Chapter five: In Turukhansk territory

Submitted by Noa Rodman on February 23, 2017

Chapter Five: In Turukhansk territory


They kept Sverdlov in the Crosses for about three months before exiling him, in May 1913, to Turukhansk territory, in Northern Siberia. This time they had chosen well–it was practically impossible to escape from there.

It was a wild, harsh land, especially at its northernmost limits; for thousands of miles around there was nothing but endless, trackless taiga, dismal tundra and marshlands. Through the nine-month-long arctic winter the night closed in, blizzards raged and the temperature dropped to minus 60 degr. C. In the brief summers the sun never set but still the ground remained frozen three feet below the surface.

At the confluence of two rivers, the Nizhnyaya Tunguska and the Yenisei, several hundred miles from Krasnoyarsk, close to the Arctic Circle, was the village of Monastyrskoye (now called Turukhansk), which in those days was the territorial administrative centre.

It had a post office with telegraph equipment, a branch of the state bank, two little grocery stores, a school and even a hospital; it also possessed a police department, dozens of guards, a justice of the peace and, of course, a jail. But for all that Monastyrskoye was a tiny backwater, with a few hundred inhabitants, 40 or 50 houses and shacks and, not surprisingly, no theatre or library. All winter it was immersed in six-foot snow-drifts and only the howling blizzard disturbed the deathly silence of the deserted streets. In the gloom of the arctic night, lonely squeak of footsteps, hastening to escape the bitter cold, were a rare sound indeed.

The only contact with the outside world–Yeniseisk, Krasnoyarsk, Russia itself–was the Yenisei River, which carried steamers and boats in summer and sleds pulled by reindeer, dogs or horses in winter. But it was a long and exhausting journey. For days at a time one encountered no visible sign of life, since the settlements along the river banks were tens or even hundreds of miles apart. It took weeks of rowing upstream against the current, weeks of sledding behind a dog team to reach Krasnoyarsk and the nearest railway station.

At the point where the southern border of the territory and the district of Yeniseisk met there were military posts on both sides of the river, placed there to keep a continuous and close watch on all movement along the river and detain anyone who did not have a special pass.

The isolation was almost incredible. Mail, which took over a month to reach Monastyrskoye and much longer to get to the smaller settlements, was a rare event.

This is how the Turukhansk exiles were separated from the world–so completely that it is no wonder that few managed to escape from there during the last years of the Russian Empire.

In May 1913 Sverdlov was transported to Krasnoyarsk by rail and held there for about a month while some way was found of sending him on to Turukhansk territory. The political prisoners there were a mixed company: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, anarchists, Socialist Revolutionaries, Bundists, 1 and Polish and Lithuanian Social-Democrats. Many of them had been in detention for years, exchanging a prison cell for a convict convoy, a convoy for another prison, forced labour for exile, and had completely lost touch with Party affairs. They knew nothing about the Prague Conference or the decisive break that had occurred between the Bolsheviks and the doubledealing liquidationists and Trotskyites.

Sverdlov did not allow them to remain in the dark for long. He explained the current political situation to them in detail, helping them to understand its complexities and told them about the cancerous influence of liquidationism and Trotskyism.

In early June Sverdlov and a number of others were transported to Yeniseisk on the steamer Turukhan. From there he was rowed down the Yenisei in a small boat, under heavy guard, reaching Monastyrskoye at the end of July. Even then they sent him some 20 miles further north, to the village of Selivanikha. Finally, in March 1914, he was moved to an unbelievably remote settlement called Kureika, which had a population of 30 or 40, several police guards and two exiles–Sverdlov and Stalin.

Acclimatization to life in the Arctic Circle was hard for Sverdlov, whose health had been undermined by years of prison, convict transports and exile. He fell victim to headaches and a terrible lassitude. Later, when he had recovered from what had proved to be a grave illness, he wrote to me: It was really awful–all mental activity seemed to stop, a kind of suspended animation of the brain– and it made me suffer like the very devil'.

