Almost a century ago, Ekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk and lived with the Bolshevik name for 67 years, until 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the city returned to its historical name. Few know that the capital of the Urals could have been called differently.
Today – 14th November – marks the 95th anniversary of the renaming of Ekaterinburg to Sverdlovsk. Ekaterinburg was founded on 18 November 1723 and named after the second wife of Peter the Great, who after his death became the Empress Catherine (Yekaterina) I (1684-1727). In 1924, however, Soviet newspapers condemned the Empress, and proposed alternative names for the city. So began the first renaming of Ekaterinburg.
A campaign was launched in early 1924, whereby a local newspaper came out with the headline “Rename the city of Ekaterinburg!”. Following this, propaganda was published explaining why Ekaterinburg was a bad name. The newspapers wrote derogatory comments about Empress Catherine I, referring to her as “a soldier’s wife under the Russian army”, “Menshikov’s laundress”, and an “illiterate, poor, depraved woman”.
At the same time, journalists offered alternative names. The very first option was Sverdlovsk, in honour of the revolutionary Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov (1885-1919), a Bolshevik party administrator and chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, and mastermind behind the murders of the Imperial Family.
The 1922 book by White Army general, Mikhail Diterikhs, ‘The Murder of the Tsar’s Family and members of the House of Romanov in the Urals’, sought to portray the murder of the Imperial Family as a Jewish plot against Russia. It referred to Sverdlov by his Jewish nickname “Yankel”. This book was based on an account by Nikolai Sokolov, special investigator for the Omsk regional court, whom Diterikhs assigned with the task of investigating the disappearance and murders of the Imperial Family while serving as regional governor under the White regime during the Russian Civil War.
Other names suggested included Red Urals, Leninburg, Uralgrad, or even Revanchburg – in honour of the execution of the last tsar, while, the newspapers also suggested Uralosverdlovsk, Andreigrad, and Krasnouralsk. But journalists in subsequent publications explained to residents why Sverdlovsk was the best name. Public discussions went on for nine months, and in October 1924 the Ekaterinburg City Council adopted a resolution on renaming the city Sverdlovsk. In mid-November, the document was signed at the CEC of the USSR, and the following year, in 1925, a monument to Yakov Sverdlov was established on Lenin Avenue.
Yakov Sverdlov was known in Ekaterinburg among the revolutionaries under the names “Comrade Mikhailovich” and “Comrade Andrei.” He spoke at lot at rallies, led the Bolsheviks, and even served a year in the Ekaterinburg Central on Repin Street. He was a member of the Central Committee of the party, chairman of the commission on the development of the first Constitution of the RSFSR. According to Yevgeny Burdenkov, a researcher at the Museum of the History of Ekaterinburg, Sverdlov transferred many of his people from the Urals to work in Moscow, and it was they who promoted the idea of renaming Ekaterinburg to Sverdlovsk as a sign of gratitude.
Sverdlov is commonly believed to have died of either typhus or most likely influenza, during the 1918 flu pandemic, after a political visit to Oryol. He is buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, in Moscow.
It is interesting to note that Sverdlovsk Oblast, the federal subject (an oblast) of Russia located in the Ural Federal District, in which the city of Ekaterinburg, serves as its administrative center still retains its Bolshevik name. In January 2019, Russian state deputies again raised the issue of renaming Sverdlovsk Oblast, however, the issue remains unresolved.
© Paul Gilbert. 14 November 2019