The prominent French writer Louis Aragon called the life of Zinovy Peshkov “one of the most unusual biographies of our utterly senseless world.”
He wasn’t born Zinovy Peshkov; his original name was Yeshua Zalman Sverdlov. He was one of the several children of a Jewish engraver Moshe (Mikhail) Sverdlov, who lived with his family in a provincial Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. The 18-year-old son of Moshe Sverdlov became Zinovy Peshkov in 1902, when his neighbor, the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky (whose real name was Alexei Peshkov), adopted and baptized him. That was the only way for a talented youngster, who had been invited to join the Moscow Art Theater as an actor, to get the right to move to Moscow where Jews at the time were forbidden to live.
His father was furious. A man with fierce revolutionary convictions, Moshe Sverdlov wanted his children to become fighters for the happy future of the proletariat, not some egoistical and self-absorbed intellectuals. He shouted in fury that Yeshua had betrayed his father, his family, and the cause of the future Russian revolution. Consumed by unstoppable rage, the father has damned his son, and begged the omnipotent God to severely punish Yeshua for his unforgivable sins.
For the next several years, God probably didn’t listen attentively to Moshe Sverdlov’s fiery damnations. His son soon abandoned his dream to act, and instead decided to travel around the world. In 1904, Zinovy went to America, where he supported himself working as a construction worker. He tried to write, but his first novel was resolutely rejected by a publishing house. He decided to leave the United States. He went to Sweden, then to England, New Zealand, and Italy. He was amazed by the immense and colorful world that opened before his eyes. An insatiable curiosity and love for life pulled him from one country to the other.
Zinovy was in France when the First World War broke out. Without hesitation, he enlisted into La Legion Etrangere (The French Foreign Legion). In May, 1915, he was lying on the battlefield, severely wounded and totally unconscious. His comrades were so much convinced he was on the verge of dying that they even wanted to abandon him, but his commander, a young lieutenant named Charles de Gaulle, brought Zinovy to the hospital, hoping to save his life. Zinovy Peshkov survived, but his right arm was amputated. It looked like God, having probably heard Zinovy’s father’s damnation, has finally struck his unruly son.
Having spilled his blood for France, Zinovy Peshkov was granted French citizenship, promoted to the rank of major, received numerous military awards, and was sent to America on an important diplomatic mission. In the relatively short period between the two World Wars, Zinovy Peshkov served as a high-ranking military officer and a successful diplomat.
In the 1940th, during the World War II, he fought, along with his old friend and comrade-in-arms General Charles de Gaulle, against the Nazis in North Africa and Europe. At the end of the war, Zinovy Peshkov became Brigadier General, and then was sent to China (and, after the end of the war, to Japan) as Ambassador of the Republic of France.
The 1966 funeral of Brigadier General Zinovy Peshkov (Yeshua Zalman Sverdlov), a famous hero of the French Resistance, a diplomat and writer, turned into a huge demonstration, attended by thousands of grateful French citizens and dignitaries from around the world.
The old Moshe Sverdlov, were he alive, wouldn’t have been proud of Zynovy, despite his oldest son’s heroic biography. Instead, the father was immensely proud of his other son, Yakov (the younger brother of Zinovy), who as a prominent Bolshevik had devoted all his life to the cause of the so-called “proletarian revolution” in Russia.
Yakov Sverdlov was in his early thirties when he became the first Soviet de jure President – the Chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. A follower and close friend of Vladimir Lenin, Yakov Sverdlov had actively participated in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, had been repeatedly arrested, and spent many years in jails and exile.
Yakov Sverdlov played an important role in persuading the leading Bolsheviks to accept the criminal decision to close down the duly elected Constituent Assembly of the post-Tsarist Russia, and to sign the controversial Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that has resulted in huge losses of the Russian territory to Germany.
He, along with other revolutionary leaders, V. Lenin and L. Trotsky, was responsible for the decision to execute, without trial, Russian Emperor Nicolas II, his wife and children.
He was only 33 when he died of influenza during the worldwide flu pandemic. At his funeral, Vladimir Lenin proclaimed:
“We have lowered into the grave the remains of a proletarian leader who did more than anybody to organize the working class and to ensure victory. Millions of proletarians will repeat our words: ‘Long live the memories of Comrade Sverdlov!’ At his graveside we solemnly vow to fight still harder for the overthrow of capital and for the complete emancipation of the working people.”
Having died young, Yakov Sverdlov was lucky: had he not passed away in 1919, he would’ve probably been arrested, tortured and murdered by henchmen of Joseph Stalin during the “purges” of the 1930th, as have been most of the old Bolsheviks.
It is hard to imagine two more different destinies than the lives of the Sverdlov brothers. One has lived a long and honorable life full of heroic exploits – the life devoted to the cause of liberation of his beloved adopted country, France; another has spent his short life mostly underground and in jails, plotting a “proletarian revolution” that would ultimately result in innumerable tragedies in the lives of the people of Russia and its successor, the Soviet Union.
There are two stones erected over the graves of the Sverdlov brothers – one in Moscow, another, in Paris.
The first stone, standing next to the Kremlin wall, has these words inscribed on its surface:
Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov
1985 – 1919
Chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee
The other stone, at the cemetery Saint-Genevieve-des-Bois, near Paris, bears the simplest inscription:
Zinovy Peshkov – The Legionnaire
1984 – 1966