The isolation was also hard to bear. Had Sverdlov been a less sociable person, less determined to be interested in people, in the life around him, he would certainly not have found Kureika so repugnant.

When war broke out in August 1914 Sverdlov became even more keen to renew his contacts with his comrades, to find out and understand what was happening, to discuss it with like-minded people. Early in the war he heard rumours that the exiles in Monastyrskoye had made an arrangement that would allow them to receive telegrams and determined to get closer to that source of information.

Thanks to the determined efforts of the exiles in Monastyrskoye, Selivanikha and Miroyedikha, who were concerned for his health, he was brought back to Selivanikha in September 1914.

His health slowly improved there, although life was no bed of roses. Food was so incredibly expensive that the exiles' miserly allowance was barely sufficient to stave off hunger, and it was an uncommon achievement if one of them, by dint of backbreaking labour through the summer, earned 40 or 50 roubles. They almost never saw bread, cereals or vegetables, and had no meat except game, no eggs and no flour. Butter, potatoes and milk were rare, and sugar, salt, matches and tobacco almost unobtainable.

The few with friends or relations who could send them money were, of course, better off. Occasional sums of money and newspapers, magazines and books also reached certain exiles from comrades in Russia. It was usually pointless to send Sverdlov anything, however; money never arrived, books were held up and newspapers confiscated.

But no obstacles, no police control, could prevent him from starting up an extensive correspondence from Turukhansk with his comrades both in Russia and in Siberian exile. He had made several friends among the locals, and used their addresses when writing on Party business; he knew that all letters sent to him personally would be carefully scrutinised and censored. In his letters he discussed major political issues, gave his opinion on Party affairs and passed on information about the exiles.


The First World War broke out on 19 July (1 August New Style) 1914. The commencement of hostilities agitated the whole colony. Questions about the war, its effects on society and its unavoidable consequences were on everybody's lips.

No political party, indeed no thinking person, could avoid taking up a definite stand on the war. The majority of the leaders of the international Social-Democrat movement, the Russian Mensheviks and the SRs, who until so recently had been calling themselves socialists, became outright traitors to socialism, betraying the workers' cause, supporting the nationalist bourgeoisie and making an undignified show of their chauvinist sentiments. One party and one alone–the Bolsheviks headed by Lenin–made a courageous and determined protest against the war, which they recognised as purely predatory, and called on the proletariat of the combatant nations to turn their weapons against their own bourgeoisie.

Newspapers took weeks to get to Turukhansk; the Bolsheviks there did not know how Lenin and the Party viewed the war. They had to work out their own position from the few scraps of information they received in telegrams.

At that time Sverdlov was still in the Arctic Circle. He wrote to me from Kureika on 12 August (Old Style) 1914, nearly a month after the outbreak of war:

'My major concern just now is what is happening far away. Practically no information, just occasional telegrams and newspapers. Impossible to grasp so many world shaking events all at once. And no really reliable news at all... I know absurdly little and face six or eight weeks' more silence... The murder of Jaures was a terrible blow. Some comrades here are foretelling the doom of the labour movement, the triumph of reaction, a reverse to our cause that will last for years. I cannot see it. More likely the movement will take a great step forward. The horrors of war and its consequences, the dreadful burden that will fall on the most backward elements, will give a great stimulus to the backward countries too... The war will almost certainly bring cruel repression, reactionary excesses–but that will get them nowhere, it will be nothing but death throes. Yes, this in undoubtedly the beginning of the end... Discontent, bitter discontent, will inevitably grow, and all the drum-beating will not silence it.'

