The Cheka (ЧК - чрезвычайная комиссия Chrezvychaynaya Komissiya, Russian pronunciation: [tɕɛ.ka]) was the first of a succession of Soviet state security organizations. It was created by decree on December 20, 1917, by Vladimir Lenin. After 1922, the Cheka underwent a series of reorganizations and had numerous successors until the creation of the KGB in 1954.
From its founding, the Cheka was an important military and security arm of the Bolshevik communist government. In 1921 the Troops for the Internal Defense of the Republic (a branch of the Cheka) numbered 200,000.
The Cheka is associated with the implementation of the policy of the Red Terror, a campaign of mass arrests and executions conducted by the Bolshevik government. The mass repressions were conducted without judicial process by the Cheka, together with elements of the Bolshevik military intelligence agency, the GRU. Introduced in reply to White Terror, the stated purpose of this campaign was to struggle with counter-revolutionaries considered to be enemies of the people. Many Russian communists openly proclaimed that Red Terror was needed for extermination of entire social groups or former "ruling classes."
The full name of the agency was The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Russian: Всероссийская чрезвычайная комиссия по борьбе с контрреволюцией и саботажем; Vserossijskaya Chrezvychajnaya Komissiya), but was commonly abbreviated to Cheka or VCheka. In 1918 its name was slightly altered, becoming the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Profiteering and Corruption.
A member of the Cheka was called a Chekist. Chekists of the post-October Revolution years wore leather jackets creating a fashion followed by Western communists; they are pictured in several films in this apparel. Despite name and organizational changes over time, Soviet secret policemen were commonly referred to as "Chekists" throughout the entire Soviet period. In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn recalls that zeks in the labor camps used "old Chekist" as "a mark of special esteem" for particularly experienced camp administrators. The term is still found in use in Russia today (for example, President Vladimir Putin has been referred to in the Russian media as a "Chekist" due to his career in the KGB.
The Cheka was created in December 1917, over a month after the October Revolution and the formation of the Bolshevik government and was subsequently led by an aristocrat turned communist, Felix Dzerzhinsky.. Its immediate precursor was the "commission for the struggle with counter-revolution," established on December 7 [O.S. November 21] 1917, by the Milrevkom (the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet) on the proposal of Dzerzhinsky. Its members were the Bolsheviks Skrypnik, Flerovski, Blagonravov, Galkin, and Trifonov.
The Cheka was established on December 20 [O.S. December 7] 1917, by a decision of the Sovnarkom, or Council of People's Commissars–the Soviet government. It was subordinated to the Sovnarkom and its functions were, "to liquidate counter-revolution and sabotage, to hand over counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs to the revolutionary tribunals, and to apply such measures of repression as 'confiscation, deprivation of ration cards, publication of lists of enemies of the people etc.'". The original members of the Vecheka were Peters, Ksenofontov, Averin, Ordzhonikidze, Peterson, Evseev, and Trifonov, but the next day Averin, Ordzhonikidze, and Trifonov were replaced by Fomin, Shchukin, Ilyin, and Chernov. A circular published on December 28 [O.S. December 15] 1917, gave the address of Vecheka's first headquarters as "Petrograd, Gorokhovaya 2, 4th floor".
Originally, the members of the Cheka were exclusively Bolshevik; however, in January 1918, left SRs also joined the organization The Left SRs were expelled or arrested later in 1918 following an attempted assassination of Lenin.
In 1922, the Cheka was transformed into the State Political Administration or GPU, a section of the NKVD of the RSFSR. With the creation of the USSR in December 1922, a unified organization was required to exercise control over state security throughout the new union. Thus, on November 15, 1923, the GPU left the Russian NKVD and transformed into the all-union Joint State Political Directorate, also translated as "All-Union State Political Administration." Its official name was "Ob'edinennoe Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie under the SNK of the USSR" (Объединённое государственное политическое управление при СНК СССР), or OGPU (ОГПУ).
The OGPU was responsible for the creation of the Gulag system. It also became the Soviet government's arm for the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Greek Catholics, the Latin Catholics, Islam and other religious organizations (with the exception of Judaism), an operation headed by Eugene Tuchkov. The OGPU was also the principal secret police agency responsible for the detection, arrest, and liquidation of anarchists and other dissident left-wing factions in the early Soviet Union.
