In Russia, Getting to Know Uncle Yakov, the Red Sheep of the Family

By Craig Stoltz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Cover for me," my son Jordan whispers.

We are in Hall No. 19 of the Kshesinskaya Mansion in St. Petersburg, Russia, a faded beaux-arts pile built as a private home but seized in 1917 for use as headquarters of the nascent Bolshevik government. Today it is the Museum of Political History of Russia. Hall No. 19 was once the nerve center of the new regime. It features a desk lined with neat stacks of bundled documents, a wonderful old telephone, a small bookcase and, in the corner, a blood-red banner drooping between two wooden poles. Jordan intends to creep beyond the rope for a closer look.

I slyly return to the adjacent room to distract the drowsy museum attendant. I figure that asking a question in English will keep her tied up for a couple of minutes at least.

But suddenly an alarm's woo-woo shriek breaks the silence. The guard slowly pushes herself to her feet. By the time she reaches Hall No. 19, Jordan is back on the lawful side of the rope, his face bearing the internationally recognized look of feigned innocence. The babushka points to the motion sensor on the wall and scolds him in a Slavic flurry. We retreat peaceably.

So ends our closest Russian encounter with our great-great-great uncle Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov, the man who from this very room commanded the Central Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Party of Bolsheviks -- which is to say, ran the party that brought Communism to the country and launched the USSR. Jordan was hoping to sit in Uncle Yakov's chair and get a closer look at what was on his desk.

Jordan and I have traveled 5,000 miles for our long-planned visit to the Motherland. After learning about this Bolshevik Big Dog in our gene pool about a dozen years ago, we've adopted Uncle Yakov as an unlikely Red patriarch, regarding him with a distinctive, and perhaps characteristically Russian, mixture of family pride and remorse. Both of our sons have studied Russian in high school, and I have become proprietor of what is certainly the only collection in the world of Sverdlov memorabilia assembled entirely via eBay.

Vladimir Lenin's right-hand man, director of the Bolshevik Revolution, author of the Soviet constitution, legendary organizer of the peasantry and the party and (deep breath) . . . the guy who delivered the order for the brutal basement executions of the Romanov family in 1918, Uncle Yakov nonetheless remains fairly obscure in Soviet history. That is because he was lucky enough to die of Spanish influenza in 1919, thereby avoiding the fate of most Old Bolsheviks who were still around when Josef Stalin seized power. As it happens, their fate was not all that different from the Romanovs'.

But Jordan and I were not in Russia to revise Soviet history, rehabilitate Sverdlov's reputation or even conduct any serious research. We came to visit the country of our heritage and provide Jordan with an immersive language experience, perhaps helping him figure out whether to study Russian in college.

No English-speaking guides or bilingual teachers, no Bolshevik history experts, not even a Russian fixer to help us navigate a country notoriously hard on unassisted American travelers. We'd go it alone, father and son, following the trail of Uncle Yakov around today's Russia: the land of Putin, petroleum and urban sprawl, of mendacious oligarchs, an emerging free-enterprise proletariat and a remarkable abundance of stunning young women wearing boots with four-inch heels.

And, mixed in throughout, powerful echoes of a Soviet past.

Moscow is said to be one of the most expensive cities in the world. Though I can't verify that claim, I can say that after seeing hotels near Red Square going for $350 to $600 per night I decided to use a Russian travel agency that rents out small apartments.

Our flat was in the Kropotkinsky neighborhood, located, maddeningly, just beyond the edge of Moscow tourist maps. It was therefore nearly free of other tourists or English speakers, creating the perfect environment to stress-test three years of high school Russian. Jordan was able to ease us through the many small-shop transactions that provided breakfast and snacks: instant oatmeal of indeterminate flavor, small foil tubs of sweet frozen cream, bottles of the national soft drink, kvass. Actually, we bought only one bottle of kvass. It tastes like liquid pumpernickel.

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