State Security

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

“Red terror cannot, in principle, be distinguished from armed insurrection,” wrote Trotsky in 1920 implying that the suppression of “counter-revolutionaries” grew inextricably from the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in October 1917. The primary instrument of “Red terror” was the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, commonly known as the Cheka after the initial letters of its abbreviated Russian title. It was established by a decree of Sovnarkom on December 7, 1917, effectively assuming the responsibilities that the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet had performed up to that point. The Cheka was the precursor of a succession of formidable Soviet secret police organizations that included the GPU (1922-23), the OGPU (1923-34), the NKVD (1934-43), the MGB (1943-54), and the KGB.

The Cheka was headed by Feliks Dzerzhinskii, a Polish Bolshevik who devoted himself unstintingly to building the organization. Initially comprised entirely of Bolsheviks, the Collegium of the Cheka was reorganized in early January 1918 to include several Left Socialist Revolutionaries who continued to serve even after the withdrawal of their fellow party members from Sovnarkom in March. Among them was Viacheslav Aleksandrovich, who was intimately involved in the brief Left SR uprising in July 1918 during which Dzerzhinskii was placed under arrest. Thereafter, Dzerzhinskii was loyally and ably assisted by Martyn Latsis and Iakov Peters (Latvians of farmer-laborer backgrounds), Jozef Unshlikht and Moisei Uritskii (both Jews), and the Russified Pole, Viacheslav Menzhinskii. All, with the exception of Uritskii, who fell to an assassin’s bullet in August 1918, and Menzhinskii, who succumbed to heart disease in 1934, were to be arrested and perish in Stalin’s purges of 1937-38.

With broad powers to investigate and nip in the bud counter-revolutionary plots, speculation and other serious crimes, the Cheka developed a justifiable reputation for ruthlessness. In September 1918, following Uritskii’s assassination and an attempt on Lenin’s life, Sovnarkom authorized the Cheka to step up its operations against counter-revolutionaries and class enemies. Reprisals were swift and extensive. In Petrograd alone, over five hundred executions were carried out. Official figures for 1918 of 6300 executions by the Cheka in twenty provinces are probably an understatement. Many thousands of others were incarcerated in political prisons and concentration camps. The “sword of the revolution” continued to be used unsparingly throughout and beyond the civil war. The disproportionate number of Jews and the presence of women in the Cheka fed anti-semitic and misogynist attitudes among the enemies of Bolshevism and the Soviet government.

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