Chapter two: Sverdlov's early life and early revolutionary apprenticeship

Submitted by Noa Rodman on February 23, 2017

Chapter Two: Sverdlov's early life and early revolutionary apprenticeship


When Comrade Andrei appeared in the Urals few of us knew much about him. Sverdlov did not like to talk about himself but he would sometimes casually refer to an event in his past, and we slowly pieced together those details, sparse, fragmentary and unsatisfactory though they were. It is only because I lived with him, talked to his family and sought out the relevant documents that I am able to give a reasonably full account of his early life.

He was born on 23 May (4 June New Style) 1885 in Nizhni Novgorod (now Gorky). It was then a typical large town of the Volga area, with muddy streets, mostly unpaved, two- or three-storey stone houses in the centre and tumbledown shacks on the outskirts; there was uproarious debauchery when the famous fair was on and somnolent stupor the rest of the year; summer brought noisy chaos on the wharves and dead silence in the streets and alley-ways.

But a new and powerful mood was beginning to permeate this town of merchants and entrepreneurs. One of tsarist Russia's industrial giants, the Sormovo shipbuilding yards, was growing on its outskirts. Working under dreadful conditions there, the workers soon recognised their common cause and united in a determined fight for their rights. By the turn of the century Sormovo had become the natural centre of Nizhni Novgorod's revolutionary movement.

The tsarist government, however, believed that the town was politically reliable, and often sent students arrested at demonstrations and other untrustworthy members of the intelligentsia to serve their exile there; revolutionaries who had lived out their exile but lost the right to live in Moscov or St. Petersburg settled there too, all of which bolstered the workers' revolutionary spirit.

The Sverdlov family were crowded into one room adjoining a small engraving shop in the centre of town, on Bolshaya Pokrovskaya street. Mikhail Israilovich, Yakov's father, was a skilful engraver; Elizaveta Solomonovna, his cultivated and intelligent mother, was a perfect housewife. But life was very hard and if the children were always tidily dressed and never went hungry, it was only thanks to the tireless devotion of their parents. The really remarkable thing about this family, however, was that Elizaveta's unfailing gentleness towards each of her children made them not only love her but want to help her in every possible way. The children learned to look after themselves at an early age. They helped with the cooking, mending, washing and darning, and also often lent a hand in the workshop. They were never idle, never did anything just to pass the time but still remained normal children, lively and full of fun. Hard work only made them healthy and well-balanced, and they had a lot of friends. It was fun to visit their house because it was always crowded with cheerful people.

Yakov was mischievous and dynamic, the acknowledged leader of the boys on his street. They especially liked to go down to the Volga, where he would take on students from the Navigation College in furious rowing and swimming races and often beat them. He was popular because he was fearless and imaginative, direct and honest.

One of his closest companions was Vladimir Lubotsky, 1 and another close friend of the family and regular visitor to the house was Maxim Gorky.

As a child Yakov knew what poverty meant; he saw an unjust world where most people had nothing and worked for the rich who had everything.

It was difficult for his parents to buy school uniforms and pay the fees, but they managed to give their children an education by denying themselves and watching every penny.

Yakov practically taught himself to read. At primary school he was unusually quick, and was equally adept in secondary school but, as his interests widened and his intellect matured, he became increasingly aware that what he was studying was stale and conformist and that his indifferent and callous teachers made unfair distinctions between rich and poor children. To find the answers that school could not give, Yakov and Vladimir took to reading books strictly forbidden to schoolboys.

Yakov's class teacher disliked this stubborn, inquisitive pupil with his abrupt and baffling questions. There were often unpleasant scenes, and Yakov would be sent to the director, would be punished yet again.

Yakov and Vladimir found out about the revolutionary underground when they were 15 or so; they would go into the Lubotsky's garret when it was dark and sit in the light of a kerosene lamp, reading the leaflets that were being distributed to the schools, in great agitation. A new world was opening up before them.

In 1900 a terrible blow fell–Yakov's mother died. The bereaved husband found it hard to feed his large family and run the house; life became grim. Yakov had to be taken from school at the end of his fourth year. This caused him little grief, however, for he was tired of his sneering teachers and aware that they would not tell him the things that he wanted to know, particularly about the revolutionary movement, which fascinated him increasingly.

