Various Subjects

Ya.M. Sverdlov


Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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The death of Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov was one of those cruel, sly blows that fate so often delivers. As an unbending revolutionary, holding one of the most responsible positions in Soviet Russia, Sverdlov had every reason to expect a treacherous blow struck by a counter-revolutionary. But nobody expected that this man of unquenchable energy and will-power would fall victim to a week-long struggle with the exhausting disease for which helpless doctors have invented the epithet “Spanish’. [1]

Today, the day after this most grievous loss we have suffered, it is not possible to give a biography of the late fighter, or any even more or less complete characterisation of him. His biography will be related to us, phase by phase, by comrades who observed him closely, knew him well in the pre-revolutionary period, worked side by side with him in the underground, and shared imprisonment and exile with him. The life of this remarkable man, in all its details, must become the possession of every thinking Russian worker and peasant, and not of Russians alone. Here, I will only say that Comrade Sverdlov came from a family of working people and was himself a worker in his youth. He made his way to enlightenment and knowledge, and to the most responsible posts in the workers” movement and in Soviet Russia, through stubborn work and intense will-power. Whereas almost all the other comrades who are now carrying out very responsible work at the head of the Soviet country spent long years in emigration, lived in Europe, took part in its political struggles and enriched themselves from its experience, Comrade Sverdlov lived and worked, without a break, inside Russia, during the most oppressive years of counter-revolution. In this sense he was the most “rooted in the soil” of our leading executives. Just because he did not emigrate, his name, shrouded by the conditions of clandestine work, remained completely unknown to wide circles before the revolution. But as soon as the chains of Tsardom had been smashed and the workers” movement had swollen into a broad river, Sverdlov at once, naturally and without effort, rose to the top and was seen by all as one of the most valuable and solid figures in our revolution.

It can be said that he knew the Party, its organisation, its personnel, better than anyone else. All the threads were concentrated in his hands. He kept records of all the Party workers. When he was put at the head of the Central Executive Committee he became its irreplaceable leader. He steadily combined his work as Party organiser with work as leader of the supreme institution of Soviet Russia.

Sverdlov’s organisational abilities were truly unexampled. In particular he knew the military apparatus in all its many ramifications better than any of the executives in the War Department. In all cases when it was necessary to find new executives or to transfer old ones, we applied to one and the same address – over the Kremlin telephone, to Comrade Sverdlov. He would offer the name of an individual who, in nine cases out often, proved to be the best candidate, the one most suitable to the circumstances of the job. He did not need to rummage among papers and lists, or to make inquiries – he drew it all from his amazing memory as an organiser and leader. When, in the work of some department or other, a hitch, a blockage occurred, some internal conflict or clash with another department, the inevitable telephone call rang out in Comrade Sverdlov’s office. In a few words, Yakov Mikhailovich would sort out the situation and give his help. Having received the necessary shove, the machinery would start working again. Not many people saw this work being done. But it was Comrade Sverdlov’s principal work, which the Party and the Soviet power will now be able to perform only through the intense collective efforts of a number of persons.

But even that lesser part of Mikhailovich’s work which was visible to everyone was sufficient to make his name one of the most popular in the country. He was an excellent speaker – clear, calm, logical, with a powerful voice. That voice resounded with confidence and will-power. Confidence and will-power radiated from his whole person and his swarthy face. He was always true to himself. During the two years of the revolution, we have known both grave days of setbacks, partial defeats, and also days of great victories. Comrade Sverdlov always kept his spiritual balance, never getting intoxicated by successes or losing heart under the blows of defeat. I recall the July days of 1917, when the Party seemed to have been smashed. Lenin and Zinoviev were in hiding, frenzied White Terror reigned in the streets of Petrograd, the bourgeois press was depicting the Bolsheviks as an organisation of spies in the pay of the German Kaiser, and our press had been stifled. I recall the days of the October insurrection and the work of the Military Revolutionary Committee, in a little room on the second floor at Smolny. I recall the days when the Brest-Litovsk negotiations broke down – the German offensive, the fall of Dvinsk, Narva, Pskov ... The weeks and months of the White-Guard conspiracies, the Czechoslovak rising, the fall of the Volga towns, the murder of Uritsky, the attempt on Lenin’s life. Yakov Mikhaiovich always remained true to himself. In times of success this organiser consolidated victory, and in times of defeat he prepared for a comeback.

The gigantic work carried out by the Party in creating the Red Army, especially since August of last year, took place with his decisive participation. He mobilised Party workers, detached them from a variety of posts, finding them here, there and everywhere, and selected the right man for the right job – to him unquestionably belongs the lion’s share of merit for our military successes during the last six months.

Delegations of workers and peasants came to Moscow from all corners of our impoverished, exhausted, ruined country and knocked on Comrade Sverdlov’s door. This brought him again and again into touch with that soil from which he was cut off less than were others amongst us. By questioning delegates he checked on the work of the local authorities and the way in which Soviet legislation was being put into effect. Once more there would be telephone calls, now from Comrade Sverdlov’s office to various departments: Yakov Mikhailovich would propose a number of practical measures, make corrections to decrees which had been issued, or take the initiative in promoting new legislation.

A bourgeois newspaper gave a sort of description of Sverdby’s appearance – his dark, inward-concentrated face, his leather clothing – and ended with words of half-unwilling respect: “It is like this, probably, that monuments in the new proletarian style will look.”

Yes, Sverdlov, a man all of one piece, will find his eventual embodiment in art. The proletariat will construct from steel a monument to this leader made of steel.

March 17, 1919


1. Sverdlov fell victim to the pandemic of a type of influenza which spread across the world in 1918-1919 (allegedly starting in Spain – but now know to have originated in Kansas, US) and which is said to have caused more deaths than World War I.

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Last updated on: 27.12.2006