There were numerous successor organizations during the Joseph Stalin party chairmanship. After his death in 1953, the final successor, the KGB (transliteration of "КГБ") is the Russian-language abbreviation for Комитет государственной безопасности (Committee for State Security) would be formed in 1954 and would continue until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Suppression of political opposition
At the direction of Lenin, the Cheka performed mass arrests, imprisonments, and executions of "enemies of the people." The Cheka targeted "class enemies" such as the bourgeoisie, and members of the clergy; the first organized mass repression began against the libertarian Socialists of Petrograd in April 1918.
However, within a month the Cheka had extended its repression to all political opponents of the communist government, including anarchists and others on the left. On May 1, 1918, a pitched battle took place in Moscow between the anarchists and the police. In response, the Cheka orchestrated a massive retaliatory campaign of repression, executions, and arrests against all opponents of the Bolshevik government that came to be known as Red Terror. The Red Terror, implemented by Dzerzhinsky on September 5, 1918, was vividly described by the Red Army journal Krasnaya Gazeta:
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 … let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie – more blood, as much as possible…
In an attack on 26 anarchist political centers, 40 anarchists were killed by Cheka forces, and 500 arrested and jailed. At the direction of Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the Cheka and Red Army state security forces (later renamed the OGPU), shot, arrested, imprisoned, and executed thousands of persons, regardless of whether or not they had actually planned rebellion against the communist government. Most of the survivors were later deported to Siberian labor camps.
An early Bolshevik Victor Serge described in his book Memoirs of a Revolutionary:
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 the Cheka, which made mass arrests of suspects, 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?"
The Cheka was also used against the armed anarchist Black Army of Nestor Makhno in Ukraine. After the Black Army had served its purpose in aiding the Red Army to stop the Whites under Gen. Anton Denikin, the Soviet communist government decided it must eliminate the anarchist forces, which threatened to arouse rural peasant support against the dictatorship of the proletariat. In May 1919, two Cheka agents sent to assassinate Nestor Makhno were caught and executed.
Tracking down and punishing deserters and their families
It is believed that more than three million deserters escaped from Red Army in 1919 and 1920. Around 500,000 deserters were arrested in 1919 and close to 800,000 in 1920 by troops of the dreaded 'Special Punitive Department' of the Cheka created to punish desertions. This force was used to forcefully repatriate deserters back into the Red Army, taking and shooting hostages to force compliance or to set an example. Throughout the course of the civil war, several thousand deserters were shot–a number comparable to that of belligerents during World War I.
In September 1918, according to "The Black Book of Communism" in only 12 provinces of Russia, 48,735 deserters and 7,325 "bandits" were arrested, 1,826 were killed and 2,230 were executed. The exact identity of these individuals is confused by the fact that the Soviet Bolshevik government used the term 'bandit' to cover ordinary criminals as well as armed and unarmed political opponents, such as the anarchists.
The Cheka later played a major role in the putting down the Kronstadt Rebellion by Soviet sailors in 1921.
Number of victims
Estimates on Cheka executions vary widely. The lowest figures are provided by Dzerzhinsky’s lieutenant Martyn Latsis, limited to RSFSR over the period 1918–1920:
- For the period 1918-July 1919, covering only 20 provinces of central Russia:
- 1918: 6,300; 1919 (up to July): 2,089; Total: 8,389
- For the whole period 1918-1919:
- 1918: 6,185; 1919: 3,456; Total: 9,641
- For the whole period 1918-1920:
- January-June 1918: 22; July-December 1918: more than 6,000; 1918-20: 12,733
Experts generally agree these semi-official figures are vastly understated.William H. Chamberlin, for example, claims: “it is simply impossible to believe that the Cheka only put to death 12,733 people in all of Russia up to the end of the civil war.” He provides the "reasonable and probably moderate" estimate of 50,000, while others provide estimates ranging up to 500,000. Several scholars put the number of executions at about 250,000. One difficulty is that the Cheka sometimes recorded the deaths of executed anarchists and other political dissidents as criminals, 'armed bandits', or 'armed gangsters'. Some believe it is possible more people were murdered by the Cheka than died in battle. Lenin himself seemed unfazed by the killings. On 14 May 1921, the Politburo, chaired by Lenin, passed a motion "broadening the rights of the [Cheka] in relation to the use of the [death penalty]."
