Chapter One: Comrade Andrei
OUR FIRST MEETING
I1 met Yakov Sverdlov long ago in Ekaterinburg, the town in the Ural Mountains that is now Sverdlovsk. Those were unforgettable days, the days of the first Russian revolution.
October 1905... A wave of mass political strikes and demonstrations was sweeping the country, an armed uprising against the tsarist autocracy was close at hand, and the villages were alight with the blaze of peasant revolt.
I was released from prison in Ekaterinburg in the middle of October, pending my trial. They had arrested me in spring when our underground press had been discovered; as a member of the Ekaterinburg committee of the RSDLP 2 I had been involved in our printing activities.
My first move when I left prison was to make careful contact with my comrades on the Ekaterinburg Party committee, to decide our most fundamental and pressing problem–what to do next. I did not think that I could continue to work in Ekaterinburg; although the local gendarmes and their spies did not know that I was a committee member, my face was too familiar–I had become fully convinced of that on the day of my arrest. An agent of the secret political police had taken me to prison and stayed while the chief warder filled in my form. I sat with a large woollen shawl thrown over my head and answered his interminable, tedious questions in monosyllables. When he came to my distinguishing features and asked me to remove the shawl so that he could check the colour of my eyes and the shape of my nose–it all mattered to them–the agent interrupted him with a sneer.
'Leave her be,' he commanded. 'We know her looks by heart.''
It would be hard to leave my town, the town of my childhood and youth, where I had become deeply involved in revolutionary work and had joined the Bolshevik Party, where I had friends and comrades. But I knew that it was inevitable–I would have to move to another town where the secret police did not know me, make contact with the Party there and start my work anew.
So it was decided. But no sooner had I made up my mind and was ready to set off at any moment, that I suddenly heard that Comrade Andrei wanted to meet me.
I had never seen this Comrade Andrei, although I knew that it was Yakov Sverdlov's party name, the one he was using when he appeared in Ekaterinburg at the end of September 1905, sent by the Party's Central Committee to represent them in the Urals.
Even in prison, news about the new Central Committee representative had reached me, and when I came out the local committee was buzzing with talk about him. It seemed remarkably inadvisable for me to see him. After all, it had been decided that I was to leave, the committee approved and I no longer belonged to the local organisation. Did Comrade Andrei want to meet me out of pure curiosity? But supposing the spies used me to get on to his trail–was it really worth risking such a valuable member of our organisation for one single pointless meeting? That is roughly how I saw it, and I said as much to the comrade who brought me the news.
But my protests fell on deaf ears. It seemed that Comrade Andrei's rule was to talk to every party member who left the town and he was particularly determined to see me because I had been on the Ekaterinburg committee. I would have to be extremely careful, do everything possible to avoid being shadowed and not give the spies any help. Andrei and the committee could guarantee the strictest security for our meeting and the rest was up to me.
This left me no room for argument, so a few days later I made my way to the rendezvous point at the agreed time to meet a member of our organisation. On the way I did all I could to confuse my tracks, going from one street to another by way of courtyards and alleys, and I did not go to the assigned place until I was sure I had not been tailed.
My comrade was already there. He took my arm, and we set off down the main street, pushing through the noisy, jolly crowd, looking for all the world like a courting couple.
When we reached the dam across the Iset River my friend pointed out a young man–a very young man, really only a lad–who was strolling along in a carefree sort of way. There was nothing striking about him at first glance. He was of average height, slender and smart. His cap was pushed back slightly from his forehead and waves of thick black hair stubbornly jutted out from under it. A simple black Russian blouse fitted his lean body snugly, his jacket was thrown across his shoulders, and his entire compact and dynamic physique radiated youthful energy. His clothes, though well-worn, were clean and neat.
My first general impression was favourable–but he was so very young! Could this really be the same Comrade Andrei that I had heard so much about? I looked enquiringly at my companion. He silently gave the slightest of nods, let go of my arm and slowed his pace, so that I left him behind. Just then Comrade Andrei noticed us and turned off into a quiet side street, where I joined him.
Our conversation got off to a lively start, as though we had long been good friends. His voice was really charming–a deep velvety bass, which at first seemed to sit oddly with his slight build.
Many years have passed and little details about our meeting have slipped my memory, but I do know that Sverdlov made an indelible impression on me that day.
'So you're leaving the Urals,' he began. You're all ready to cut and run.'
Cut and run–the very idea! I put my detailed and well-considered arguments to him, convinced that my reasons for leaving were unimpeachable.
Andrei was a good listener, immediately getting to the kernel of any issue, and able to provide the very words one was seeking.
He heard me out and then said: 'The point is that people who know the local conditions are vital to the Party these days. You ran a study circle in the Yates factory, you know the Verkhny Isetsk plant, you know the people and understand the work here. And you're known to the local workers and the organisation. Now, where will you be of most use–here or elsewhere? Clear as day. It's essential to the Party that you stay in Ekaterinburg.
`You could be caught, you could be followed, you won't be able to visit people, attend workers' groups or go to conspiratorial meetings in private flats... True enough, fine reasoning, taking things as they were, but things are changing all the time. Revolution is coming on the crest of a great wave and it's spreading to all corners of the country, to the Urals, to Ekaterinburg. Every day more and more people, politically conscious workers mostly, are joining the movement. So even if they increase the number of spies, which is not so easy and takes time, there still won't be one spy for everybody. They'll get confused and dash from one suspect to another–and that will only make our task easier. And besides,' Andrei smiled 'what are spies for if not to be taken for a ride? The more certain you are that you could be followed, the craftier and more careful you'll be–and the more smartly you'll fool them.'
That is how our forthright and resolute Andrei scotched the ideas that I and many others in the area had about the rules of conspiratorial behaviour, showing us that those rules could be a hindrance in this new situation. After this conversation I saw clearly that the expansion of the revolutionary movement posed new problems and demanded a new approach.
Sverdlov was hardly twenty then, but in one brief conversation he taught me to see our work as part of a movement involving all Russia's proletariat and peasantry; he opened up new horizons for me.
