(Moiseevich; party pseudonyms Andrei, Maks; 1885–1919), revolutionary and Soviet party figure. Born in Nizhnii Novrgorod to an artisan engraver who also owned a typographical and printing workshop, as a youth Iakov Sverdlov became a pharmacist’s apprentice and began to spread revolutionary propaganda among workers. He joined the Rossiiskaia Sotsial-Demokraticheskaia Rabochaia Partiia (Russian Social Democratic Workers Party; RSDRP) in 1901 and was arrested for participating in a demonstration against the expulsion of Maksim Gorky from Nizhnii Novgorod. Sverdlov worked as a professional revolutionary there as well as in Kostroma, Yaroslavl’, Kazan’, and other towns. When the RSDRP split, he joined the Bolsheviks.
After 1905, Sverdlov was a key figure in organizing the party’s branches in Ekaterinburg, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. In 1912, he was elected to the Central Committee and joined the editorial board of the party newspaper, Pravda. These years were also punctuated by periods of exile following arrests in 1906, 1909, 1910, 1912, and 1913.
After the February Revolution of 1917, Sverdlov returned to Petrograd. In the summer of that year, he became head of the Orgburo (the Organizational Bureau of the Central Committee) and chaired most of the sessions of the Sixth Bolshevik Party Congress. By this time, he was a central figure in the leadership of the party, including its military branch.
Sverdlov participated actively in preparations for the October Revolution, chairing the Central Committee sessions on 10–16 October, at which the decision to undertake an armed uprising was made. He was elected a member of the Military Revolutionary Center for directing the uprising. As a delegate to the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, he headed the Bolshevik faction. On 8 November 1917, at Lenin’s initiative, Sverdlov replaced Lev Kamenev as chairman of the Central Executive Committee while continuing to serve as secretary of the Central Committee. He also headed the commission entrusted with drafting the first constitution of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR).
After Lenin was wounded in an attempted assassination by Fannie Kaplan on 30 August 1918, Sverdlov chaired the meetings of the Central Committee. In September 1918, the Central Executive Committee resolved, at his suggestion, to introduce the Red Terror. He also participated in preparations for the First Congress of the Communist International in January 1919. That month he died of Spanish flu and was buried in the Kremlin wall.
As de facto head of the Soviet state, Sverdlov implemented Lenin’s policies without deviation. Whenever especially unpopular, or even illegal, decisions were made (such as Lenin’s personal decision to shoot the tsar and his family in July 1918), Lenin preferred that they be decreed by the Central Executive Committee over Sverdlov’s signature. A talented administrator, Sverdlov contributed a great deal to creating the Soviet state apparatus. He also wrote numerous publicity articles (see Sverdlov, Izbrannye proizvedeniia [Selected Works (Moscow, 1957–1960)], vols. 1–3). In his honor, from 1924 until 1991, Ekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk.
Edward Hallett Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917–1923, vols. 1–2 (London, 1950–1952); Viktor Alekseevich Pankratov, Iakov Sverdlov (Moscow, 1989); Klavdiia Timofeevna Sverdlova, Iakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov: Vospominaniia, 2nd ed. (Moscow, 1960).
Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson