Scenes from Lenin's red terror#

Excerpts from: Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924 (New York, Viking, 1997).

During its early stages of development the Cheka system was extremely decentralized: each local Cheka organization was a law unto itself. This made the Cheka Terror both random and susceptible to pressures from below. Virtually anyone could be arrested, and almost anything could be construed as 'counterrevolutionary' behaviour. The Cheka's own instructions listed private trading, drunkenness, and even being late for work as 'counter-revolutionary' conduct. But on this basis the whole of the population would have been in jail. Many of the early victims of the Red Terror had been arrested on the basis of no more than a single denunciation by some personal enemy. The Cheka in Omsk complained in April that of the 1,000 cases of 'counter-revolution' so far brought before it, more than 200 had had to be thrown out because the only evidence against the accused had been the hearsay of some person or group of people who, it later turned out, had a private grudge. Some of the less scrupulous Chekas did not let this stop them from securing a conviction. The Penza Department of Justice complained in April, for example, that its prisons were 'full of innocent people arrested by the Cheka on the basis of some false accusation by one person against another'. It was particularly common for someone in debt to denounce his creditor as a 'kulak usurer', and thus a 'counterrevolutionary'. It was one way to cancel your debts.


Many people foresaw that [Lenin's red] terror would result in a social holocaust in which not only the bourgeoisie but also many of the common people would be destroyed. Citing the words of the Anarchist sailor Zhelezniakov, that 'for the welfare of the Russian people even a million people could be killed', Gorky warned the readers of Novaia zhizn' on 17 January:

a million 'free citizens' could indeed be killed in our country. Even more could be killed. Why shouldn't they be killed? There are many people in Russia and plenty of murderers, but when it comes to prosecuting them, the regime of the People's Commissars encounters certain mysterious obstacles, as it apparently did in the investigation of the foul murder of Shingarev and Kokoshkin.* A wholesale extermination of those who think differently is an old and tested method of Russian governments, from Ivan the Terrible to Nicholas II... so why should Vladimir Lenin renounce such a simple method?

Steinberg, the Left SR Commissar for Justice, was another early critic of the Terror, although all his efforts to subordinate the Chekas to the courts proved to be in vain. When, in February, Steinberg first saw the Decree on 'The Socialist Fatherland in Danger!', with its order to shoot 'on the spot' all 'profiteers, hooligans and counter-revolutionaries', he immediately went to Lenin and protested: 'Then why do we bother with a Commissariat of Justice at all? Let's call it frankly the "Commissariat for Social Extermination" and be done with it!' Lenin's face lit up and he replied: 'Well put, that's exactly what it should be; but we can't say that.'


Since its establishment in November 1917, the Cheka had grown by leaps and bounds. When it moved into its first headquarters in Petrograd, the Cheka had a tiny staff. Dzerzhinsky, its chief, carried all its records in his briefcase. But by the end of March, when the government moved to Moscow and the Cheka occupied the infamous Lubianka building (formerly occupied by Lloyd's Insurance), it had a staff of more than 600, rising to 1,000 by June, not including the security troops. Provincial Chekas were slower to develop; but nearly all the provinces and most of the districts had a Cheka branch by September, when the order came down to unleash the Red Terror.

The Cheka was a state within a state. There was scarcely any aspect of Soviet life, from the struggle against counter-revolution to the issuing of dog licences, that it did not cover. From the start it worked outside the law. The Commissariat of Justice struggled in vain to subordinate it to the courts. The knock on the door in the middle of the night, interrogations and imprisonment without charge, torture and summary executions — these were the methods of the Cheka. In the words of one of its founders:

The Cheka is not an investigating commission, a court, or a tribunal. It is a fighting organ on the internal front of the civil war ... It does not judge, it strikes. It does not pardon, it destroys all who are caught on the other side of the barricade.


One of the most terrifying aspects of the Terror was its random nature. The knock on the door at midnight could come to almost anyone. The Bolsheviks justified the Terror as a civil war against the counter-revolution. But they never made clear who those 'counter-revolutionaries' were. Indeed, in so far as the Terror was driven by the regime's own paranoiac fear that it was surrounded by hostile enemies working together to overthrow it — in this view the Kaplan plot was all part and parcel of the SR and Menshevik opposition, the White Guard reaction, the Allied intervention, Savinkov's uprising in Yaroslavl'. The peasant uprisings and workers' strikes — virtually anyone could qualify as a 'counter-revolutionary'. In this sense the Terror was a war by the regime against the whole of society — a means of terrorizing it into submission. 'Terror', Engels wrote, 'is needless cruelties perpetrated by terrified men.'