And I stayed in Ekaterinburg.
That is how I began my work with Comrade Andrei–with Yakov Sverdlov.
At that time our revolutionary activity in the Urals faced a number of problems that were strictly local. The proletariat there was not only unusual in itself, it had a unique history.
Russian metallurgy began in the Urals in the early eighteenth century, with the construction of huge mining and metallurgical enterprises. As Russian capitalism developed, the centre of the industry moved south and several new factories appeared, with more advanced equipment. The system in those southern factories was purely capitalist: the worker bound himself to his master by the sale of his labour. After the abolition of serfdom3 the Ural workers no longer belonged body and soul to their master and no longer had to do obligatory labour in the factories, but numerous vestiges of serfdom still held the whole vast area, as big as several European states combined, in a firm and intricate grip. The factory workers were in a state of semi-servile dependence, attached to their masters by the chains of hoary custom. Unlike other workers, they had been born and raised in the very factories where generations of their own families had laboured in eternal slavery for generations of masters.
They were not freed from obligatory labour in the factories until 1863; then they received plots of land and pasture in the areas which belonged to the factories, and were accorded water and wooding rights on their masters' lands. And this bound them to their factories no less firmly than serfdom had.
But garden plots and pasture alone could not feed the worker's family; the factory remained his main source of income, and there things went from bad to worse. South Russian metallurgy was successfully competing with the Urals, forcing the owners there to install new machinery and cut down their work force in order to preserve their profits.
This further embittered the workers and increased their determination to oppose the status quo. Strikes and walkouts, the usual methods of attack, were not always successful, though, for certain owners had no objection to shortening the working day or closing down completely for two or three days. Only long strikes, where the workers were fully behind their leadership, were worthwhile.
The matter was further complicated in that the factories were not in the towns but were scattered throughout the area, often tens of hundreds of miles away from each other, from inhabited areas, and from the railways.
Meanwhile echoes of the shots fired on the Palace Square in St. Petersburg on 9 January 1905 reached us. 4 Revolutionary activity in Russia took an upswing, and the Ural workers reacted with enthusiasm. Occasional strikes broke out, which, though not always successful, spread from one factory to another and brought the class struggle, like a consuming fire, to the area.
We Social-Democrats had to find a way of mastering the workers' ancient hatred of the factory owners and the tsar's local officials, the police and the bureaucrats in particular, and of organising it to sustain the class struggle. To do this we would have to be on continual guard against other political elements in the area–the Socialist-Revolutionaries5 , the Mensheviks,6 the anarchists and the petty bourgeoisie, whose influence extended to some of the less perceptive members of the proletariat.
LEADING THE URAL WORKERS
Organisation was what the Bolsheviks, the workers and all the people of the Urals needed above all else. At the outset of the 1905 revolution the Social-Democrats had a fairly well-- developed network of local groups but they were dispersed, had poor communications and often found themselves acting independently under their various leaderships.
In those days the revolutionary scene was changing so rapidly that it was imperative for us to exert every effort, not to spare ourselves, to grasp the political situation in depth and correctly assess each new event, exploiting the revolutionary ferment among the workers to lift the whole movement to a new level. And this was precisely the time when the local RSDLP committees could barely cope with their normal daily workload. Certainly they put out leaflets, led the workers in individual strikes and demonstrations, even occasionally formed combat groups–but they in no way represented the organisational force that was needed to support and direct all local political activity. We did not even have a Party headquarters in our area. That is why we in the Urals were in such desperate need of organisers, agitators and propagandists, experienced men who understood the local situation, could talk to the workers in their own language and pull the Party groups together.
And that was why the Party Central Committee had sent us Yakov Sverdlov. Though he was young he was a tried and tested organiser with a firm hand and considerable practical experience.
Shortly after his arrival in town he began to appear at study groups, at the homes of various Party members and at committee meetings. With his remarkable memory he could fix someone in his mind for years to come after only one meeting. I was often amazed by the ease and speed with which he could recall literally everything about a comrade he had last seen 10 or 12 years previously, without recourse to notes.
Even in those days he had uncommon intuition and could go to the root of a man's character, size up his abilities and give each of us the very task we could do best. He attended a few workers' study groups and was soon urging the younger members into active Party work. Before long a reliable nucleus formed around him, a group of experienced underground workers released from prison in October and young Bolshevik organisers with close links among the workers.
Sverdlov's influence on our Bolshevik groups and on the growing revolutionary movement was the greater because he had already done a lot of organisational work as Comrade Andrei, and his practical experience was founded on extensive theoretical knowledge. He assiduously studied revolutionary theory and applied what he learned on practice, for he always maintained that life should be checked against books and books against life.
From the first day of his revolutionary career Sverdlov took his lead from Iskra 7 and the works of Lenin, Marx and Engels. He viewed all of Lenin's articles in the Bolshevik newspapers Proletary (The Proletarian) and, later, Novaya Zhizn (New Life) as Party directives, tried to link them directly and profitably to our daily work and insisted that we do the same. He also had great regard for the Central Committee letters which we occasionally received in Ekaterinburg and later in Perm, usually written by Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin's wife and closest collaborator, who for many years was the main channel of communication between the Central Committee and the local Party groups.
Sverdlov had an unusually attractive personality. While in the Urals he often had to visit our members and certain workers in their homes; he was soon in great demand among the workers. On the evenings when he was expected the samovar would glisten, all would be tidy and spotlessly clean and the table would hold the best of the household's meagre store. He always had a kindly word for his hostess and a joke for the children, and would help with the samovar and the stove.
People valued his sincere and passionate conviction, for he was also sensitive and considerate, and respected the opinions of others. He was upright and truthful, never stooped to deceit, and took no pleasure in intrigues or political gamesmanship. He never promised anything lightly; his word, once given, was binding.
He found his direction, his raison d'etre and his satisfaction entirely in his work for the people, in the name of the Party. He once wrote that when people are striving to fashion their lives anew one could not avoid being caught up in their struggle and deriving great pleasure from one's own part in it. His attitudes became popular among his comrades, who turned away from petty egoism and began to work furiously, committing themselves utterly to the revolution.