With no idea of how the Central Committee and Lenin stood on the war, with access to only the most meagre information, Sverdlov could not thoroughly analyse the situation or confidently predict all the effects it would have on the international labour movement. Yet his internationalism never faltered. In a later letter he sharply criticised the German Social-Democrats for supporting war credits; he found it hard to wish success to any of the nations involved in the war and strongly attacked the chauvinism of the Russian Mensheviks. When Lenin's first articles analysing the war appeared in Turukhansk, in Sotsial-democrat (The Social-Democrat), Sverdlov immediately and unconditionally adopted Lenin's views.

Many people remember Sverdlov above all as a great organiser, an essentially practical person, one of the builders of the Party and the Soviet Government, a fine propagandist and agitator.

Immediately before and after the October Revolution he was wholly immersed in political and organisational activity; though he wrote numerous official documents, he left few literary works. His life was too short–Sverdlov died at 33, a bare 18 months after the Revolution. In 1917 he was 32, and had spent almost 12 years of his life in detention: five and a half years in prison and six in exile in the most remote and wretched corners of Siberia. He was arrested 14 times. Those are the statistics of his life.

His life in Turukhansk was at last more or less settled, if that is an appropriate word. Once he was convinced that he was stranded there, that escape was practically impossible, he turned his energies to political theory and to literature and produced several articles, essays and letters.

His theoretical standpoint was refined through further study of Marx, Engels and Lenin, critical analysis of the works of Kautsky, Hilferding and Pannekoek, systematic perusal of political periodicals, magazines and newspapers, and passionate debates with his comrades.

Every letter from Turukhansk touched on some theoretical issue. He was particularly interested in the international labour movement, the building of the Party, certain historical questions, economics and the potential development of Siberia and Turukhansk territory itself.

While in exile there he wrote The'Schism in the German SocialDemocratic Party', The 'Downfall of Capitalism' and 'Siberia and the War'. Sverdlov passionately criticised opportunism as detrimental to the Bolshevik cause. The Schism' was written in 1916 for Priliv (The Flood-tide), a miscellany published in Moscow by a group of Bolsheviks attached to the Central Committee's Russian Bureau, including Mikhail Olminsky, Viktor Nogin, and Ivan Skvortsov-- Stepanov. The list of its contributors also included Lenin.

News reached Turukhansk of the Zimmerwald Internationalist Conference, where Lenin formed the group known as the Zimmerwald Left, from which the genuinely communist Third International was later to grow. Sverdlov immediately advised his comrades to begin a serious study of the international revolutionary movement and gave a series of lectures on the history of the Second International and the potential of the Third. He later compiled his Essays on the History of the International Labour Movement on the basis of those lectures. He intended to proceed from this to a more comprehensive work, beginning with the formation of the First International, but the February Revolution interrupted his research and he never had time to return to it.

At that time he also began a painstaking study of Turukhansk territory, collecting information about this rich and unknown land that tsarism treated as a huge prison, with help of exiles in other settlements in the area and of the local peasants and fishermen, whose language he was learning. He was most upset that the potential of all Russia'a immense borderlands held such a low priority in the official mind.

He also wrote two articles about the life of exiles: 'Ten Years of Tsarist Exile (1906–1916)' and Mutiny in Turukhansk'.

Sverdlov's essays, articles, and particularly his letters cast some light on his ideas on literature and culture, on philosophical and social issues, but he never had time to develop them or publish them in a complete series of works. He was drawn away to answer the urgent call of the revolution.


In addition to the burdens of his life in Turukhansk territory Sverdlov was worried about his family.

I left Petersburg in May 1913, and went to stay on the outskirts of Ekaterinburg, where our daughter, Vera, was born on 30 July. Shortly after my confinement I received permission to move to Saratov, where Sverdlov's elder sister, Sofya, lived, but within a month I had to leave for my appointed place of exile–the small town of Turinsk in Tobolsk Province. I settled in Fabrichnaya, a nearby village, with the two children.

Our life was awful, especially at first. I went to work in the office of a wood depository for a paltry wage on which I somehow had to feed and clothe the children and keep myself alive. And Sverdlov suffered along with us. On 23 October 1913 he wrote to Domna Petrovskaya: 'My wife is having a terrible time... And the worst thing of all is knowing that I can do nothing to help. But we cannot change the way we are and can hardly hope to escape suffering in the kind of life we have chosen.'