Leaving home to ease his father's financial burden he moved to the outskirts of Kanavino, to a predominantly working class district, and became a chemist's apprentice.

Although the work was arduous and irksome, giving him almost no free time, Yakov did not let it depress him. He was a voracious reader and wanted his workmates to share his enthusiasm. He read aloud to them, started discussions and encouraged them not to spend their time gambling or standing on street corners. He was so amiable, so full of life, that they soon grew to like and trust him. Young as he was, the senior apprentices often deferred to him, charmed by his obvious sincerity, and enjoyed attending his reading circle.

He openly and fearlessly complained to their employer about the long hours, the exhausting work, the beggarly wages and the poor food; that was something new to his workmates. He roused and defended them, allowing no injustice to them or to himself to pass unmentioned. His employer did not take kindly to the behaviour of his ungovernable young apprentice and, after yet another disagreement, Yakov found himself on the street. He was fifteen years old. Regular work was hard to come by but he scraped a living by coaching younger boys, copying out lines for actors and reading proofs.

While he was still in Kanavino two things had changed the course of his life–his intimate daily contact with the workers and his discovery that the assistant pharmacist was a Social-Democrat, the first he had met.

In 1901 he and Vladimir Lubotsky joined the Nizhni Novgorod Social-Democrat underground. Yakov was given the job of distributing Party leaflets and proclamations, which he did by contacting his childhood playmates and so inspiring them with his enthusiasm that they went to work with a will. In no time the leaflets were in letter boxes and on fences all over town.

Zinovi and Sofya, the two eldest members of the Sverdlov family, had left home, 2 but Yakov often went to visit the three younger children. They became his willing assistants, especially Sara, who could always be trusted to deliver secret messages. She knew who she should give her note to and who should not have it; she would swallow it rather than let the police get their hands on it.

Yakov got on well with his father, who in his heart approved of the activities of his beloved son and wished he could help him in some practical way. He was hurt deeply when Yakov, joking about the apprentices in his father's workshop, called him an exploiter.

The Sverdlovs' home had become the secret meeting place of the local Bolsheviks; the attic served as a refuge. Most people who went there would leave after a day or two but those who were in hiding from the police would stay longer.

Yakov's father pretended not to notice when strangers went up to his attic, when Sara took bread upstairs, when cautious footsteps could be heard overhead. He once said casually: 'We mustn't seal up that round window in the attic. We could have a fire or anything could happen–we'll get out on to the roof and jump into the street, you see?'–and he gave a knowing smile.

Yakov treated his father's workers as comrades. They used the workshop to make Party seals, official stamps for passports and type for the underground press. Yet all this work was done so secretly that if the police had searched the place they would have found nothing at all suspicious.

In those days the RSDLP was in its infancy. In January 1900 Lenin was dedicating all his energies to founding a political newspaper that would have a nation-wide circulation and serve to rally, instruct and unify the largest possible number of people. These intense efforts culminated in the publication of Iskra whose first issue came out in December 1900. In its pages Party members and workers alike found the answers to their most pressing problems, and pointers for the future.

Nizhni Novgorod did not escape the prevailing mood; Maxim Gorky was at the centre of the first disturbances there. On 7 November the news spread that he was to be expelled from the town. A large group of young people went to the station, undeterred by the blinding blizzard and the raging wind which swept down on them as they crossed the River Oka. They found Gorky and crowded around him; some shouted revolutionary slogans, others sang songs.

After the train had left, the crowd, still singing, proceeded down the main street, gathering force as it went and bringing public transport to a halt. The demonstration ended in a spontaneous meeting in the town square. The police had not expected a protest on this scale and were so taken aback that they arrested no one, though they did collect the names of those they considered to be the ringleaders.

Lenin later commented that this was one of the first popular protests against the abuses of tsarism.

Sverdlov, then 16 years old, was among those arrested almost a month later for their part in the demonstration. He was held only briefly but his name shortly afterwards appeared in Iskra for the first time, in a report on the arrests.


As time went on the Nizhni Novgorod Party committee began to give Sverdlov more responsibility. In addition to distributing Party literature, obtaining type for the press and supervising the production of official stamps and passports, he became a propagandist at the Sormovo plant.

He soon realised that his knowledge was insufficient to answer all the workers' questions. He began to study political economy, the history of culture and of the labour movement in Western Europe; he read the Communist Manifesto and, later, Capital.

