Chapter four: Narym and Petersburg

Submitted by Noa Rodman on February 23, 2017

Chapter Four: Narym and Petersburg


Sverdlov was exiled to Narym territory by order of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for four years, as from 5 May 1911. It was not forgotten that he had already escaped from there once; the Tomsk district police officer was sternly enjoined to keep him under the strictest possible surveillance.

In tsarist times Narym was like a huge open prison, surrounded by boundless virgin taiga, by impassable bogs which swarmed with virulent mosquitoes in summer. In winter it was bitterly cold and the snow lay deep everywhere; in spring and autumn the area was cut off by a sea of mud. Nature had made it an ideal place for the autocracy to confine its political prisoners without need for walls or bars and to make their lives a misery.

Before long the local officials sent Sverdlov even further from civilization–to settlement called Maksimkin Yar. He was the only exile there but, though he frankly admitted to me that at times life weighed heavy, he never let depression or despair get the better of him. Between the lines of every letter I saw his determination not to give in.

The situation was bleak indeed: he was cut off from the world, from his comrades and family in that remote place, where mail came only once in two or three months; he often went hungry and lacked warm clothes and other basic necessities; his guards were constantly at his heels and the drunken priest harried him incessantly. But he would not break.

On 13 October 1913 he told me how he was living:

'Imagine a narrow room, three paces across and seven long, like a prison cell. One little window on one side, two on the other. A plank bed on the wall nearest the street, like a prison bunk, a trunk, a little table...

'There is a small, dim, kerosene lamp, which I now find more adequate than I had thought I would. It is a low room, lined from top to bottom with my newspapers. All in all it is bearable, even quite comfortable, given that no one here has a better place, except the priest...

'You are always concerned about my food. It is not too good– there is simply nothing to buy: no meat, no fish even until the river freezes, no milk, no white bread, no eggs or butter... It's like this–for four days we have been living on tea and boiled potatoes with beer. I smoke rough-cut, there is no other tobacco to be found. I could get coarse flour but money is short–I have three roubles and 20 kopeks to last me until 20 November–I had to have a warm shirt made because the one I had was not adequate and I have no winter coat.

'But it is not too bad. I will survive and emerge in one piece. It seems that the outdoor life has done me good; I have begun to feel a little better over the summer.'

I have an earlier letter from September 1911, consisting of densely crowded lines of miniscule script on a scrap of thin grey cigarette paper. It no doubt evaded the tsarist censorship by travelling inside someone's clothing. It reads:

`The weather has changed. We have had several falls of powdery snow and the river is beginning to freeze. The long, cold Siberian winter is coming and I am so unprepared that I hardly dare think about it. I have no warm clothes or underwear, I am short of books, there is no paper... But I should not complain. After all, I will not be going anywhere this winter. Where would I go? The taiga will be deep in snow. I'd go in up to my neck and never get out. It will be unpleasant without books, if none come on the next boat in four or five days time, which is highly likely. I feel I can take almost anything but how it will be when the post, which is reliable although infrequent, stops coming I dare not think...

'Bad news from all around. I do not know where my comrades are or what they are doing. I write not knowing if or when the letter will get there.

'And yet I am not disconsolate. I assure you again that I have not lost my good spirits nor even my zest for life. A contradiction, if you like, but it is so. I try not to think too much about my situation. I base myself on facts, as ever, and if it is a fact that I have to spend the winter here, then so be it. And it is not too bad: I will survive and retain my good spirits and my vigour. I will not dissipate my energies in a battle with myself–I have a better use for them.'

If the police counted on wearing Sverdlov down through sheer boredom in the wilds of Siberia they were mistaken. He kept busy, involving himself in local life and quickly making friends with his neighbours. In October 1911 he wrote:

`It will soon be time to go out with the nets again and check the ``garrets'' (a special kind of fish trap)... The yard has to be cleared of snow, the horses cared for... It leaves little time for study. I am also coaching my landlady and another girl to become teachers, which takes up two hours every evening.'