A tour of the Cheka jails would reveal a vast array of different people. One former inmate of the Butyrka jail in Moscow recalls seeing politicians, ex-judges, merchants, traders, officers, prostitutes, children, priests, professors, students, poets, dissident workers and peasants — in short a cross-section of society. The Petrograd poetess Gippius wrote that 'there was literally not a single family that had not had someone seized, taken away, or disappear completely' as a result of the Red Terror, and for the circles in which she moved this is almost certainly true.

Many of the Cheka's victims were 'bourgeois hostages' rounded up without charge and held in readiness for summary execution in reprisal for some alleged counter-revolutionary act. Of course most of them were not 'bourgeois' at all. The round-ups were much too crude for that, sometimes consisting of no more than the random arrest of people on a stretch of street blocked off at each end by Cheka guards. People were arrested merely for being near the scene of a 'bourgeois provocation (e.g. a shooting or a crime); or as the relatives and known acquaintances of 'bourgeois' suspects. One old man was arrested because during a general raid the Cheka found on his person a photograph of a man in court uniform: it was the picture of a deceased relative taken in the 1870s. Many people were arrested because someone (and one was enough) had denounced them as 'bourgeois counter-revolutionaries'. Such denunciations often arose from petty squabbles and vendettas. Yakov Khoelson, a military inspector, was arrested in November, for example, when two people jumped ahead of him in the queue for the Moscow Opera. They shouted 'provocation!' and complained to the doorman that Khoelson and two others had jumped the queue. The Cheka was called and Khoelson was arrested. Nikolai Kochargin, a petty official, was arrested in the same month after a dispute with a friend at work who had repaid him a loan in forged coupons. Kochargin went to the Cheka to complain — only to find himself arrested the next day when his debtor denounced him as a trader in forged coupons


Conditions in the Cheka prisons were generally much worse than in any tsarist jail. A government inspection of the Moscow Taganka jail in October 1918, for example, found overcrowded cells, no water, grossly inadequate rations and heating, and sewage dumped in the courtyard. Nearly half the 1,500 inmates were chronically sick, 10 per cent of them with typhus. Corpses were found in the cells. The Peter and Paul Fortress, that great symbol of the tsarist prison state, was now an even more forbidding place. The Menshevik Dan, who had been imprisoned there in 1896, found himself once again behind its bars in the spring of 1921. Whereas before there had been one man to a cell, there were now two or three; and women were imprisoned there for the first time. Dan was held with hundreds of other prisoners in the basement, where the food stores had been previously kept. Four men shared each tiny cell. The walls 'dripped with damp', there was no light and the prisoners, fed only once a day, were never allowed out for exercise. Compared to this the old prison regime in the fortress had been like a holiday camp. Most of its inmates before 1917 had been allowed to receive food and cigarettes, clothing, books and letters from their relatives.


Many of the Cheka's most notorious techniques had been borrowed from the tsarist police. The use of provocateurs, stool-pigeons and methods of torture to extract confessions and denunciations came straight out of the Okhrana's book. This was hardly surprising — and not just because, in Flaubert's words, 'in every revolutionary there is hidden a gendarme'. The Bolsheviks had sat in tsarist jails for years. Literally they had learned the system from the inside. And they now applied it with a vengeance. Dzerzhinsky had spent half his adult life in tsarist prisons and labour camps before he became head of the Cheka. It was not surprising if he set out to inflict on his victims the same cruelty he had suffered in those years. Hatred and indifference to human suffering were to varying degrees ingrained in the minds of all the Bolshevik leaders — and this was no doubt in part a legacy of their prison years. The ingenuity of the Cheka's torture methods was matched only by the Spanish Inquisition. Each local Cheka had its own speciality. In Kharkov they went in for the 'glove trick' — burning the victim's hands in boiling water until the blistered skin could be peeled off: this left the victims with raw and bleeding hands and their torturers with 'human gloves'. The Tsaritsyn Cheka sawed its victims' bones in half. In Voronezh they rolled their naked victims in nail-studded barrels. In Armavir they crushed their skulls by tightening a leather strap with an iron bolt around their head. In Kiev they affixed a cage with rats to the victim's torso and heated it so that the enraged rats ate their way through the victim's guts in an effort to escape. In Odessa they chained their victims to planks and pushed them slowly into a furnace or a tank of boiling water. A favourite winter torture was to pour water on the naked victims until they became living ice statues. Many Chekas preferred psychological forms of torture. One had the victims led off to what they thought was their execution, only to find that a blank was fired at them. Another had the victims buried alive, or kept in a coffin with a corpse. Some Chekas forced their victims to watch their loved ones being tortured, raped or killed