Sverdlov was good at cheering people up, at restoring both their energy and that vital self-confidence and faith in their own abilities. He was trusted and was often asked to give advice on personal questions as well as on Party affairs.
He was an irrepressibly cheerful person with tremendous joie de vivre. I lived and worked with him for 14 years and never once saw him gloomy, sullen or out of temper. He seemed immune to fatigue, dejection and confusion. Once, many years later, he was telling me and a group of close friends about his escape from exile in Narym, how he had almost drowned when his boat capsized on the River Ob during a storm. He was pensive for a moment, then smiled brightly, shook back his thick hair and said:
'And do you know what I was thinking about, with death staring me in the face? I was thinking that it could be worse–I mean, death did not seem so bad!'
He was the centre of attention wherever he went. He was a hard taskmaster but work with him was enjoyable and effortless.
At the beginning of October the whole country was gripped by a general political strike, which even reached to the Urals, making yet greater demands on us and on the entire Party. The autocracy staggered under this heavy blow, and the tsarist government, frightened out of its wits by the scope of proletarian unrest, was forced into making concessions. The only way the autocracy could protect itself was by issuing the Manifesto of 17 October 1905, which made a great show of granting civil freedoms to the people. Only the liberal bourgeoisie and the Mensheviks were enthusiastic about this document; the Bolsheviks and politically conscious workers understood the motive behind it, but we would have to explain to most of the workers and to the people as a whole exactly how fraudulent it was.
On the following night the Ekaterinburg committee published a proclamation showing the Manifesto in its true light, sent agitators round the factories, agreed the slogans which were to go on the banners, and called a mass meeting.
On the morning of 19 October there was unprecedented animation in the town. Excited crowds filled the main streets but, although there were no police in sight, public order was impeccable. The town's central square was particularly crowded, for factory workers, a lot of students, a number of office workers and even some shop assistants had gathered there, prompted by the committee. Party activists rapidly constructed a makeshift platform. Andrei was there, naturally, and was the first to speak.
He had not said more than a few words before a gang of thugs burst on to the square, brandishing clubs and using the most dreadful language. They went straight for Andrei but did not get to him, because there was a guard around the platform and some of them were armed. Several shots were fired, which caught the attackers by surprise. They drew back and some actually ran away, because, though full of bravado, they were cowards at heart. But our men were timid and indecisive, so inexperienced that they had not expected to do any real fighting, so the ruffians collected themselves for another attack. Then a Cossack troop came rushing to their aid.
That evening a meeting of the Ekaterinburg committee and the active Party nucleus was held.
We found it hard to look one another in the face, and some even felt that all was lost after such a total defeat at the hands of the black hundred. 8
This was the first time I had seen Sverdlov in such a situation. It was then that I clearly understood why we had accepted his authority so readily. He led the meeting and gave no sign of being even slightly disconcerted; he was calm and cheerful. The first thing he said was that it would be unforgivable to let occasional setbacks get us down–it would hardly halt the revolution if one of our meetings was routed.
He pointed out our mistakes, saying that we had only ourselves to blame. The workers' group from the Verkhny Isetsk plant, the strongest in Ekaterinburg, could have defended us, but it had arrived late due to our bad organisation. We would have to think about that. But his main point was that we had been badly lacking in preparation, determination and the ability to protect ourselves.
Sverdlov was unusually collected and controlled at that time and helped us to calm down and regain our self-assurance. He would not permit anyone to panic and encouraged us to learn from our temporary setbacks. Indeed, the black hundred attack on a peaceful demonstration opened many people's eyes and the discovery that the police and clergy had been in collusion with those thugs scandalised not only the workers but the public as a whole, including the intelligentsia and even members of the liberal bourgeoisie. There was a general desire to get to the bottom of what had happened, and our contacts with the ordinary people expanded as a result. The same thing was happening all over Russia.
Sverdlov never lost an opportunity to speak at mass meetings. He did so almost every day, sometimes several times a day. He spoke to workers, to the urban middle class, even to shop assistants, for he realised how attractive the idea of democracy was to the people at large. But the proletariat was, naturally, always his first consideration.
His speeches always emphasised the connection between the workers' daily struggle to improve their lot and the proletariat's political conflict. He would also explain the Party's political programme and eloquently urge his audience to prepare themselves for a decisive clash with the autocracy. He followed Lenin's teaching on the transition from bourgeois to socialist revolution.
Andrei seemed to become more popular with the workers every day; he was their favourite speaker at all big meetings and was expected to chair those gatherings too, which he did superbly well.
The Third Party Congress in 1905 called on the Party to start planning for an armed uprising. We in Ekaterinburg also helped. We obtained our weapons from the Izhevsk armaments factory and transported them so secretly that none fell into police hands.
The larger weapon consignments were entrusted to our bolder and more resourceful comrades. One of them once had to move a large wicker basket of arms which was too heavy for one person to lift. So he kitted himself out as a rich merchant and got a bridal costume for one of our girls. The 'happy couple' piled the arms into the capacious sort of trunk that would normally contain the dowry of a merchant's daughter, and then went to the station. They promised some porters a fine tip if they were careful with the trunk, saying that it was full of cut glass, silver and other valuable houseware. Our smiling comrades in all their finery followed the porters, arm in arm, and nobody ever suspected the kind of dowry that was in that splendid trunk.
We reorganised our armed patrols to good effect; before long they were making short work of all black hundred attempts to break up our meetings.
Throughout October and November 1905 Sverdlov largely confined his work to Ekaterinburg. The committee was also working hard, training workers and students as propagandists and agitators, forming strong patrols, encouraging trade union activity and organising a Soviet of Workers' Deputies. Party membership increased, our strength began to impress the workers and the best, the most politically conscious among them, joined us.
A network of study groups already existed in the town. The better ones were beginning to amalgamate. Under Sverdlov's guidance they became a Workers' University, sometimes also known as the Party School. It had 35 students drawn from the workers' study groups and the Ural Mining College, and a curriculum which covered the programme and tactics of the Party, political economy and the European labour movement, which was the speciality of Nikolai Baturin, one of the more indispensable teachers. Sverdlov gave lessons on the Party programme and tactics. The school offered propagandists a theoretical training that was firmly based on the realities of the contemporary political situation.