'And besides all this,' he wrote two months later, 'I have patients to visit sometimes. I am their doctor since my comrades sent me some medical supplies–for my own use, it is true, but I hand them out.' He became more involved, helping people from all over the area to compose official petitions, giving them advice and writing letters for the illiterate. 'I have doctored almost everyone here, or done them some other favour,' he wrote, '... and take nothing for it, which still bewilders them all...'

A group of young people gathered around him. He got them to stage Chekhov's play The Bear, communicating his enthusiasm to his hesitant troupe–hesitant with good reason, as none of them had even seen a theatre, much less been in a play–until everyone was so inspired that he had more volunteers than he needed.

The interests of this group, first confined to the play, began to extend and Sverdlov formed a circle to study various topics of general interest. All this intense activity deeply disturbed the guards and the priest, and together they decided what to do. One evening, when the young people were gathered in Sverdlov's room, both guards (who rejoiced in the names Pristavka and Mungalov) suddenly appeared. In a fit of official fervour they tipped up all the exile's poor belongings, ransacked his bed, desk and trunk–and emerged victorious. They had discovered the group drawing mysterious signs and diagrams on pieces of paper, which they confiscated as clear evidence of Sverdlov's seditious dealings–though quite what it all meant they did not think to find out.

They sent the papers off and waited in pleasurable anticipation of congratulations for their diligence. However, what they finally received was not congratulations but a ticking off from their superior, who called them blockheads and clowns. Those seditious symbols were geometrical diagrams and the most terrible of all was a Pythagorean triangle.

So Sverdlov's popularity and influence continued to grow, while the alarm of the guards grew in like measure.

But his health was suffering. On 25 September he wrote to me that he had 'no intention of falling seriously ill; it would be worse than dangerous because there's no medical treatment available here'. Three months later he reported that he was sleeping badly, that "my brains are in such a state that I could not do a simple little problem that I had set my students. I had to call off the lesson. Yesterday I felt so bad: I wanted to cry, I could not sleep, I really had to pull myself together. Well, now I have told you how awful it all is and I feel better 55 for it... I know I will be fine in a day or two... Darling, don't be upset. I will not break down, I will not come out of this a physical or emotional cripple. I will still be a whole person when they release me'.

After a day or two his condition did not improve, however. 'I did not sleep and felt very bad towards evening... Oh, it's all so dreadful! And I have no one here–even if I were to go under completely nobody would know for months...'

But he was wrong–his comrades, the Bolshevik exiles in Narym and Kolpashevo, in Parabel and Togur, knew. They had received a note from him through a trusted friend: 'Stop the preparations for escape. I fear the journey would be too much.' If Yakov Sverdlov, the eternally cheerful, strong, confident Comrade Andrei, was feeling like that, then the situation was grave indeed...


The Bolsheviks throughout the area realised that it was a matter of life and death and decided on a united course of action. The rule in Narym was that each exile had the right to an audience with Ovsyanikov, the local police officer, once a week and now they gave him not a moment's peace. Personal needs were forgotten–an unending stream of exiles went to him with one request: bring back Sverdlov.

Ovsyanikov applied to the Governor of Tomsk Province and in February Sverdlov was sent back to Narym, where his health rapidly improved and he set himself to work again. On 23 February he wrote:

'I have been here for about two weeks. I intended to lock myself away with lots of books but I couldn't do it. There are so few educated people here and my social conscience is too strong–I yielded to my comrades' persuasion and pestering to give lectures on political economy. And now I have taken it on myself to arrange open discussions on fascinating topics such as current events, the election campaign and so on. I will read the opening papers.'

Immediately on his return he began to improve the colony's contact with the outside world, so as to keep the exiles abreast of developments inside and outside the Party. They eagerly seized on all Party news, passionately debated Lenin's articles as they arrived in Narym and were engrossed in the proceedings of the Sixth All-Russia RSDLP Conference, which took place in Prague in January 1912.

