Yakov Mikhailovich Yurovsky was the eighth of ten children born to Mikhail Yurovsky, a glazier, and his wife Ester Moiseevna (1848–1919), a seamstress. He was born on 19 June [O.S. 7 June] 1878 in the Siberian city of Tomsk, Russia. The Yurovsky family were Jewish. The historian Helen Rappaport writes that the young Yurovsky studied the Talmud in his early youth, while the family seems to have later attempted to distance themselves from their Jewish roots; this may have been prompted by the prejudice toward Jews frequently exhibited in Russia at the time. Shortly before fully devoting himself to the cause of revolution, in the early twentieth century Yurovsky converted to Lutheranism.
A watchmaker by trade, he lived for a short time in the German Empire in 1904.
After returning to Russia during the Russian Revolution of 1905, he joined the Bolsheviks. Arrested several times over the years, he became a devoted Marxist.
He was a Chekist for a short period of time in 1917.
Execution of the Imperial Family
On the night of 16/17 July 1918, a squad of Bolshevik secret police (Cheka), led by Yurovsky, executed Russia's last Emperor, Nicholas II, along with his wife Alexandra, their four daughters–Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia–and son Alexei. Along with the family, four members of the imperial household (court physician Eugene Botkin, chambermaid Anna Demidova, cook Ivan Kharitonov and footman Alexei Trupp) were also killed. All were shot in a half-cellar room (measured to be 25 feet x 21 feet) of the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, a city in the Ural Mountains region, where they were being held prisoner. The firing squad comprised three local Bolsheviks and seven soldiers. It has been documented that the order to assassinate the Imperial family came from Yakov Sverdlov in Moscow and had been initiated by Lenin himself. It is also well documented that Yurovsky had visited the Bolshevik leadership in Moscow, and notably Sverdlov, only a few weeks before the killing took place.
To prevent the development of a personality cult of the former Imperial Family, the bodies were removed to the countryside, where they were initially thrown into an abandoned mineshaft. The following morning, when rumours spread in Yekaterinburg regarding the disposal site, Yurovsky removed the bodies and concealed them elsewhere. When the vehicle carrying the bodies broke down on the way to the next chosen site, he made new arrangements and buried most of the bodies in a sealed and concealed pit on Koptyaki Road, a since-abandoned cart track 12 miles north of Yekaterinburg.
During and after the Russian Civil War, Yurovsky worked as a head of local Cheka in Moscow, then member of Vyatka Cheka, head of Yekaterinburg Cheka (1919). In 1921, he worked in the Rabkrin and became Chief of the Gold Department of the Soviet State Treasury. Yurovsky achieved a solid reputation by combating corruption and theft. He also worked in management at the Polytechnical Museum starting in 1928 and became its director in 1930. He died in 1938 of a peptic ulcer.
Yurovsky was survived by a wife, two sons, and a daughter.
In 1920, a British officer who met Yurovsky recorded that he was remorseful over his role in the execution of the Romanovs.