His desperate efforts to help us were, unbelievably enough, successful; his liberal friends managed to get me occassional copying work, which brought in a little more money. My comrades often sent newspapers, magazines, books and even clothes. While 1 was still in Ekaterinburg I had received money from the Central Committee with a kind letter from Nadezhda Krupskaya; more came when I was in Turinsk. It turned out that Sverdlov had contacted the Central Committee through friends, told them about my plight and asked them to send me any sums that might be intended for him. Krupskaya had responded by entering `Money' against my address in the Central Committee records.

The longer we were apart, the more Sverdlov yearned for us. On 27 October 1914 he wrote: I have the photographs of the little ones in front of me... I want so much to see them and you, darling... You are all continually in my thoughts... It is wonderful to feel so close to those who are so dear to me... Barbarous brute force has parted us–but we will live in hope that the days of barbarity are numbered.'

Need I say that I was suffering too? Until the end of my term of exile, in the spring of 1915, there was no point even in thinking about joining Sverdlov, but as that time came closer we both began to consider it seriously. In February 1915 he wrote: 'The joy of living as a family again is such a weighty argument in favour of your coming that it completely tips the balance. In fact, all the arguments are in favour, except the question of what we are going to live on.'

At that time Sverdlov was in Selivanikha but had determined to ask for a transfer to Monastyrskoye, where we both might find work more easily. Comrades in Krasnoyarsk promised to find me a job through the local administration. That settled the money issue, though of course I would have gone in any case.

Our preparations were brief. The first stage of the journey, made no easier by having two children to look after, ended in a warm welcome from the exiles in Krasnoyarsk. They put us on a steamer for Monastyrskoye, telling me that Sverdlov had already been transferred there.

What an extraordinary childhood our little ones had! Andrei was just four and had already seen his father in prison in Tomsk, lived with his mother in a Petersburg prison, had six months of family exile in Narym, two years in Tobolsk with me, and was now going to a third place of exile. Our two-year-old Vera was going to her second.

My anxiety grew as we neared Monastyrskoye. Over two years had passed since that unhappy February evening when I had last seen my husband, last heard his voice. Andrei had forgotten his father and Vera had never known him.

The days passed... Then at last we caught sight of a white bell tower and a five-domed church high on a distant bank. There were little houses on both sides of the church, stretching into the distance and scattered aleng the river bank. It was Monastyrskoye.

Our life there was much better than we had expected. Soon after I arrived I was appointed head of the local meteorological station: I was its only member of staff. Though the pay was bad, a small house went with the job and we moved in there together. I had to record changes in the temperature and air pressure, and measure the depth of the river, the strength and direction of the wind and the falls of snow or rain. It was a simple business, and with Sverdlov's help it took up little time.

We also gave lessons, and altogether made between 75 and 80 roubles a month. We just managed on that, helped by the occasional fee Sverdlov received for his articles–a little extra not accounted for in our 'economic plan', which enabled us to buy a milch cow to supplement the children's diet.

Sverdlov took almost total responsibility for running the household as he had in Narym. He got up at six or seven and went out immediately to take measurements around the house and by the river. When he came back he chopped the firewood, fed and cleaned out the cow, lit the stove, heated some water and made breakfast. He washed and dressed the children, who got up around eight; much as I protested, he would not let me near them.

We had breakfast at about 8.30, and I went out to give lessons, while Sverdlov's pupils, local children, came to him. He finished at about midday and began lunch, which was always excellent. Boris Ivanov, one of the exiles, used to maintain that Sverdlov's command of the culinary art put all the Turukhansk housewives to shame.