The Conference discussed a wide range of issues and elected a wholly Bolshevik Central Committee, chaired by Lenin, which was to give the Party firm and militant leadership. As its ranks were often depleted by arrest, it was allowed extensive rights to coopt new members, which is how Sverdlov joined the Central Committee. Towards the end of 1912 he was also appointed to the Russian Bureau of the Party, which had been established by the Conference to supervise operations in Russia under the direct guidance of the Central Committee.

By closely questioning each new Bolshevik arrival, Sverdlov kept himself constantly informed on the situation at the grass roots. He advised every Bolshevik escapee where to go, for he knew which groups were most seriously undermanned.

Sverdlov had intended to escape since his first days in exile– this I know because at the end of 1911 I was thinking of going with the baby to join him, but when I wrote to him about it, I received this reply:

'Of course I want to be with you soon... It's my dream but dreaming and doing cannot always go together... There is a feeling of animation in the air. I am ready for action, and if my dream comes true it will not be because you come to me... Please don't make arrangements to come this way just yet.' (Punctuation is in the original–Author's note.)

It was obvious that he was not meaning to stay in Narym much longer and it was clear to me why. He was absolutely right about the change in the atmosphere: Stolypin's reactionary reign 1 was coming to an end, the Russian working class was again rising against tsarism, and the Party had been galvanised by the Prague Conference. How could Sverdlov sit counting the years in the backwoods of Narym at a time like that?

In early April 1912 a terrible tragedy in Siberia's Lena gold fields rocked the country. The army, on instructions from the gendarmes, fired on a thousand unarmed workers who were going to negotiate with the mining administration. Over 500 people were killed or wounded. News of this foul act quickly spread throughout the country, triggering off mass strikes, meetings and demonstrations. It reached Narym at about the same time as Moscow and Petersburg, during the preparations for the May Day demonstrations.

The exiles had decided to hold their demonstration in Narym itself, as it was the largest settlement in the area. Though not the first demonstration there, it was to be the best organised. Sverdlov, with Valerian Kuibyshev, had done a lot of the spadework, but he realised that to take part would be too risky. He asked to be sent to Kolpashevo, so as not to give the authorities the slightest grounds for returning him to Maksimkin Yar and left a few days before May Day.

Carrying their red banners, the exiles marched to the edge of town, where Kuibyshev gave a rousing speech to a large crowd of exiles and locals. The air of excitement was such that the guards did not dare to interfere, but the arrests began a few days later. Sverdlov was also arrested. He protested that he had not even been there and was told that he could have masterminded it from a distance.

He was held in Tomsk prison for several months, not returning to Kolpashevo until August 1912. At about that time Stalin arrived in Narym and they met for the first time. It was a short-lived acquaintance, however, as Stalin escaped at the end of the month. Sverdlov had every intention of following him.


The escape plans had long been laid; the final details were quickly arranged. Sverdlov was to leave Kolpashevo in a small boat, go up the Ob River to a nearby landing stage and there meet the Tyumen, a steamer from Tomsk, which would be taking on wood. Some of the engineers, trustworthy men, had already agreed to hide him until the steamer reached Tobolsk along the Ob and Irtysh rivers. Kapiton Kaplatadze, an excellent oarsman, was to accompany him to help handle the small boat.

The brief farewells, a firm handshake and an embrace, were made on the banks of the stormy river late one evening at the end of August. The small group of onlookers watched until at last the unsteady craft disappeared from view in a cloud of spray and the shadows of approaching night. Winter was already on its way; the howling northern winds carried flurries of snow and thin films of ice were appearing on the river. The foam-flecked waves dashed in rapid succession against the boat and the raging wind cut the runaways to the bone. It would have been hard to find a worse time to make an escape like that, but the Tyumen would make no more trips before the following spring. There had been no choice.

After three or four days the steamer arrived in Kolpashevo. The exiles hurried to contact their engineer ally, only to receive the staggering reply that the fugitives had not appeared, though the steamer had spent a day at the landing stage. Everyone in the know had kept their eyes peeled and had even mounted a search but the area was clearly deserted.

