Red Terror

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The Red Terror in Soviet Russia was the campaign of mass arrests and executions conducted by the Bolshevik government. In Soviet historiography, the Red Terror is described as officially announced on September 2, 1918, by Yakov Sverdlov and ended in about October 1918.

According to the Bolsheviks, the Red Terror was introduced in reply to White Terror. The stated purpose of this campaign was 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."

Whatever the theoretical reason, the campaign was initiated after the assassination of Cheka leader, Moisei Uritsky and the attempted assassination of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.

Later historians use the term to refer to the whole period of the Russian Civil War, initiating the use of terror as an important instrument of Soviet power. During this period the Gulag system came into existence. By the end of the Stalin regime, millions of Soviet citizens would be imprisoned or perish as a result.

Purpose of the Soviet Red Terror

Lenin had announced in advance that he would use terror to accomplish his revolutionary ends. In 1908 he had written of "real, nation-wide terror, which reinvigorates the country."[1] Marxism-Leninism, Lenin's revolutionary revision of Marx's class struggle, made clear that they were in an all-out war with the "forces of reaction."

Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev seemed to be advocating genocide when he declared in mid-September of 1918:

To overcome of our enemies we must have our own socialist militarism. We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia's population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.[2]

For Marxism-Leninism, the major evidence of guilt was social class rather than actual deeds. Martin Latsis, chief of the Ukrainian Cheka, explained in newspaper "Red Terror:"

Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words. Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror.[3]


The campaign of mass repressions was officially initiated as retribution for the assassination of Petrograd Cheka leader, Moisei Uritsky, and attempted assassination of Vladimir Lenin by Fanya Kaplan on August 30, 1918. While recovering from his wounds, Lenin instructed: "It is necessary—secretly and urgently to prepare the terror" [4] Even before the assassinations, Lenin was sending telegrams "to introduce mass terror" in Nizhny Novgorod in response to a suspected civilian uprising there, and "crush" landowners in Penza who protested, sometimes violently, to requisition of their grain by military detachments:[5]

Comrades!… You must make example of these people. (1) Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers. (2) Publish their names. (3) Seize all their grain. (4) Single out the hostages per my instructions in yesterday's telegram.

Five hundred "representatives of overthrown classes" were executed immediately by the Bolshevik communist government after the assassination of Uritsky.[6] The first official announcement of Red Terror, published in Izvestiya, "Appeal to the Working Class" on September 3, 1918, called for the workers to "crush the hydra of counterrevolution with massive terror! … anyone who dares to spread the slightest rumor against the Soviet regime will be arrested immediately and sent to concentration camp."[5] This was followed by the decree "On Red Terror," issued September 5, 1918, by the Cheka.

On October 15, Chekist Gleb Bokiy, summing up the officially ended Red Terror, reported that in Petrograd 800 alleged enemies had been shot and another 6,229 imprisoned.[4] Casualties in the first two months were between 10,000 and 15,000 based on lists of summarily executed people published in newspaper "Cheka Weekly" and other official press.

On March 16, 1919, all military detachments of the Cheka were combined in a single body, the Troops for the Internal Defense of the Republic which numbered 200,000 in 1921. These troops policed labor camps, ran the Gulag system, conducted requisitions of food, put down peasant rebellions, riots by workers, and mutinies in the Red Army, which was plagued by desertions.[5]

One of the main organizers of the Red Terror for the Bolshevik government was 2nd Grade Army Commissar Yan Karlovich Berzin (1889-1938), whose real name was Kyuzis Peteris. He took part in the October Revolution and afterwards worked in the central apparatus of the Cheka. During the Red Terror, Berzin initiated the system of taking and shooting hostages to stop desertions and other "acts of disloyalty and sabotage."[7] Chief of a special department of the Latvian Red Army (later the 15th Army), Berzin played a part in the suppression of the Russian sailors' mutiny at Kronstadt in March 1921. He particularly distinguished himself in the course of the pursuit, capture, and liquidation of captured sailors.[7]

Repressions against peasants

The Internal Troops of Cheka and the Red Army practiced the terror tactics of taking and executing numerous hostages, often in connection with desertions of forcefully mobilized peasants. It is believed that more than 3 million deserters escaped from the Red Army in 1919 and 1920. Around 500,000 deserters were arrested in 1919 and close to 800,000 in 1920 by Cheka troops and special divisions created to combat desertions.[5] Thousands of deserters were killed, and their families were often taken hostage. According to Lenin's instructions,

After the expiration of the seven-day deadline for deserters to turn themselves in, punishment must be increased for these incorrigible traitors to the cause of the people. Families and anyone found to be assisting them in any way whatsoever are to be considered as hostages and treated accordingly.[5]

In September 1918, only in twelve provinces of Russia, 48,735 deserters and 7,325 bandits were arrested, 1,826 were killed and 2,230 were executed. A typical report from a Cheka department stated:

Yaroslavl Province, June 23, 1919. The uprising of deserters in the Petropavlovskaya volost has been put down. The families of the deserters have been taken as hostages. When we started to shoot one person from each family, the Greens began to come out of the woods and surrender. Thirty-four deserters were shot as an example.[5]

During the suppression of the Tambov Rebellion, estimates suggest that around 100,000 peasant rebels and their families were imprisoned or deported and perhaps 15,000 executed.[8]