Workers and artisans began to show increasing interest in trade union activity, which had been rare in the Urals before 1905. The committee did all it could to encourage that interest and helped to form more unions. Sverdlov felt he could not tell the workers often enough how much better equipped they would be to fight against capitalism once they were unionised.
In October 1905 the clash with tsarism was reaching a peak, and it was then that Soviets of Workers' Deputies began to form in all parts of the country. Sverdlov founded the Ekaterinburg Soviet, calling a mass meeting and inviting all the factory workers to send representatives to the Soviet. He was its first leader.
THE END OF OUR FREEDOMS
In December 1905 a Bolshevik Party Conference gathered in Tammerfors, a small town in Finland. It was attended by representatives of Party groups in Russia and chaired by Lenin.
Sverdlov was to represent the Ural Bolsheviks. I remember his departure from Ekaterinburg. He had never before been able to participate in a nation-wide Bolshevik conference; this would be his first chance to realise his dream of meeting Lenin.
That meeting with Lenin filled his mind and monopolised his conversation in the days before he left–but he was to be disappointed, for a general railway strike delayed him and he arrived in Tammerfors after the conference had ended and most of the delegates, including Lenin, had left.
On his way back to the Urals, however, Sverdlov was in Moscow as the heroic proletarian uprising there drew to a close. He spoke at several mass meetings but could not stay long, as he was needed urgently in the Urals. One of the most remarkable stages in the Ural workers' fight against tsarism during the first Russian revolution had begun.
On 9 December 1905 the state cannon factories at Motovilikha, the largest in the Urals, went on strike, in response to the Perm Party committee's call for solidarity with the general political strike. The walk-out turned into a revolt and really frightened the local authorities. On 12 December Strizhevsky, the Governor of Perm Province, encoded this panic-stricken telegram to the Ministry of Internal Affairs:
'The workers of Motovilikha, prompted by the revolutionaries, have stopped work in support of the railway strike, have taken over the factory and are running it on their own initiative. Groups of youths from the factories are walking about with rifles; the populace is being urged to rise. The police are powerless...'
Order was to be restored at the factories at all costs; police and soldiers were sent out against the rebels, and for two days the workers fought nobly against an enemy that was many times stronger. Numerical superiority proved decisive, however, and the Motovilikha revolt drowned in blood. The workers' leaders, the flower of Motovilikha, either perished or were thrown into prison. Few escaped. The Motovilikha Party organisation was in ruins and the entire Perm Party network seemed to be doomed.
News of the rising reached Sverdlov while he was still in Moscow. The revolution was facing a crisis: the defeat of the December uprising in Moscow, the suppression of the Motovilikha revolt, the allout government attack on the working class, were all eloquent proof of this. Tsarism was marshalling all its forces to crush the revolution.
The Bolsheviks, under Lenin's leadership, considered these events calmly and concluded that the proletariat, in Russia and elsewhere, had learned a tremendous amount from the 1905 revolution, which had revealed the strong and weak points of the Russian working class. They agreed that all possible profit should be extracted from this experience to prepare for the coming power struggle. The workers and peasants, with no panic or confusion, slowly beat a fighting retreat before the brutal onslaught of the bourgeoisie and the autocracy. Sverdlov was entirely guided by Lenin's assessment, and dedicated all his will and energy to rebuilding the Ural Party organisation as quickly as he could. He had to decide how to help the new revolutionaries who emerged during the recent conflict to recover from the blow, how to transfer them as smoothly as possible to underground activity, how best to deploy our members in this new and more complex situation.
While still on his way back to us, Sverdlov was already deciding on a fundamental reform of the Ural Party organisations to suit the altered circumstances.
Meanwhile Ekaterinburg was in the final throes of its constitutional illusions. There were no more open meetings; the Bolsheviks could no longer speak in public. Although Sverdlov reported on the Moscow events at a broad-based Party gathering, this was the last of its kind for a number of years.
January 1906 saw the first indiscriminate searches and arrests in our town. But we were not caught by surprise.
The gendarmes and police intended to make their first attack against our headquarters, thus disabling the committee at one blow. They mustered in considerable force and one night they and the Cossacks descended on the Verkhny Isetsk settlement and surrounded the block which housed our commune. All movement in the nearby streets was halted. Despite the late hour a crowd of workers gathered behind the police lines and news of the raid was all over town by the next day.
Then there was an organised assault on our HQ; the gendarmerie's tactical geniuses had obviously been working hard. While one group was breaking down the gates, others were scrambling over the fence and throwing themselves into an all-out offensive. Absolutely no one could escape and the officer in charge was already rubbing his hands, anticipating his superior's compliments on the capture of the entire leadership of the Ekaterinburg Bolshevik Party. After all, it had long been common knowledge that we were in that house.
His fury knew no bounds when they searched the place and found not only none of us there but not even a single scrap of paper to give us away
Sverdlov's far-sightedness had triumphed. Immediately on his return from Moscow he had begun to transfer the organisation to a clandestine footing, beginning, of course, with its central nucleus. He advised that a watch be put on our headquarters; then we dispersed to several secret addresses. The once-hospitable house stood empty.
Our transformation into an underground organisation was made easier by the fact that none of us had really believed in the constitutional freedoms promised in the tsar's Manifesto. Sverdlov never tired of explaining that the final victory of the revolution was still distant and that we should be prepared to change direction many times before then, reacting to circumstances. If any of our comrades became overenthusiastic about those `freedoms', Sverdlov would remind him that the state system, the autocratic regime with its landowners and bureaucracy, still existed, that the secret service, the police, the prisons, had not disappeared and that we therefore had no right to abandon our underground apparatus. In this Sverdlov followed Lenin, who, even at the height of the 1905 revolution, had always insisted that the tsar's freedoms' were no cause for celebration and that the Party's underground organisation should be maintained intact.