The comrades feared the worst: Sverdlov and Kaplatadze had not reached the landing stage and the Ob in a storm was no joking 58 matter. But after two more days news came from the village of Parabel: they were alive but under arrest. They had not, indeed, managed to reach the landing stage. Soon after they had set off the storm had borne down on them with all its fury. As they desperately tried to row upstream, the current and wind carried them back. By morning they were spent and knew that they would never reach their destination. It never occurred to them to give up and return to Kolpashevo.

They decided to turn the boat around, in the direction of Narym and Parabel, and try to hold back against the current, so that the Tyumen could overtake them. They could see no alternative, though this meant that they would have to hold out against the storm for two or three days in their frail little craft with almost no food and with no hope of rest. They would have to row constantly. They could not bring themselves to land the boat, not because they were afraid of being caught or of meeting any of the wild animals that roamed the deserted overgrown banks, but because they did not want to miss the steamer; though when it appeared they would still have to find some way of swimming to it and boarding unnoticed, and finding their engineer friends, who were expecting them at the landing stage, not in the middle of a turbulent river.

Maybe these difficulties would have proved insurmountable; they never found out. They had by then been over 24 hours in a flimsy boat that was now racing downstream despite their failing efforts. If they laid down the oars to straighten up for a few minutes the icy wind would freeze their soaked clothing to their skin, and their arms and legs would stiffen with cramp. They simply could not allow their exhausted bodies to stop rowing. Then one of them made a false move which he was unable to correct and the boat capsized, tipping them into the freezing water.

Sverdlov was an excellent swimmer; he could probably have reached the bank in spite of his terrible fatigue and waterlogged clothing. But Kaplatadze could not swim. Clutching the boat, Sverdlov feebly tried to save his helpless comrade. Death was closing in.

They had covered about 80 miles in their desperate battle with the elements, and capsized not far from Parabel, where their friends were on constant look-out for the Tyumen.

Vanya Chugurin remembers that he was talking with some peasants when they noticed a boat, some two miles away, coming towards them from the far bank. When one of the sharp-eyed peasants said that it had disappeared, they thought that it must have landed on a small island in midstream. Then they heard a resonant cry for help.

They had no life-saving equipment but went out in one of the half-finished but usable boats that were beached nearby, got as close as they could, and threw the drowning men an oar tied to a rope. Even then it was touch and go, for Sverdlov and Kaplatadze were stiff with cold. After a long fight with the current they were all driven to shore. The poor creatures lay motionless while the peasants built a fire; they were revived and taken indoors, at which point the police appeared.

Early next day, 31 August 1912, Sverdlov was returned to Narym and imprisoned again. The police could relax at last–there was not much to be feared from a man of weak constitution who was now half dead from his dreadful experience on the river and a long soaking in icy water.

A delegation of exiles petitioned the Narym police officer to allow their sick and exhausted comrade to rest for a few days in their care; knowing what Sverdlov had been through, the official agreed. Yet no sooner had the prison gates closed behind him than Sverdlov disappeared and a day later was back in Parabel, preparing to escape to Tomsk. Vanya Chugurin had contacts among the crew of the steamer Sukhotin.

Sverdlov was re-outfitted by a group effort and slipped into a first-class cabin late one evening, just as the steamer was leaving. When it reached Kolpashevo the next day, all the village came out as usual, for this was an event which brightened their monotonous days. Some of the crowd seemed more than normally agitated–the Bolsheviks had already heard the news and were willing the Sukhotin to leave quickly.

Everything seemed to be going normally until a large group of guards appeared and made their way through the crowds. They boarded the steamer and headed straight for the first-class cabins. They knew what they were about; it was clearly an informer's doing.

They searched two cabins thoroughly but to no purpose, and went on to the third, which looked empty until one of them glanced under a bunk and let out a joyful bellow. Sverdlov emerged and asked with an unruffled air: Is this Kolpashevo? Thank you so much for waking me, gentlemen. Just fancy–I almost missed my stop!' And he strolled past the stunned guards, leaving those seasoned veterans with their mouths open as he went ashore and melted into the crowd of exiles on the wharf.

But he was tracked down the same day and sent back to Tomsk prison. This, his fourth escape from Narym, had been a failure.

