The Red Terror

In December, 1917, Felix Dzerzhinsky was appointed as Commissar for Internal Affairs and head of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka). As Dzerzhinsky later commented: "In the October Revolution, I was a member of the Military Revolutionary Committee, and then I was entrusted with the task of organizing the Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Sabotage and Counterrevolution I was appointed its Chairman, holding at the same time the post of Commissar for Internal Affairs."

Lenin and Leon Trotsky argued that unless internal opposition to the government was removed the White Army would win the Civil War. The Constituent Assembly was closed down and political parties such as the Cadets, Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries were banned. Strict censorship was also introduced with all anti-Bolshevik newspapers being closed down.

In March, 1918, Moisei Uritsky joined the Communist Secret Police (Cheka) and was appointed Commissar for Internal Affairs in the Northern Region. He was assassinated by Leonid Kannegisser, a young military cadet, on 17th August, 1918. Anatoli Lunacharsky commented: "They killed him. They struck us a truly well-aimed blow. They picked out one of the most gifted and powerful of their enemies, one of the most gifted and powerful champions of the working class."

On 30th August, 1918, Lenin spoke at a meeting in Moscow. Victor Serge later explained what happened: "Lenin arrived alone; no one escorted him and no one formed a reception party. When he came out, workers surrounded him for a moment a few paces from his car." As he left the building Kaplan tried to ask Lenin some questions about the way he was running the country. Just before he got into his car Lenin turned to answer the woman. Serge then explained what happened next: "It was at this moment Kaplan fired at him, three times, wounding him seriously in the neck and shoulder. Lenin was driven back to the Kremlin by his chauffeur, and just had the strength to walk upstairs in silence to the second floor: then he fell in pain. There was great anxiety for him: the wound in the neck could have proved extremely serious; for a while it was thought that he was dying."

The Red Terror
P. P. Baloyusov, painted a picture of Fanya Kaplan's attempt to kill Lenin.

Fanya Kaplan was soon captured and in a statement she made to Cheka that night, she explained that she had attempted to kill him because he had closed down the Constituent Assembly . In a statement to the police she confessed to trying to kill Lenin. "My name is Fanya Kaplan. Today I shot at Lenin. I did it on my own. I will not say whom I obtained my revolver. I will give no details. I had resolved to kill Lenin long ago. I consider him a traitor to the Revolution. I was exiled to Akatui for participating in an assassination attempt against a Tsarist official in Kiev. I spent 11 years at hard labour. After the Revolution, I was freed. I favoured the Constituent Assembly and am still for it."

Joseph Stalin, who was in Tsaritsyn at the time, sent a telegram to Yakov Sverdlov suggesting: "having learned about the wicked attempt of capitalist hirelings on the life of the greatest revolutionary, the tested leader and teacher of the proletariat, Comrade Lenin, answer this base attack from ambush with the organization of open and systematic mass terror against the bourgeoisie and its agents."

Leon Trotsky agreed and argued in My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (1930): "The Socialist-Revolutionaries had killed Volodarsky and Uritzky, had wounded Lenin seriously, and had made two attempts to blow up my train. We could not treat this lightly. Although we did not regard it from the idealistic point of view of our enemies, we appreciated the role of the individual in history. We could not close our eyes to the danger that threatened the revolution if we were to allow our enemies to shoot down, one by one, the whole leading group of our party."

The Bolsheviks newspaper, Krasnaya Gazeta , reported on 1st September, 1918: "We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard, and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will let loose the floodgates of that sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky, Zinovief and Volodarski, let there be floods of the blood of the bourgeois - more blood, as much as possible."

Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka, instigated the Red Terror. It is estimated that in the next few months 800 socialists were arrested and shot without trial. In the first year the official figure, almost certainly an underestimate, suggested 6,300 people were executed without trial.

© John Simkin, May 2013

Primary Sources

(1) Bolshevik newspaper, Krasnaya Gazeta, announcing the start of the Red Terror on 1st September, 1918.

We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard, and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will let loose the floodgates of that sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky, Zinovief and Volodarski, let there be floods of the blood of the bourgeois - more blood, as much as possible.

(2) Felix Dzerzhinsky, interviewed in Novaia Zhizn (14th July, 1918)

We stand for organized terror - this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. When confronted with evidence criminals in almost every case confess; and what argument can have greater weight than a criminal's own confession.

(3) An English teacher in a Moscow secondary school escaped from Russia during the Red Terror. When he arrived in London he (referred to as Mr. A.) was interviewed by the British Foreign Office (21st, January, 1919).

Executions still continue in the prisons, though the ordinary people do not hear about them. Often during the executions a regimental band plays lively tunes. The following account of an an execution was given by Mr. A. by a member of one of the bands. On one occasion he was playing in a band, and as usual all the people to be executed were brought to the edge of the grave. Their hands and feet were tied together so that they would fall forward into the grave. They were then shot through the neck by Lettish soldiers. When the last man had been shot the grave was closed up, and on this particular occasion the band-man saw the grave moving. Not being able to stand the sight of it, he fainted, whereupon the Bolsheviks seized him, saying that he was in sympathy with the prisoners. They were on the point of killing him, but other members of the band explained that he was really ill, and he was then let off.

(4) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)

Since the first massacres of Red prisoners by the Whites, the murders of Volodarsky and Uritsky and the attempt against Lenin (in the summer of 1918), the custom of arresting and, often, executing hostages had become generalized and legal. Already Cheka, which made mass arrests of suspects, the was tending to settle their fate independently, under formal control of the Party, but in reality without anybody's knowledge.