Our local Party groups followed these directives, while holding their legal channels open and using them whenever possible. We still had our clandestine meeting places, and our system of contacts and passwords had been much improved, so that we were ready to go underground at any time.
By then Ekaterinburg had become the centre of Party activities in the Urals, sending out trained people to numerous local Party groups; Sverdlov had not been thinking exclusively of our town but of the area as a whole when he had put such emphasis on the training of organisers, propagandists and agitators, and when he had founded the Ekaterinburg Party School.
After he got back from Moscow he suggested to the local Party committee that they should redistribute trained Party workers in the area. The committee considered his plan closely and approved it. Our Bolsheviks, well-trained and well-informed, went out to other towns and factories, while the outlying groups sent Party members to us. This had a double advantage: it strengthened the local groups and also protected our revolutionaries against police persecution and arrest. Our comrades were going to places where they were not known to the gendarmes and their spies, and were thus able to function more confidently and under less strain. It was the most thorough re-- allocation of duties the Party in the Urals had ever experienced, yet our work continued throughout without a hitch.
In the meantime the committee was becoming increasingly worried about Sverdlov's continued presence in Ekaterinburg, where his position became more insecure with every passing day, which made his work more difficult. It was, after all, a fluid situation; our so-called constitutional freedoms were being revoked. During the revolution we had felt that it did not much matter if the secret service had a lead on some of us, but now that the forces of reaction were again gathering strength and any one of us might be arrested at any time, such a casual attitude had become inadmissible.
Every spy, every detective in town was out looking for Andrei, their zeal fed by the promise of reward. Moreover, he had spoken at so many meetings during the days of `freedom' and so many people knew him by sight that he could easily have been identified and arrested. We protected him as best we could, of course, and few people knew where he went, where he slept, or who his contacts were. Visitors saw him only if the strictest secrecy was observed: no addresses were ever given and no rendezvous points agreed in advance; his contacts were brought to him by particularly dependable comrades. All the same, we knew that he would be exposing himself to great risk if he stayed in Ekaterinburg any longer. The committee ultimately decided that it was time he left for Perm, where hardly anyone would recognise him–although everyone had heard of him–and where he would be safer. This move was essential to the future of our work. By 1906 Sverdlov was in effective control of all Party activities in the Urals, was continually on the move, visiting towns and remote factories, and generally directing all our work. For him unity was an issue of paramount importance and now unity was in sight. There were reliable Party members in every area of importance and it was time to form a regional Party organisation.
At that time Perm served as the administrative centre for almost the entire Urals and had the huge Motovilikha Factory nearby. Therefore it was the obvious place to establish the regional Party HQ.
So Sverdlov was to go to Perm–but how? He obtained a passport through Lev Gerts, the student, son of a local school mistress, but the problem was in getting him out of Ekaterinburg, where there was only one railway station, which, though little frequented, had its own police guard. Absolutely no one escaped this man's notice and he could certainly recognise Andrei, having often seen him during the days of `freedom'. One of our most artful comrades was given the job of somehow getting this gendarme out of the way or at least of distracting his attention while Andrei got on the train.
When the day came, the comrade in question turned up at the station looking like a lord. His beautiful fur coat with its beaver collar hung open, revealing an expensive suit, an impressive waistcoat and the gleam of a golden watch chain. We had borrowed it all from a rich liberal sympathiser, who had no idea, of course, of how we were going to use the outfit he had lent us.
Tapping the floor nonchalantly with his ivory-headed cane, the `gentleman' entered the first class waiting room in the grand manner and beckoned to the gendarme.
`I say, my man–get me a first class ticket for Perm and look sharp! You can keep the change.'
The gentleman looked so fine and behaved with such style, and the wallet from which he casually drew the money to pay for his ticket was so plump–the gendarme was most impressed. On top of that the generous gentleman gave a condescending nod towards the refreshments counter and treated him to a couple of glasses of brandy, tossing some silver coins at the attendant.
The guard, bubbling over with enthusiasm, galloped off to the ticket window, pushing at anyone in his way, and thrust the money over the 19 counter. Incidentally, the police, gendarmes and other guardians of public order were always happy to run errands like that for people with money.
Although he did his job with all dispatch, it took him five or ten minutes to get hold of the ticket, during which time the train pulled in and Andrei boarded it unnoticed, his face swathed in a scarf as though he had toothache. In all the confusion before the train left the 'gentleman' passed the ticket to Andrei through a third party, the flag went up, the train gave a whistle and Swerdlov left Ekaterinburg safely on a ticket bought for him by an over-zealous official.
I had been ordered to find a safe place for Andrei in Perm and had arrived there a few days before. At first I took a room in a hotel–a 'rooming house' as they were called in those days–feeling justified in taking such a risk because we both had false papers and were practically unknown in the town. We stayed there for a week or so. As a rule underground workers never did this, and it was but a poor second best, but there were no reliable clandestine flats in Perm and I could never have recommended a place that was, or could have been, under police surveillance.
We had lived together in Ekaterinburg, and continued to do so in Perm. We had never legalised our relationship and in fact it was hard for a revolutionary in tsarist Russia to have a legal wedding. Of course we were against a church wedding in principle–and moreover a man with false documents who took himself off to church and gave his real name would have been arrested immediately.
We certainly did not feel that it was a vital omission–our family was so much closer-knit than many that were bolstered by all the formalities. The `irregularity' of our position only distressed us when we were later separated by the police and denied even the right of seeing each other.
The re-allocation of our Party duties meant that Sverdlov, in addition to directing Party activity in the Urals, had to revive the organisations in Perm and Motovilikha. My duties were confined to Perm.
As soon as he arrived in Perm Sverdlov began to rally the Bolshevik forces in Motovilikha, while also keeping an eye on Perm and on the Lysva, Chusovaya and Kizel factories. He was in control of the whole Urals organisation and under his supervision the preparations for the regional Party Conference made good headway.
The day after his arrival he walked to Motovilikha with Misha Turkin, a young factory worker and RSDLP member. Sverdlov called together five or six people there and directed each of them to re-establish his contact with members of the local Bolshevik organisations who had escaped arrest and to enlist new members from among those who had proved themselves during and after the Motovilikha rising.