Yet he kept on trying, depending on the aid of dozens of comrades, on that wonderful, indomitable Bolshevik brotherhood. In fact, the whole history of Bolshevik exile in Narym was a dramatic and intense struggle between two opposing camps. A huge number of powerful, well-armed tsarist officials, who held all the vast area, its prisons and colonies in their cruel grip and who had the land itself–the trackless taiga, impassable bogs, bitter cold, miry roads–on their side, was ranged against a small persecuted group deprived of their rights and even of the basic necessities of life. But these were special people– Bolsheviks, inspired by great ideas, united by comradeship, made strong by their collective spirit, marching behind Lenin to their hard-won victory–people for whom nothing was impossible.

It seems almost incredible that the Bolsheviks emerged victorious from the unequal contest of exile. Yet dozens of them, overcoming all obstacles and disregarding past failures, managed to escape, among them Sverdlov–but more of that later.

I did not hear the details of the misadventures I have just described until later that autumn, when I arrived in Narym with our son, Andrei.


I had been separated from Sverdlov for eighteen months, most of which time I had spent in Ekaterinburg under police surveillance. I stayed longer than I intended to, for the baby was born there, but in the autumn of 1911 I took the child and ran away.

While in Moscow, without papers or permission, I stayed with a friend, Sanya Anisimova. The idea of going to Sverdlov came to me there but, as a boat put in at Maksimkin Yar only twice a year, I knew that it was impossible, especially as the baby was less than a year old then.

Sverdlov wrote to me a lot from Narym, mostly on personal subjects. When I sent the first photographs of baby Andrei, he replied:

'The photos along with what you tell me make me so proud, so happy. I have been showing this work of art to all and sundry... I sometimes wonder what I will mean to him, being with him so rarely. Will I be there when he takes his first steps? Will I be there when he becomes aware of the world around him and begins to ask questions? I have been doing a lot of thinking...'

He had written earlier from Maksimkin Yar:

'Thousands of miles, but sometimes it feels like no distance at all... I used to mull over our relationship, but I hardly ever do that now. So little together, so long apart–a day of joy, months of misery. Does it really make sense to stay together? To answer that question I had to answer another: Does it make sense to ask a question like that? The obvious answer is that life is not measured by the passage of time but by the intensity with which we live. And there is no doubt that we have both developed as a result of being together... I think we can both be sure that we would and should do the same if we had our time over again.'

It is true that we were not often together: while he was in prison or exile in one place, I was being held in another. When we were released, we sometimes managed to stay together for a few months, but more often it was a question of weeks or days.

While in Petersburg I received the letter from Narym telling me that we would meet soon, though not in Siberia. I waited through the spring and summer of 1912 but Sverdlov did not come and I heard no more from him. I did not know what to think but was sure that it was pointless to wait any longer. I collected some money from comrades and set off.

Having reached Tomsk with no problem, I sailed down the Ob to Kolpashevo, where I judged Sverdlov to be from his last letter. I was warmly greeted by the Bolsheviks there but they had bad news for me; a day or two before Sverdlov had been sent to Tomsk prison. I was dreadfully upset; in leaving Tomsk I had been increasing my distance from my husband, not decreasing it! There was nothing for it but to return. I was so impatient that I paid no heed to their pleas to wait until the situation was clarified somewhat; I had to get to Tomsk in a hurry, especially as the river would not be. navigable much longer.

The exiles, seeing that their pleas were in vain, gave me what they could in the way of clothes and other essentials and put me on the steamer. I would have had a bad time in Tomsk, alone in an unfamiliar town, with a baby and almost destitute, if it had not been for the Naumovs, whom I had known as a girl in Ekaterinburg.

An soon as I could, I went to make enquiries and try to arrange a meeting with Sverdlov. A gandarme colonel agreed to speak to me, and when I told him I was Sverdlov's wife and had come with our baby to be near my husband, he began to behave with uncommon courtesy. Accepting that I was Sverdlov's wife without any documentary proof, he arranged a meeting, and what a meeting–not in the office in front of everybody, with a grille between us, but in Sverdlov's cell, alone together.