The Party endeavoured to head it with incorruptible men like the former convict Dzerzhinsky, a sincere idealist, ruthless but chivalrous, with the emaciated profile of an Inquisitor: tall forehead, bony nose, untidy goatee, and an expression of weariness and austerity. But the Party had few men of this stamp and many Chekas.

I believe that the formation of the Chekas was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918 when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads. All evidence indicates that revolutionary tribunals, functioning in the light of day and admitting the right of defence, would have attained the same efficiency with far less abuse and depravity. Was it necessary to revert to the procedures of the Inquisition?

By the beginning of 1919, the Chekas had little or no resistance against this psychological perversion and corruption. I know for a fact that Dzerzhinsky judged them to be "half-rotten", and saw no solution to the evil except in shooting the worst Chekists and abolishing the death-penalty as quickly as possible.

(5) Lord Kilmarnock, the British ambassador in Copenhagen, sent Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Secretary, reports of what was taking place in Russia. This report written on 3rd February, 1919, was based on information received by a Frenchman who had just escaped from the country.

Night after night the counter-revolutionaries held secret meetings to plot against the Bolsheviks, but never once was a serious attempt made to carry through the conspiracy. The starving condition of the people quite paralyzed their will-power.

Recently many of the Red Guards themselves were being shot on account of the crimes which they had committed. An effort was being made to carry out the principles of "communism" on a more ideal basis, and though there was no effective restraint on plundering and thieving on the part of the Red Guards, still it happened now that selfish thieves, i.e., thieves who stole and refused to share the booty with the other Guards, were shot by their comrades.

(6) The manager of a British owned company in Petrograd was interviewed by the British Foreign Office (13th February, 1919).

The political parties which have been most oppressed by the Bolsheviks are the Socialists, Social Democrats and Social Revolutionaries. Owing to bribery and corruption - those notorious evils of the old regime which are now multiplied under Bolshevism - capitalists were able to get their money from the banks and their securities from safe deposits, and managed to get away. On the other hand, many members of the Liberal and Socialist parties who have worked all the time for the revolution, have been arrested or shot by the Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks continue to hold power by a system of terrorism and tyranny that has never before been heard of. It has made the history of the French Reign of Terror, or the Spanish Inquisition, appear mild by comparison. People were arrested wholesale, not merely on individual orders on information received from spies, but literally wholesale - people arrested in the streets, theatres, cafes, every day in hundreds.

The climax was reached after the murder of Uritsky. Hundreds of people were arrested in various parts of the town, mostly officers, who were shot and thrown into the river, bound and thrown into the river, or bound, put into barges, and the barges sunk.

(7) Agnes Smedley, letter to Florence Lennon (December 1921)

Much that we read of Russia is imagination and desire only. And no person is safe from intrigues and the danger of prison. The prisons are jammed with anarchists and syndicalists who fought in the revolution. Emma Goldman and Berkman are out only because of their international reputations. And they are under house arrest; they expect to go to prison any day, and may be there now for all I know. Any Communist who excuses such things is a scoundrel and a blaggard. Yet they do excuse it - and defend it. If I'm not expelled or locked up or something, I'll raise a small-sized hell. Everybody calls everybody a spy, secretly, in Russia, and everybody is under surveillance. You never feel safe.

(8) Maxim Gorky, letter to Alexei Rykov (3rd July, 1922)

If the trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries will end with a death sentence, then this will be a premeditated murder, a foul murder. I beg of you to inform Leon Trotsky and the others that this is my contention. I hope this will not surprise you since I had told the Soviet authorities a thousand times that it is a senseless and criminal to decimate the ranks of our intelligentsia in our illiterate and lacking of culture country. I am convinced, that if the SR's should be executed the crime will result in a moral blockade of Russia by all of socialist Europe.

(9) Walter Duranty, I Write As I Please (1935)

The fear of the Cheka was so great those early days in Moscow that people made a detour rather than step on the sidewalk in front of its main building on Lubyanka Square.

With some difficulty I secured a copy of the pamphlet in question, which I think was written in the latter part of 1918 or early 1919. It explained in simple, lucid terms the principles by which the Red Terror was directed. The chief purpose, the writer said, was to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of the Revolution; therefore action must be ruthless and, above all, swift. The destruction of enemies without delay might often, by paralysing opposition, save many more lives later. Secrecy was also stressed, because that, too, was an element of terror. For this reason Cheka arrests almost always were made in the dead of night and the relatives and friends of arrested persons generally heard no more of them for weeks. Perhaps they would then be released; more commonly there would be a notification that clothing or food might be provided on a given date for Citizen So-and-so, who had been sentenced to a term of exile; sometimes a curt notice of execution.

The Terror, as such, no longer existed when I went to Moscow, although people still spoke in whispers of the night of the attempt on Lenin's life when 500 people were executed without trial in Moscow, not because they were guilty of complicity, but because they were former nobles, landlords, bankers or generals, and as such were "class enemies" whose "execution" was carried out as an example and warning. In the official history of the Russian Communist Party, written by Popof in 1931, the facts are bluntly stated. "The system of mass Red Terror proved a weapon of tremendous importance. It came down with all its severity upon the heads of the landlord and bourgeois counter-revolutionaries; on the White officers, big Tsarist officials, and the most prominent figures among the nobility, the clergy and the capitalists." Although I was not in Russia at the time of the Kirov assassination in 1934, I have
no reason to doubt that the executions which followed it were prompted by the same motives as in 1918; that is to say, that many of those shot were not implicated in the plot to assassinate Kirov, but were "hostile elements" whose elimination was meant to strike terror; it was not even an act of revenge, but a symbol and a warning.

© John Simkin, April 2013