He could easily have lost his bearings among the various political trends and fine distinctions but he chose Iskra as his guide. He always carried it with him and referred to it when speaking to the workers or arguing with older colleagues if they displayed Menshevik leanings. Iskra gave him the confidence he needed. When he read articles such as 'The Urgent Tasks of Our Movement', which appeared in its first issue, he saw a personal challenge in its call for people who would devote their whole lives to the revolution. It was a challenge that he was eager to accept.

As the scope of Party work grew, Sverdlov's role increased. He established more study circles at Sormovo and provided them with reading matter. He performed his duties quickly and cheerfully, never rejecting any necessary task as too minor for him. His energy, which carried him daily all over the town and the shipyards, constantly amazed his colleagues.

Lenin once said about him: 'He dedicated himself entirely to the revolution in the very first period of his activities, when still a youth who had barely acquired political consciousness'. 3

Within two or three years Sverdlov had collected a group of young revolutionary workers round him. He instructed and helped them, fostering their devotion to the Party committee, and found that their worldly wisdom, their warm-hearted solidarity and their resolute attitude helped him, in turn, to mature as a revolutionary.

A student from the Kazan Veterinary Institute, a Social-Democrat called Ryurikov, had been exiled to Nizhni Novgorod. His death in April 1902 shocked the town. The Chief of Police realised that his funeral could turn into a demonstration; the local Party group had already decided to send representatives. The funeral was postponed on official instructions for four days.

Although it had been forbidden to hold a funeral service in the town itself, a large crowd gathered at the cemetery where he was to be buried. At the end of the service someone began to sing the revolutionary funeral march 'You fell in the sacred and glorious strife' ... Black bands with handwritten inscriptions were produced and leaflets passed from hand to hand. The graveyard was surrounded by police, a report was filed and Sverdlov's name again appeared on police records. As his arrest seemed imminent he went into hiding for a few days, for local demonstrations were being planned for May Day and he had no intention of missing them.

Perhaps the most notable among the many May Day demonstrations in that memorable year was the one organised by the RSDLP at the Sormovo plant, which Gorky later described in his novel Mother. The thousands of workers at the demonstration were charged by the police and army and its leaders, Pyotr Zalomov and others, were thrown into jail.

The police began a search for Sverdlov as one of the known organisers of the demonstration. On 5 May he and his younger brother Veniamin were arrested during another demonstration in the town centre. Crowds of people were out taking their evening stroll when suddenly a group of about 30 young people had lifted a red banner bearing the slogan 'Down with the Autocracy' and begun to march, singing revolutionary songs, with Vladimir Lubotsky at their head. They went towards Bolshaya Pokrovskaya Street, where the Sverdlovs lived.

After what had happened at Sormovo the police were at the ready. They quickly surrounded the group and tried to load them into prison carts but the demonstrators insisted on going on foot. They tried to sing but their escort silenced them with fists and revolver butts. A large crowd followed, turning the arrest itself into a demonstration and Lubotsky hit a police officer in self defence, which was to cost him dearly.

The court passed savage sentences on the participants in the two demonstrations: six of the Sormovo workers, including Pyotr Zalomov, and Lubotsky and Moiseev were stripped of all civil rights and sentenced to permanent exile in Siberia.

After two weeks in prison Sverdlov returned to work with renewed energy but was more cautious than before. He valued his regained freedom mainly because when free he was able to work for the Party. He had already learned not to postpone anything until the following day, for he knew that by then he could well be in prison again.

Lenin's book What Is To Be Done? appeared in Nizhni Novgorod in 1902. Sverdlov read it repeatedly, thoroughly weighing Lenin's project for a Russian Marxist party.

He was by then in the habit of studying every evening. Although he often arrived home late after an exhausting day that police spies had made even more difficult, he never went to bed without spending an hour or two with a book on history or political economy or with one of the works of Lenin or Marx, making notes and often returning to puzzling or significant passages.


After the 1902 demonstration police surveillance intensified and more spies appeared on street corners. But the workers too were beginning to feel their strength. They were drawn to the underground in ever greater numbers and the demand for illegal literature increased. Police persecution and arrests could not halt the growth of the Nizhni Novgorod movement.

