that he was introduced to the classic works of Alexander Herzen and read Maxim Gorky's novels cataloguing the oppressive reality of Nicholas II's Russia.
Aged sixteen, Sverdlov joined the revolutionary movement and was involved in the first underground committee established in Nizhni-Novgorod in 1901. He soon came to prominence in the underground movement, organising study circles, publishing propaganda and smuggling publications from centres of Russian Social Democracy abroad such as London and Geneva.
In 1903 he joined the Bolshevik side of the split in the RSDLP. He agreed with Lenin about the need to knit together the disparate underground networks of Social Democrats into a unified and national revolutionary party with a common programme and a regular publication.
On behalf of the party, Sverdlov moved first to Kaznan and then to the Urals, organising underground committees and playing a leading role in the Soviet of Workers' Deputies which sprung up there during the revolution in 1905.
In 1906 he was arrested and spent much of the next decade in Tsarist prisons or in exile in Siberia, mounting numerous escape attempts in order to continue his work as a revolutionary amongst the Russian working class.
In the climate of relative openness won by Russian workers following the strikes and protests against the massacre of striking miners at Lena in 1912, Sverdlov took charge of the new Bolshevik daily newspaper Pravda and in 1913 was co-opted on to the party's central committee on Lenin's recommendation. Betrayed by a Russian Okhrana (secret police) agent, Sverdlov was arrested once again and remained in exile until the revolution in February 1917.
It was in 1917 that Sverdlov proved his immense skill as a party organiser.
After a massive protest by soldiers and sailors against the Provisional Government's (known as the 'July Days'), Pravda was shut down and the Bolshevik leaders wrongly blamed for inciting the disorder.
Arrest warrants were issued for Kamenev, Zinoviev and Lenin, prompting the latter two into exile, and Trotsky also found himself in prison. It was in this desperate situation that Sverdlov worked tirelessly to rebuild the party. In such times, Trotsky recalled in 1925, “Sverdlov was irreplaceable with his revolutionary calm, his far-sightedness and his resourcefulness.” He was “confident, courageous, firm, resourceful — the best type of Bolshevik.”
In October, as a member of the Military revolutionary Committee he assisted Trotsky in the execution of the uprising in Petrograd and in recognition of his efforts, Trotsky proposed him for the position of chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, effectively the head of the new Soviet government.
His encyclopaedic knowledge of the party enabled him to make the appointment necessary to construct a totally new form of government, a workers' state based on the national network of Soviets.
As head of the party secretariat and the government, a potentially dangerous fusion which would later be exploited ruthlessly by the Stalinist bureaucracy, Sverdlov had massive responsibilities. In 1919 he took ill and died prematurely aged 34.
Lunacharsky wrote: “Sverdlov caught a cold after one of his speeches in the provinces, but because he refused to give in to it, he actually broke under the weight of the superhuman tasks that he had set himself. For this reason, although unlike some revolutionaries he did not die on the field of battle, we are right to see him as a man who gave his life to the cause he served.”