I was ready to run straight to the prison but it was late. I do not know how I got through the night; I only remember that my head was full of nonsense and I could not sleep.

In the morning I set out with the drowsy baby in my arms. The prison gate creaked open but the office was deserted because I had come so early. As the minutes passed Andrei began to whimper with hunger. At last someone came, I went through the final formalities and found myself in a dark corridor. The keys rattled in the lock; the door swung open...

Sverdlov was taking his 'morning constitutional'', striding rapidly from corner to corner of his cell–six paces each way–unaware that I was even in Tomsk. At the sound of the key he turned his head, expecting to see the warder's tiresomely familiar features. Instead he saw me and little Andrei, and froze in his tacks. The door closed behind me. We were alone.

I can say little about that meeting because I remember so little– only that it seemed to last a few seconds, not the hour that it really was. I no longer know which of us did more talking, who asked the most questions, who replied. Andrei did not let us forget that he was there too; in the gloom of that Tomsk solitary confinement cell Sverdlov first laid eyes on his eighteen-month-old son.

The key sounded again in the lock all too soon. I took Andrei to the Naumovs' and fed him quickly, then went straight to the gendarme office. I spoke to the same colonel, who was again considerate and kind. He said that he would try to have Sverdlov sent from prison back to exile if I would go with him, taking the baby.

That explained everything! The 'kind and considerate' gendarmes had read Sverdlov's letters, knew that he was boundlessly devoted to us, longed to be with us, and calculated that we would be more effective in holding him there than any guard–which only shows how little they understood the Bolshevik mentality. Naturally I agreed and the following day the Governor of Tomsk Province received this dispatch:

'l beg leave to request the transfer of Sverdlov to Parabel, in view of the imminent discontinuance of river traffic. Sverdlov's wife has arrived with an eighteen-month-old child. She volunteers to remain in exile with him.'

Parabel was about three miles from the river but they considered that too close; maybe he was a family man, but there was no point in putting temptation in his way. They also felt that it would be easier to watch him in a smaller place than Parabel, where there were dozens of exiles. They sent us to a godforsaken hamlet of four or five houses called Kostyrevaya.

We rented a room in a peasant's house and, although there were problems and money was very short, we did not do badly. Sverdlov took over the housework, always doing the cooking and usually the washing, and I had to fight to be allowed even to help. It was not just that he had looked after himself in prison and exile for years; it was a question of principle. For a genuine Bolshevik the equality of women and their emancipation from housework was a matter for action, not words.

Sverdlov spent a lot of time with our son. It was as if he wanted to make up to him for the years they had been apart and also to store up fond memories for the future.

He rarely left Kostyrevaya, even to go to Parabel; he seemed to be quietly contented with his lot, having dismissed once and for all the idea of escape. At first his guards looked in on us two or three times a day but they always found him at home playing with the baby or doing the housework, and began to relax. Appearances were deceptive, of course; Sverdlov had started to plan his escape almost as soon as we arrived. He loved us but never for a moment forgot that his place was in the frontline of the revolution that was daily gaining ground among the Russian proletariat. He could not let us tie him down when the Party needed him, in that climactic year of 1912.

By an extreme effort of will he managed to maintain the calm appearance of a man satisfied with life but he concealed nothing from me.

I had not seen him for almost two years. It struck me, as he strode around our room telling me–and the peacefully sleeping baby–all his plans, how much he had matured in that time. I attributed it to his experiences in exile: his diligent study of theoretical texts, the organising that he had done under extremely difficult circumstances, his contact with Party groups in Russia and careful assessment of their needs, and his constant association with a group of politically mature working people who were courageously bearing the burden of their exile in Narym. His mental scope, as a result, was wider, his understanding of the political situation sounder, his comprehension of the Party's problems deeper. And this made it harder to sit in idleness.

We agreed that if he got away safely, he would let me know. I would go to Tomsk with Andrei and wait to hear from him again.