Sverdlov's working day ended at five or six, and about an hour later the visitors would begin to arrive. There were 15 or 20 exiles in Monastyrskoye at that time, and comrades often came from other settlements, usually staying with us. We also took in Bolsheviks transferred from exile in more distant areas, who had not yet found a place of their own.

It was a three-roomed house 2 . I and the children took the largest room, and Sverdlov studied and slept in the other, which also doubled as a dining room. The third was practically useless, as it was an extension and heated only by a small iron stove; it was always cold there and at night when the stove went out the temperature fell below zero. We only used it when we had a lot of guests and, even though we kept the stove going all night, whoever slept there really felt the cold.

The chairs and large table in Sverdlov's room were made for us by Ivan Petukhov, one of the exiles who was a carpenter by trade.

Our evenings were dynamic, full of animated conversation, arguments and discussions of current events. Sometimes Sverdlov would arrange a debate or he, or one of the others, would give a lecture. The whole house fell silent as the audience listened to every eloquent word, with rapt attention. Sverdlov usually put forward some proposition, with numerous examples and far-reaching conclusions. He structured his talks so that anybody, even those with no background knowledge at all, could understand the most complex theoretical points.

Meanwhile, minor day-to-day concerns did not shield us from the terrible events taking place so far away. At the end of 1916 we were astounded by the unprecedented mobilisation of some of the exiles, including Bolsheviks. We realised that the autocracy was in a serious predicament if it was being forced to call up its own declared enemies.

The entire village came out to see off the conscripts, who were glad of this. They knew that as political exiles they would have an unpleasant time in the army but were looking forward to the end of their enforced idleness among the snowdrifts of Turukhansk and the chance to take up their revolutionary work again.

Twenty sledges were waiting for our comrades and their few belongings. The entire police force was there, including the police officer, but no one had any time for him. The air was filled with courageous speeches; no thoughts or feelings went unvoiced.

Sverdlov hated having to stay behind, although it was clear from the course of events that he would not be in Monastyrskoye much longer. He bade each of the conscripts goodbye until their next meeting–in Petersburg.

The crowd began to sing the Warszawianka, a revolutionary song, as they followed the moving sledges, and on the steep banks of the Yenisei we parted with our comrades. We waved goodbye and stood watching for a long time...

And then, in early March 1917, the joyful news came to Monastyrskoye–the autocracy 3 had fallen. The police officer, Kibirov, did the most intelligent thing he could think of, which was to keep the news from the exiles. They heard it through personal telegrams, which the post office clerks handed over without asking Kibirov's permission.

Sverdlov was one of the first to know. Boris Ivanov, already in high esteem among the soldiers of the 14th Siberian Infantry Regiment in Krasnoyarsk, had sent Sverdlov a congratulatory telegram and some money collected by the soldiers.

Orders came from Yeniseisk. Alexander Maslennikov, a local Bolshevik, had been appointed Commissar of the territory. He was to relieve Kibirov of his functions and resources, and send Sverdlov to Krasnoyarsk.

There was no time for delay; it was hundreds of miles to Krasnoyarsk and the only possible route was the Yenisei, where the ice might begin to break up at any moment. The only hope was to travel day and night, without rest; otherwise he would be stranded and it would be two or three months before the river was free of ice and navigable. Sverdlov was not prepared to wait.

The years of prison and exile were over. Through all those dreadful years, through all his adversity and hardship, Sverdlov had stood unbowed, a true Leninist Bolshevik. He had kept up his spirits, conserved his spiritual strength and had been ready for the Party's call to step into the front line and fight for a happier future for mankind.

  • 1The Bund was a Jewish Social-Democrat organisation formed in October 1897. It was a petty-bourgeois, opportunist, nationalist party, a channel of bourgeois influence on the working class.– Ed.
  • 2Now the Sverdlov House-Museum.– Ed.
  • 3Autocracy was the pre-revolutionary system of government in Russia. Supreme power, formally unlimited, was concentrated in the hands of the tsar, whose word was law.– Ed.