A few days later there was a larger meeting, where Sverdlov announced that a strong local underground organisation was to be formed. He drafted a plan then and there, describing the structure he had in mind and suggesting a suitable system of communications between members.
There followed several brief meetings with Party members and young people with revolutionary potential. He gave detailed instructions to each, making sure that they knew how to talk to the workers, what to look out for and what issues to raise. Then he sent them out to all parts of the factory.
After he had made contact with the Party activists in this way Sverdlov began to make himself known to the workers, visiting them at home, encouraging them, giving them confidence in themselves and in the coming victory of the proletariat.
The organisation quickly picked up. New young Party members took the place of those who had been arrested and comrades from other towns converged on the area. Sverdlov's arrival had re-invigorated the Motovilikha Bolsheviks.
Our work in Perm was proceeding with equal success. Sverdlov supervised the Perm committee, keeping an eye on every aspect of its day-to-day activities. He formed a reliable core of staunch Bolsheviks there too and built up a viable underground organisation. In the spring of 1906 we set up a large underground press, with some 80 kilograms of type and a good stock of paper.
At last the tremendous efforts of Sverdlov and numerous others were rewarded–it was time to unify the Ural Bolshevik movement. In February 1906 the first Ural Regional Conference was convened–a monument to their powers of organisation.
About 25 RSDLP representatives attended–from Perm, Ekaterinburg, Nizhni Tagil, Ufa, Vyatka, Tyumen and elsewhere. I could not be there but I later heard from delegates that Sverdlov had, in effect, run the conference. He had tabled almost all the motions that were passed, motions based on Leninist principles and charged with a militant Bolshevik spirit, which had an immense effect on the local Party activities and served as guidelines for our agitators and propagandists. Even the subsequent years of reaction could not break the strong Bolshevik organisation that emerged from that conference.
A new RSDLP Regional Committee was elected, which, under Sverdlov's guidance and following Leninist precepts, was to devote its energies to preparing the people for a new revolutionary upsurge.
The Ural organisation was becoming increasingly vital to the Party as a whole. Indeed, when the First RSDLP Conference of Military and Combat Groups met in Finland in 1906, it used the funds of the Ural combat group, which were delivered by one of its members. The conference made considerable use of the experience of our combat group and of the rules of procedure agreed on in Perm and in the South Urals. At its close the Conference used money donated by the Ural Bolsheviks to publish its proceedings.
Our unremitting fight against the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks took up a great deal of our time and energy in those days. The influence of the SRs in the Urals had been undermined during the 1905 revolution but the Mensheviks were in a different position. In the autumn of 1905, when the revolutionary fervour was at its height, a number of them had often given their support to the Bolsheviks but it took only a few setbacks to make them panic. Hard on their leaders' heels they began to complain stridently that we should never have taken up arms. Discord and disorganisation were their entire contribution to our efforts; we disagreed with them on every fundamental issue.
At that time it was essential that the strength of the proletariat should not be dissipated; we had to totally discredit the Menshevik ideology and wrest away from them the few local workers who were still under their influence. Our efforts, of course, depended on unity of spirit within our own organisation.
But the Bolsheviks who had rallied around Sverdlov were so unanimous in their views, so firmly grounded in Leninist principles, that by the end of 1906 there was not one functioning Menshevik group in the Urals.
For example, we beat them thoroughly in April 1906, when we had to elect a Perm delegate to the Fourth RSDLP Congress. The hustings were held out of town at a mass meeting. Voting was by a show of hands.
There seemed no doubt that Sverdlov would be nominated but the Motovilikha workers protested against his candidature, pointing out that in the present situation there was a good chance that he would be arrested.
Everyone who had worked with him had great faith in his organisational talent; only recently they had seen him rebuild a viable Bolshevik organisation in the area under extremely difficult circumstances. The Motovilikha workers carried the day and even Sverdlov had to agree, much as he wanted to attend the Congress and meet Lenin. So instead of Yakov Sverdlov they elected Yakovlev as their delegate–and I was Yakovlev.
It was obviously impossible for the Congress to be held on home territory–we were, after all, living under tsarism–so it was convened in Stockholm.
It was not very easy to get there. I not only had to be continually on my guard against the secret police, who considered every Bolshevik fair game, but I also encountered all sorts of obstacles set up by the Mensheviks, who should themselves have had a hand in convening the Congress. And I could not decide what to take–I only possessed a simple cotton blouse, a cheap light coat and a head scarf. But my comrades outfitted me and I set off for my first rendezvous in Petersburg.
As he saw me off, Sverdlov repeated over and over again that they were counting on me to stick by Lenin, not to miss a word he said, to listen to everything and remember everything, because when I came back I would have a lot of questions to answer. He also warned me to keep a sharp eye on the Mensheviks and their tricks.
I got safely to Petersburg, but unpleasant things began to happen almost as soon as I arrived. It was a Menshevik-held rendezvous, and they would stoop to anything to assure themselves a majority at the Congress. I was met by a rather nasty person who kept tugging at his sparse gingery beard and spitting. On hearing that I was a Bolshevik, he announced that I could not go to the Congress with full discretionary powers and an effective vote; if I chose to attend, it would be with an advisory vote.
I made it quite clear that this was not so and decided not to move until I was assured of this by the Perm Bolsheviks who had elected me.
The answer was quick in coming and the Menshevik then had no choice but to tell me where the next rendezvous point was. It was in Helsingfors, and the Party name of my contact there was `Devil'.
This `Devil' turned out to be a wonderful comrade and a charming person, a firm follower of Lenin's line. He made me very welcome and advised me to stay until some more people arrived, so that I would not have to go on alone. A small group of delegates gathered within the next couple of days.