His fifth escape was a success. I soon heard that he was beyond Tomsk. Our comrades again gave my son and myself some basic necessities and we left for Kolpashevo, where we spent two days with the Dilevsky sisters. A letter reached us in Tomsk and we went to join Sverdlov in Petersburg.


When Sverdlov arrived in Petersburg towards the end of December 1912 he had almost no contacts and did not know how to communicate with the Central Committee or with Lenin, who was still living abroad. The only certain thing was that any false move or careless contact could send him straight back to prison or exile.

On 23 December he wrote to Narym. The best he could say was 64 that he was alive, achieving nothing, sleeping in a different place every night and seeing only those people that he absolutely had to, who were few indeed.

The position began to improve slowly with the help of Mikhail Olminsky, who put him in touch with a number of Leninist Bolsheviks. He was soon in contact with the Bolshevik deputies in the Duma and finally reached Lenin and the Central Committee. He himself was now a member of the CC, having been coopted in his absence.

He went to stay with Fyodor Samoilov, a Bolshevik worker and Duma representative, and took up the two tasks that the Central Committee had assigned him, supervising Pravda, which had begun publication in December 1912, and providing whatever help the Bolshevik faction in the Fourth State Duma needed. Pravda, and the Duma were vital to the Party's legal activities and to the extension of its influence as it strove to unite and organise the people.

Grigori Petrovsky, one of the older revolutionaries, told me: Sverdlov quickly became involved in all aspects of the Party's work. He helped us in the Duma faction, ran Pravda, worked in the Central Committee's Russian Bureau and headed the Petersburg Party Committee.'

But he followed Lenin's orders to concentrate on Pravda, doing all he could to check the lack of editorial discipline and organisation that Lenin had pointed out, and to prevent the unforgivable delays that sometimes occurred in carrying out Central Committee directives or in printing Lenin's articles.

Although he was careful, it was not long before the secret police knew that he was back in Petersburg. Indeed, they were aware of almost every move he made, for at that time they had the services of a man called Malinovsky, a case-hardened informer who worked simultaneously for the Petersburg police department and the Moscow secret police and had so cleverly ingratiated himself that he had been appointed to the Central Committee at the Prague Conference and was also a member of the Bolshevik Duma faction. He was in everyone's confidence, and he passed on all his diligently amassed information to the secret police.

They shadowed Sverdlov more and more openly and persistently, biding their time, fully confident that Malinovsky would not let him slip away.

In early February the caretaker approached Fyodor Samoilov to say that he knew there was an unregistered person' living in his room; he had seen secret police in the yard, assumed they were watching Sverdlov and was worried that when the arrest finally came both he and Samoilov would have some explaining to do. Samoilov seemed to dismiss the matter but let Sverdlov know immediately and called together the Duma deputies, with Malinovsky, of course, among them. It was agreed that Sverdlov should quickly move to a safer place.

When darkness fell, the deputies, with Sverdlov hidden in their midst, went into the yard and helped him to climb the fence that backed on to the River Neva. Malinovsky was waiting there with a cab and they made their `get-away' together to Malinovsky's flat.

A wonderful get-away–in trying to save Sverdlov they had unwittingly handed him over to a tsarist informer, though of course the police did not mean to compromise their valuable agent by seizing Sverdlov in his flat. Beletsky, the intelligent and crafty head of the police department and Malinovsky's immediate superior, had ordered him to take Sverdlov to some place where he could be arrested. But Sverdlov himself had not intended to stay with Malinovsky, although he trusted him completely; on 9 February 1913 he moved in with Grigori Petrovsky and his wife Domna.

I had come to Petersburg with Andrei only the day before. As I had been corresponding with Sara, Sverdlov's younger sister, I went directly to her, leaving my things at the station. Since Sara had links with Central Committee's Bureau and the Petersburg committee and often helped Sverdlov, she knew where he might be. Moving around so much, he had been unable to let me know where he could be found.

The next morning Sara took me to the Petrovskys but Sverdlov had not yet arrived. They made me welcome, though, and I met there an old comrade from the Perm committee, Bina Lobova, who was on the Pravda editorial staff and acting as secretary for the Bolshevik Duma faction.