The secret police began to keep a particularly close watch on Sverdlov, having realised what a dangerous enemy of the regime this young man was.

The Party was learning from its experience, becoming more proficient. Towards the end of 1902 the local committee gave Sverdlov the tremendously important job of setting up a large underground press.

The committee had already chosen what they felt was a suitable place–a flat in a large respectable house in the town centre, owned by a sympathiser who was herself above suspicion, as she had never done any Party work. But Sverdlov went to look at the place and immediately saw that it would not do. He had noticed two details, of the kind essential to the success of any clandestine undertaking. There was a concierge constantly on guard, like a veritable Cerberus, who knew all the tenants and took a dim view of any shabbily-dressed visitor. There was also a policeman permanently posted on a nearby corner.

Sverdlov's suggestion to site the press in the workingmen's quarter in Sormovo, where the police felt considerably less secure than they did in town, was taken up instead. Sverdlov made regular visits to Sormovo. He obtained the texts to be printed, provided ink and paper and supervised the work. At the end of the working day he would 35 always stay to talk, passing on Party news and the latest developments in the labour movement at home and abroad. As the existence of the press had to be kept a strict secret, those who worked on it could not go to meetings and even tried, if possible, not to leave the flat at all. Sverdlov therefore was their only contact with the Party and its activities.


Even when first founding the Bolshevik Party, Lenin had put great emphasis on the training of professional revolutionaries–totally committed people, who would have a complete understanding of the Party's needs, would be thoroughly grounded in theory and practice and would behave with discipline and courage. They would be informed and resourceful opponents and serve as an example to all, even gaining the respect of their enemies.

Many young Bolsheviks, including Sverdlov, wanted to respond to Lenin's call, to become the kind of revolutionary that he envisaged. All Sverdlov's previous experiences in the Party had prepared him to become a professional revolutionary, totally committed and constantly vigilant.

With no permanent home, he lived where he could, staying overnight with friends when he had to. Having no regular income, he often went hungry. There were occasions when he had to reach a friend's flat late at night by way of a drain-pipe, only to leave at dawn so as not to arouse the neighbours' suspicions. But he never complained.

In 1904 the Northern RSDLP Committee, which had jurisdiction over the Bolshevik organisations in the Upper Volga area, transferred Sverdlov to Kostroma. He stayed briefly in Yaroslavl, established contact with the Party groups there, then continued to his destination.

Kostroma was then one of the country's major textile centres, with 12,000 factory workers out of a total population of 40,000 and appalling working conditions. In 1903 the factory workers, driven to desperation, had organised several strikes and demonstrations, which were violently suppressed by the police with army reinforcements. But the workers were too ground down by backbreaking labour, too accustomed to looking starvation in the face to be afraid. Demonstrations flared up again and again; the police began to arrest the leading workers and destroyed the local Socialist-Democrat organisation.

At that point Sverdlov arrived in Kostroma. With his characteristic eagerness and determination he began by establishing revolutionary groups in the factories and furnishing the workers with political literature. He brought the local Social-Democrat students together and trained them as political agitators. He gave them Lenin's works to read and especially emphasised the value of The Development of Capitalism in Russia. His next aim was to establish an underground press and he also sent Bolshevik agitators to address the workers at every opportunity. By the end of 1904 the Kostroma Party organisation was manifestly more energetic and effective than before.

The following year began with an event which outraged the world. On 9 January 1905, Bloody Sunday, thousands of peaceful demonstrators were shot down in St. Petersburg. This destroyed all the faith the workers still had in the tsar, and in Petersburg, Moscow, Baku and other large industrial centres strikes flared up and developed into armed clashes between the army and police and the workers. Lenin's articles in the newspapers Vperyod! (Forward!) and Proletary (The Proletarian) offered a detailed plan of action, which encouraged the people to take up arms against the autocracy.

Meanwhile the Kostroma committee was printing leaflets urging support for the Petersburg workers. Mass meetings were held on the outskirts of town, in caves, on the banks of the Kostroma; the bitterly cold weather seemed to deter no one from attending. Sverdlov spoke at almost every meeting.

The police, however, had discovered his whereabouts through an intercepted letter. He noticed that he was being followed and towards the end of April 1905 moved to Yaroslavl, where he helped to prepare the May Day demonstration. He had to leave before it took place because the police were on his trail again. Returning to Nizhni Novgorod, he attended a number of meetings organised by the Sormovo RSDLP committee that were really unusual.