The Cheka is reported to have practiced torture. Victims were reportedly skinned alive, scalped, "crowned" with barbed wire, impaled, crucified, hanged, stoned to death, tied to planks and pushed slowly into furnaces or tanks of boiling water, and rolled around naked in internally nail-studded barrels. Chekists reportedly poured water on naked prisoners in the winter-bound streets until they became living ice statues. Others reportedly beheaded their victims by twisting their necks until their heads could be torn off. The Chinese Cheka detachments stationed in Kiev reportedly would attach an iron tube to the torso of a bound victim and insert a rat into the other end which was then closed off with wire netting. The tube was then held over a flame until the rat began gnawing through the victim's guts in an effort to escape. Denikin’s investigation discovered corpses whose lungs, throats, and mouths had been packed with earth.
Women and children were also victims of Cheka terror. Women would sometimes be tortured and raped before being shot. Children between the ages of 8 and 16 were imprisoned and occasionally executed.
The Cheka policed labor camps, ran the Gulag system, conducted requisitions of food, liquidated political opponents (on both the right and the left), put down peasant rebellions, riots by workers, and mutinies in the Red Army, which was plagued by desertions
Their work was instrumental in the success of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War, through the policy of the Red Terror. As a consequence, the Cheka was responsible for a large number of civilian deaths.
The Cheka in popular culture
- The Cheka were popular staples in Soviet film and literature. This was partly due to a romanticization of the organization in the post-Stalin period, and also because they provided a useful action/detection template. Films featuring the Cheka include Osterns Miles of Fire (1957), Nikita Mikhalkov's At Home among Strangers (1974), and also Dead Season (1968) starring Donatas Banionis, and more recently Soviet Union film Chekist (1992).
- In Spain, during the Spanish Civil War, the detention and torture centers operated by the Communists were named checas after the Soviet organization.
- Russian Revolution of 1917
- Chronology of Soviet secret police agencies
- State Political Directorate
- People's Commissariat for State Security (Soviet Union)
- Ministry for State Security (Soviet Union)
- Lubyanka (KGB)
- Felix Dzerzhinsky
- Vyacheslav Menzhinsky
- Yakov Peters
- Józef Unszlicht
- Genrikh Yagoda
- Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria
- Russian Civil War
- Red terror
- Lenin's Hanging Order
- Great Purge
- John Laver. The Impact of Stalin's Leadership in the USSR, 1924-1941. 2008 (Nelson Thornes ISBN 978-0748782673), 3
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago II. 1974 (New York, NY: Harper Perennial. ISBN 006092103X), 537–538. quote: An old Chekist! Who has not heard these words, drawled with emphasis, as a mark of special esteem? If the zeks wish to distinguish a camp keeper from those who are inexperienced, inclined to fuss, and do not have a bulldog grip, they say: 'And the chief there is an o-o-old Chekist!' … 'An old Chekist'–what that means at the least is that he was well-regarded under Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria. He was useful to them all.
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- William Henry Chamberlain, The Russian Revolution: 1917-1921.(1935) (New York: Macmillan Co. 1957), 131
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- Avrich, Paul, Russian Anarchists and the Civil War, Russian Review 27 (3) (July 1968): 296-306.
- Carr, E. H. (1958) "The Origin and Status of the Cheka." Soviet Studies 10 (1): 1–11. ISSN 0038-5859 0038-5859
- Chamberlin, William H. (1935) 1987. The Russian Revolution 1917-1921. 2 vols. reprint ed. Princeton University, ISBN 0691008140.
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- Leggett, George (1986). The Cheka: Lenin's Political Police. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0198228627
- Lincoln, Bruce W. (1999) Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306809095
- Melgounov, Sergey Petrovich (1925) The Red Terror in Russia. reprint ed. Hyperion Press 1975. ISBN 088355187X.
- Overy, Richard (2004) The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia.New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393020304
- Rummel, Rudolph Joseph (1990) Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 1560008873
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