The Petrovskys unhesitatingly invited me to stay in their large flat, and after a really hard journey from Tomsk with Andrei I was only too glad to accept. Domna and Bina insisted that my things remain in the left luggage office overnight; they said they would go with me the next day and help me carry them. They did go, indeed, but not with me...

It was late in the evening when Sverdlov came. Although he was as cheerful as ever and bubbling over with plans, he was taking his situation seriously and frankly admitted that having the police on his heels was unpleasant. He assumed that the police had been looking for him at Samoilov's, which meant that they had somehow managed to track him down but he could not see how. He knew, however, that he would now have no peace from them.

He felt he must move as soon as possible. Samoilov and Petrovsky were both Bolshevik Duma deputies; the police would probably draw the obvious conclusions. I agreed with him, but Petrovsky only laughed: 'Have you forgotten, old chap, that I'm a deputy and we have official immunity, even in this country. Relax–no one's going to touch you in my flat.'

Sverdlov was incredulous that Petrovsky could think of his immunity' seriously; to him it was obvious that the police could take it with a pinch of salt. A friendly wrangle began but Petrovsky failed to shake Sverdlov's conviction that he should get away from 'all these deputies' without delay.

We talked so much that it was late before we ate and almost midnight before Sverdlov and I went to our room, where little Andrei had long been snuffling peacefully in his sleep. Then we stayed up until dawn, talking about my journey, our comrades in Narym and Sverdlov's work in Petersburg. Just as we were settling down to sleep, there was a piercing, insistent ring at the door. Sverdlov listened a while, then said calmly: Now we'll see who was right. So much for official immunity! Looks like they've come for me. Goodbye, darling, be strong. Look after yourself and Andrei. You're on your own again, love, and I think it will be for a long time...'

The police were already bursting into the room. There was a gendarme officer, several police officers and a number of underlings, including some civilians. The baby woke up and began to sob. Petrovsky complained loudly and demanded respect for his official immunity, and much good it did–they even forcibly prevented him from telephoning the police department. They took Sverdlov to the Crosses, a notorious Petersburg prison, and sent me and the baby to the preliminary detention cells, where I had been two years previously.

A passionate protest against our arrest appeared in Pravda the next day.

It was several months later that Sverdlov was exiled, by order of a special tribunal, for five years. I was sentenced to two years' banishment under strict police surveillance. The essential difference between exile and banishment was that I was not transported with other convicts but had to make my own way. So at the end of April 1913 I was on the streets of Petersburg, destitute, homeless and with a gravely ill child on my hands.

Andrei had suffered in prison. I tried so hard to save him the best food and get him a little milk or fruit but the prison fare finally gave him dysentery. By the time we were released he was seriously ill and I simply did not know what to do. I thought of going to Sara's, but she herself was in hard straits, living in a tiny room and struggling along pn bread and water. I decided to go to the Petrovskys. Though I had only been with them for a few hours, I counted on their advice and help, as Bolsheviks and friends of Sverdlov.

Petrovsky's wife opened the door, and gathered me into her arms, sobbing. They understood the problem immediately, and unquestioningly took me in. My being in Petersburg was a problem but Petrovsky willingly went to petition the police for permission to extend my stay at least until the baby was better. Although he was ultimately refused, I had two weeks' respite, during which those kind people surrounded Andrei and myself with tenderness.

Sara was told and came straightaway, followed by Mikhail Olminsky and Vladimir and Vera Bonch-Bruevich. Vera and Sara were doctors; for the first few days of our stay they took turns in sitting at Andrei's bedside with me and thanks to their skill he did not die.

I said my goodbyes to the Petrovskys at the beginning of May 1913 and went home to Ekaterinburg, where I was to spend the first part of my exile. I was separated from Sverdlov yet again and was destined to be for a long time...

  • 1P. A. Stolypin (1863–1911) was a reactionary Russian statesman who held the position of Premier and Minister of the Interior from 1906 to 1911, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II.–Tr.