The little river near Sormovo grew deep and rough in spring when the snow melted. On warm spring evenings workers of all ages would crowd into boats which rocked on the water. Some people brought balalaikas and accordions, and revolutionary songs, militant and triumphant, would resound across the river.

On an agreed signal the boats would quickly come together, the oars would be raised, the songs cease and the fiery speeches begin, turning the occasion into a Bolshevik meeting. If danger threatened, the boats would instantly disperse, making the job of the police impossible.

In early 1905 Sverdlov was pursuing two ends: to defend at every opportunity Lenin's insistence on concerted action in the imminent revolution and to prepare for the Third RSDLP Congress, which was held that April in London.

The Congress met in the face of Menshevik opposition; under Lenin's guidance it adopted the Bolshevik platform. The coming revolution was the major topic of discussion. It was decided that the Party and the working class should prepare an armed uprising, which the working class would lead.

When the Congress proceedings and accounts of Lenin's contributions to the discussions became available, Sverdlov went into immediate action. He did all he could to translate the decisions of the Congress into reality by bringing the local Bolsheviks closer together, conducting propaganda among the workers and fighting the Mensheviks tooth and nail throughout the Volga area. He travelled through Nizhni Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Saratov and Samara, before receiving orders from the Central Committee to station himself in Kazan.

In those days Kazan had little in common with Nizhni Novgorod or Kostroma, having no large factories and a comparatively weak Bolshevik organisation. Previous to 1905 the workers had gone on strike only to make economic demands; indeed, there had been no significant working class demonstrations of strength there before Bloody Sunday. As the summer wore on, however, political demands arose more often at mass meetings held outside the town and at brief gatherings in the factories. A split had occurred within the Kazan committee between the Bolsheviks on the one hand and the Mensheviks and pro-bourgeois conciliators on the other.

This was the situation that Sverdlov found when he arrived. He joined forces with S. A. Lozovsky, V. M. Likhachev and other reliable Party members to strengthen the organisation and eject the Menshevik element. He was soon made a member of the Kazan committee and took an active part in the local Bolshevik newspaper, Rabochy (The Worker), often writing editorials for it. Along with other Bolsheviks, he also contributed articles to the legal paper, Volzhsky Ustok (The Volga Broadsheet). His numerous leaflets, distributed among the workers by the Kazan committee, were very popular.

Contact with the people was still one of his major priorities: he organised Marxist study circles in the factories and expanded the system of agitation and propaganda among the workers and the soldiers garrisoned in the town. He was himself, along with Lozovsky and Likhachev, a fine agitator. He began to call himself Andrei, a name that was to become esteemed among workers throughout the Urals; the Kazan workers respected him because he always had something new and relevant to say to them.

The Third Party Congress had urged that preparations for an armed uprising be initiated; the Kazan Bolsheviks responded. Sverdlov concentrated his attention on the local garrison, forming Party 38 groups there, which met even more covertly than usual, under the supervision of the most reliable Party workers. Although he could not risk arrest by visiting the barracks himself, Sverdlov was in direct control of the relevant section of the committee, and wrote a number of leaflets addressed to the soldiers.

Lenin wanted the Urals to become a stronghold of Bolshevism; but for this the Social-Democrat groups, then in disarray, would have to merge into a viable organisation as soon as possible. The realisation of Lenin's plan fell to the Ural Bolsheviks, whom Sverdlov was to unify and organise, and that is what brought Comrade Andrei to us in 1905. While he made an invaluable contribution to the local revolutionary movement, he also learnt a great deal from our militant Ural workers.

  • 1Vladimir Lubotsky (Zagorsky) was an active member of the Bolshevik Party. In 1918 he became the secretary of the Moscow Party Committee. He died on 25 September 1919, victim of an SR bomb thrown into the Committee headquarters.
  • 2The members of Sverdlov's family were: Sofya (1882–1951), Zinovi (1884–1966), Veniamin, a Bolshevik (1887–1940), Sara (1890–1964) and Lev (1893–1914). His father died in 1921.– Ed.
  • 3V. I. Lenin. Collected Works, Vol. 29, p. 90.