We were deep in conversation as soon as we boarded the boat for Sweden, and before long it emerged that apart from a woman called Sablina we were all novices–none of us had been abroad before. Possibly because she was more experienced–or, more likely because she was so charming–Sablina became the leader of our little group almost immediately. Her knowledge about Party affairs was staggering; she knew literally everything that was going on in every local organisation. I myself was amazed by how knowledgeable she was on the state of affairs in the Urals, by the inside information she obviously drew on when asking about our Regional Conference and about Comrade Andrei. I simply could not resist finding out, when we were quite alone, how she had got all those details.
'But, Comrade Olga, aren't you Klavdiya Novgorodtseva?' she asked with a smile.
I was completely taken aback, since I had told no one, not even our Devil, my real name.
Sablina continued: 'l think it's time I introduced myself. My name's Nadezhda Krupskaya.'
That brought everything into focus–this was Lenin's wife, companion, helpmate, the object of Sverdlov's high esteem, whose letters had guided our work like beacons. That meeting was the beginning of a very long friendship between us.
I learned from our talk that both she and Lenin knew about Sverdlov's activities in our area and followed them with interest, discovering what they could from people who had met him in the Volga region or in the Urals.
The time seemed to fly on that short journey to Stockholm. We had just missed the opening of the Congress; it was in progress when we arrived. It was there, in Sweden, that I finally saw Lenin for the first time.
It was a complex situation, for the Menshevik delegates were in the majority and we had some difficult moments with them. Almost every evening, after the close of the day's business, the Bolshevik delegates would gather at some quiet little restaurant. Lenin would come, there would be a keen exchange of opinions and the next day's plan of campaign would be agreed. There was nothing official about those gatherings–the conversation was lively and relaxed. In the centre of it all was Lenin, giving every speaker his full attention, tossing off pertinent rejoinders, giving sound advice, clearing up the most involved questions.
When our discussions were over Lenin would eagerly encourage Sergei Gusev, the Moscow delegate, to sing something. Gusev would begin, others would join in, and those irrepressible songs of Russia and the revolution would ring out for hours.
One thing was patently obvious: Lenin, who was so unaffected and sensitive towards people he felt an affinity with, could be implacable and merciless in like measure towards the opportunists, the traitors to the revolution. He tore the effusive Menshevik phrasemongering to shreds; their leaders often seemed to be in complete desarray during their bitter engagements with him.
As they held the majority of votes, the Mensheviks introduced motions on every important issue but we Bolsheviks had already decided to ignore them; we would take our lead only from Lenin. I explained this to the committee on my return to Perm.
Of course, Sverdlov and the others completely approved. They called a meeting, fairly broad-based for those days, where I reported on the Congress. I concentrated on explaining the resolutions that Lenin had put forward, showing that I thought they should be viewed as Party directives, and subjected the Menshevik motions to the sharpest possible critique.
Sverdlov followed me on to the rostrum; he confined his talk exclusively to the practical conclusions to be drawn from Lenin's line at the Conference, and the effect that it would necessarily have on our activities in the future.
The overwhelming majority of those present agreed with us and the Perm organisation, along with its committee, remained firmly Bolshevik and Leninist, despite the Menshevik stance of the Fourth RSDLP Congress.
THE HUNT IS ON
It took the police a very long time to track Sverdlov down, although they were looking for him with undiminished eagerness and the price on his head was a great incentive for their spy network. The places where he met his contacts and where he held meetings were kept such a close secret that not even the Perm committee ever knew where he was going.
Our meetings were also carefully guarded. When Andrei spoke to the workers, they would gather close round him, not allowing the police to get near. Afterwords they would hide him in the crowd, give him a change of clothes and remove him to somewhere safe.
The secret police were mad with frustration. This criminal, this revolutionary known throughout the Urals, this Andrei was going about his business literally under their noses. Their informers were constantly sending in reports that Andrei had appeared to give a speech at this factory or that but they never got there in time to arrest him.
Telegrams flew out of Perm in all directions, even going as far as the Volga. The provincial police administration were in a panic, were demanding his arrest, but time went on and he was still at large.
It would be hard even to summarize Sverdlov's travels in the spring and summer of 1906. One day he would be chairing a Party committee meeting in Perm and the next, it seemed, he was in Ekaterinburg. By the time the police got on to his trail, he was in Ufa. They sent a telegram to Ufa–and he was back in Perm.
He would turn up in Tirlyan, Alapaevsk, Sysert, Kushva, Nizhnyaya Tura... He would hold instructional sessions for the local Bolsheviks, lead meetings, chair committees, speak to the workers.... And meanwhile the secret police were vainly rushing from one end of the Urals to the other.
One day he went to a large gathering of workers at the Rezhevsk plant. Andrei was to speak by the pond; police look-outs encircled the place. They did not dare to arrest him then and there in front of the workers, but calculated that it would be easier when the crowd began to disperse. They waited for two hours, the meeting ended, but no one was there. By then Sverdlov was far away–some friends had rowed him across the pond during the meeting to where some horses were hidden.
There was an underground Party meeting near Nizhni Tagil, by the River Vyika. The writer, A. P. Bondin, who was present, remembered how silence fell when Andrei began to speak. His eyes, profound and wise behind his glasses, seemed to rivet the attention of his listeners. His measured speech was easy on the ear. and so persuasive...
'Sverdlov spoke about the clash with capitalism, about ways of nationalising agriculture through revolution, about arming the workers, about the merciless battle against traitors and informers.''
But that was one of Andrei's last speeches in the Urals before the fall of tsarism.
Every day it became more difficult to work under cover. The secret police were sending even more informers out to join our ranks and demanding an extra effort from the established ones. One of them actually wormed his way into the Perm committee. His name was Yakov Votinov and he held a particularly trusted position, being in charge of our cache of weapons.
In April an entire propagandist group was arrested along with its leader, Sasha Sokolov. Summaries of the discussions that had taken place, some underground literature and copies of the Party programme were confiscated. The committee realised from the subsequent searches and the questioning that the prisoners underwent, details of which filtered out to us, that this had not been a chance arrest–it bore the mark of an experienced informer.
Sverdlov became even more circumspect. He never spent two nights in the same place and tried not to go out during the day. He continued to travel, taking even greater precautions than before. But, though he could slip through the spy network, it was more difficult to protect himself against an informer who was working alongside him, pretending to be an ally and a comrade.