Such was the brutalizing effect of this relentless violence that not a few Chekists ended up insane. Bukharin said that psychopathic disorders were an occupational hazard of the Chekist profession. Many Chekists hardened themselves to the killings by heavy drinking or drug abuse. For example, the notorious sadist Saenko, the Kharkov master of the 'glove trick', was a cocaine addict. To distance themselves from the violence the Chekists also developed a gangsterlike slang for the verb to kill: they talked of 'shooting partridges', of 'sealing' a victim, or giving him the natsokal (an onomatopoeia of the trigger action)

Under Lenin's regime — not Stalin's — the Cheka was to become a vast police state. It had its own leviathan infrastructure, from the house committees to the concentration camps, employing more than a quarter of a million people. These were the Bolshevik oprichniki, the detested police of Ivan the Terrible. During the civil war it was they who would secure the regime's survival on the so-called 'internal front'. Terror became an integral element of the Bolshevik system in the civil war. Nobody will ever know the exact number of people repressed and killed by the Cheka in these years. But it was certainly several hundred thousand, if one includes all those in its camps and prisons as well as those who were executed or killed by the Cheka's troops in the suppression of strikes and revolts. Although no one knew the precise figures, it is possible that more people were murdered by the Cheka than died in the battles of the civil war.

Excerpts from: George Leggett, The Cheka: Lenin's Political Police (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1981).

Certain Chekas specialised in particular lines of torment: The Kharkov Cheka went in for scalping and hand-flaying; some of the Voronezh Checka's victims were thrust naked into an internally nail-studded barrel and were rolled around in it; others had their forehead branded with a five pointed star, whilst members of the clergy were 'crowned' with barbed wire; the Poltava and Kremenchug Chekas specialised in impaling the clergy (eighteen monks were impaled on a single day); also in Kremenchug, rebelling peasants were buried alive; at Watering-hole victims were crucified or stoned to death, whilst at Tsaritsyn their bones were sawn through; the Cheka of Odessa put officers to death by chaining them to planks and then pushing them very slowly into furnaces, or else by immersion first in a tank of boiling water, then into the cold sea, and then again exposing them to extreme heat; at Armavir, the 'death wreath' was used to apply increasing constriction to victims' heads; in Orel and elsewhere water was poured on naked prisoners in the winter-bound streets until they became living statues of ice; in Kiev the living would be buried for half an hour in a coffin containing a decomposing body; also in Kiev, the imaginative Chinese Cheka detachment amused itself by putting a rat into an iron tube sealed with wire netting at one end, the other end being placed against the victim's body, and the tube heated until the maddened rat, in an effort to escape, gnawed its way into the prisoner's guts. Johnson, the negro executioner at the Odessa Cheka, achieved special notoriety: he sometimes skinned his victims before killing them; after Odessa fell to the Whites in August 1919, he was caught and lynched by an angry mob. Women executioners could be crueler than men: Vera Grebeniukova, known as 'Dora', a beautiful young girl who was a colonel's daughter and a Chekist's lover, was reputed to have shot 700 prisoners during her two-and-a-half months' service with the Odessa Cheka.

The Chekas did not spare women and children. There are accounts of women being tortured and raped before being shot, wives of prisoners were sometimes blackmailed into sexual submission to Chekists. There were many cases of children between the ages of 8 and 16 being imprisoned; some were executed. The Chekas were occasionally honest enough to admit that they practised torture: in February 1920, such an admission was made by the Saratov Provincial Cheka at a meeting of the Saratov Soviet, and appeared in the press.

Pub: Jan 09 2022 14:53 UTC
Edit: Jan 15 2022 12:24 UTC
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