On 10 June 1906 Sverdlov returned to Perm after one of his trips. It had been decided that we would leave that night; we simply could not remain there any longer. A committee meeting had been arranged to re-allocate our duties among the others, to agree on who should be sent to other towns and who should be summoned to Perm.
Sverdlov and I had considerable difficulty in getting to the flat where the meeting was to be held. We had decided to go together but as soon as we went out we found ourselves followed by not one but several spies. By changing cabs a number of times and going through courtyards and alleys, we finally lost them; at the town boundaries we checked that our shadows really had gone.
'That doesn't look good,' Sverdlov said. 'l mean, they were after us all right, but they didn't get us ... it's very odd. Think about it–they were literally on our heels, but didn't touch us. I wonder what their game is.'
It seemed highly suspicious to me too. It was obvious that there was something unpleasant afoot; they surely had some reason for not arresting us. For some time we had been convinced that there was an informer on the committee; we even suspected who it was and had begun to check on him and exclude him from certain activities. Now it seemed clear that he had let the secret police know about our meeting in advance, but they no doubt wanted to know our plans, to hear Sverdlov's instructions to the committee and so had decided to let us hold our meeting and arrest us as we left.
Sverdlov summed it up: 'There's not much to discuss; we have no alternative. We can't throw it all up and clear off. We'll have to carry on and get away as quickly as we can, try to outrun them. A huge risk, I know, but there's nothing else for it.'
We got to the meeting place without further complications; there did not seem to be any spies around the house. Evidently, if the police knew about our arrangements, they had posted their lookouts at a distance, so as not to alarm us prematurely.
Our comrades had already assembled, and Sverdlov began the meeting without wasting any time. All the issues were quickly decided; Sverdlov, calm and unruffled as ever, told everyone exactly what he expected of them.
At the end he advised them to wait for five or ten minutes after we had gone and then to leave in ones and twos as usual. I could see why: we had to make our way quickly to the Kama wharf where it would be easier to disappear, before our informer could get away from the meeting and let the police know that we had left.
But for once we underestimated our opponents. Andrei was considered such a fine catch that the beaters were out in force. They had even brought in spies from Ekaterinburg who knew his face.
Not quite half-way to the wharf we noticed that we were being followed. As we had feared, they had surrounded the entire block in case the informer did not reach them in time to let them know when we had left.
`We'll have to take a chance,' Sverdlov whispered to me. 'Down that alley, take the first cab we see.'
We turned down an alley where we could see a cab stand, but strangely enough the place suddenly began to fill with people. Some suspicious-looking types came towards us, we heard steps behind us; civilians and military alike were converging on this absolutely unremarkable little street. We could see police in the dim distance.
Then a cab appeared. Sverdlov calmly asked him to take us to the wharf, but he brusquely replied that he was not free. So did the next. We knew that it was all over. Now we had to keep calm, keep calm– we quickly said all that we had to say to each other, walking arm in arm and looking so unconcerned that the officer who was going to arrest us hesitated as he came near, and actually went by.
I thought that maybe we had got away with it, but a few steps further on a voice was raised behind us: 'Well come on, then, get them!' They swooped down on us from all sides, pushing Sverdlov into one cab and me into another. Some policemen jumped on to the footboards, there was a whistle, and off we went at full pelt.
The secret police could really congratulate themselves: Andrei, the elusive Andrei, was in their hands at last! But their joy was shortlived–they could arrest Sverdlov and throw hundreds of Bolsheviks into prison, but they could not reverse the course of history or strangle the powerful revolutionary movement that now had a hold on the entire Ural proletariat.
About the middle of 1906 the movement lost its impetus, while the forces of reaction grew even more savage. But the intensified official campaign against us only proved how firmly rooted the Ural Bolsheviks were, how sound and capable their core–the core that Sverdlov, on the orders of the Central Committee, had created and fostered.
- 1Klavdiya Timofeevna Sverdlova (nee Novgorodtseva) was Sverdlov's wife, companion and comrade. Andrei Sverdlov, their son, recorded her memoirs and supervised their publication during her lifetime. She died in I960. –Ed.
- 2The RSDLP (Russian Social-Democratic and Labour Party) was renamed in 1918, after the Great October Socialist Revolution, becoming the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks)–RCP(B). After the formation of the USSR the Party changed its name to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks)–CPSU(B). In 1952 it became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)– Ed.
- 3Serfdom was a complex, typically feudal juridical system, all-embracing and terribly inhumane. It ensured that the peasant was totally dependent on his lord and could not leave the land he was assigned to. He was thus held 'in servitude' on that land.– Ed.
- 4A peaceful mass demonstration before the Winter Palace was fired on by tsarist troops, leaving many dead and wounded.–Tr.
- 5The Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs) were a petty-bourgeois party founded in 1902. They wanted to abolish the traditional landowning system on the principle of 'land divided equally among those who work the land'. Their basic method was individual terrorism. After the defeat of the revolution, between 1905 and 1907, the majority of SRs adopted a bourgeois liberal position. In the bourgeois democratic revolution of February 1917 the SR leaders joined the bourgeois Provisional Government, where they pursued a policy inimical to the peasant movement, and stood behind the bourgeoisie and the landlords in their attacks on the working class, which at that time was preparing for the coming socialist revolution. After October 1917 the SRs were involved in armed resistance to Soviet power.– Ed.
- 6At the Second RSDLP Congress in 1903 the Leninist group obtained a majority of votes when elections to the central Party organs were held. Hence they became known as 'the Majority' (Bolsheviks). Their opportunist opponents were known as 'the Minority' (Mensheviks).– Ed.
Iskra (The Spark), the first underground Marxist newspaper in Russia, was founded by Lenin in 1900.– Ed.
- 8The black hundred consisted of armed bands of ruffians formed by the police and various monarchist groups between 1905 and 1907 to combat the revolutionary movement. Their members were drawn from the petty bourgeoisie, tramps, criminals, and other reactionary elements.– Ed.