This campaign marked the beginning of the Gulag, and some scholars have estimated that 70,000 were imprisoned by September, 1921. Conditions in these camps led to high mortality rates, and there were "repeated massacres." The Cheka at the Kholmogory camp adopted the practice of drowning bound prisoners in the nearby Dvina river.[8] Occasionally, entire prisons were “emptied” of inmates via mass shootings prior to abandoning a town to White forces.[8]

Repressions against Russian industrial workers

On March 16, 1919, Cheka stormed the Putilov factory. More than 900 workers who went to a strike were arrested. More than 200 of them were executed without trial during the next few days. Numerous strikes took place in the spring of 1919 in cities of Tula, Orel, Tver, Ivanovo, and Astrakhan. The starving workers sought to obtain food rations matching those of Red Army soldiers. They also demanded the elimination of privileges for Communists, freedom of press, and free elections. All strikes were mercilessly suppressed by Cheka using arrests and executions.[5]</ref>

In the city of Astrakhan, the strikers and Red Army soldiers who joined them were loaded onto barges and then thrown by the hundreds into the Volga with stones around their necks. Between 2,000 and 4,000 were shot or drowned from 12 to 14 of March 1919. In addition, the repression also claimed the lives of some 600 to 1,000 bourgeoisie. Recently published archival documents indicate this was the largest massacre of workers by the Bolsheviks before the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion.[5]

However, strikes continued. On January 1920, Lenin sent a telegram to a city of Izhevsk telling that "I am surprised that ... you are not immediately executing large numbers of strikers for the crime of sabotage."[5] On 6 June 1920, female workers in Tula who refused to work on Sunday were arrested and sent to labor camps. The refusal to work during the weekend was claimed to be a "counter-revolutionary conspiracy fomented by Polish spies." The strikes were eventually stopped after a series of arrests, executions, and the taking of hostages.

Atrocities of the Red Terror

At these times, there were numerous reports that Cheka interrogators employed tortures of "scarcely believable barbarity." Allegedly, people were tied to planks and slowly fed into furnaces; the skin was peeled off victims' hands to produce "gloves"; naked people were rolled around in barrels studded with nails; "in Kiev, cages of rats were fixed to prisoners' bodies and heated until the rats gnawed their way into the victims' intestines."[9]

Executions took place in prison cellars or courtyards, or occasionally on the outskirts of town, during the Red Terror and Russian civil war. After the condemned were stripped of their clothing and other belongings, which were shared among the Cheka executioners, they were either machine-gunned in batches or dispatched individually with a revolver. Those killed in prison were usually shot in the back of the neck as they entered the execution cellar, which became littered with corpses and soaked with blood. Victims killed outside the town were conveyed bound and gagged by lorry to their place of execution, where they sometimes were made to dig their own graves.[10]

According to Edvard Radzinsky, "it became a common practice to take a husband hostage and wait for his wife to come and purchase his life with her body."[6] The Pyatigorsk Cheka organized a "day of Red Terror" to execute 300 people in one day. They ordered local Communist Party organizations to draw up execution lists. According to one of the Chekists, "this rather unsatisfactory method led to a great deal of private settling of old scores… In Kislovodsk, for lack of a better idea, it was decided to kill people who were in the hospital."[5]

Members of the clergy were subjected to particularly brutal abuse. According to documents cited by the late Alexander Yakovlev, then head of the Presidential Committee for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression, priests, monks and nuns were crucified, thrown into cauldrons of boiling tar, scalped, strangled, given Communion with melted lead and drowned in holes in the ice.[11] An estimated 3,000 were put to death in 1918 alone.[11]

Interpretations by historians

Some historians believe that Red Terror was necessary for Bolsheviks to stay in power because they had no popular support.[5][12] Bolsheviks received less than one quarter of the vote in elections for the Constituent Assembly held soon after the October Revolution.[13] Massive strikes by Russian workers were "mercilessly" suppressed during the Red Terror.

Robert Conquest concluded that "unprecedented terror must seem necessary to ideologically motivated attempts to transform society massively and speedily, against its natural possibilities."[13]

Richard Pipes said that despotism and violence were the intrinsic properties of every Communist regime in the world.[12] He also argued that Communist terror follows from Marxism teaching that considers human lives as expendable material for construction of the brighter future society. He cited Marx who once wrote that "The present generation resembles the Jews whom Moses led through the wilderness. It must not only conquer a new world, it must also perish in order to make a room for the people who are fit for a new world."[12]

Edvard Radzinsky noted that Joseph Stalin himself wrote a nota bene, "Terror is the quickest way to new society" beside the following passage in a book by Marx: "There is only one way to shorten and ease the convulsions of the old society and the bloody birth pangs of the new—revolutionary terror."[6]

Marxist Karl Kautsky recognized that the Red Terror represented a variety of terrorism, because it was indiscriminate, intended to frighten the civilian population, and included taking and executing hostages. He said: "Among the phenomena for which Bolshevism has been responsible, Terrorism, which begins with the abolition of every form of freedom of the Press, and ends in a system of wholesale execution, is certainly the most striking and the most repellent of all."[14]

Historical significance of the Red Terror

Initially referring to a period in September and October of 1918 during the Russian Civil War, many historians, beginning with Sergei Melgunov, apply this term to repressions for the whole period of the Civil War, 1918-1922.[15][5] The mass repressions were conducted without judicial process by the secret police, the Cheka,[6], together with elements of the Bolshevik military intelligence agency, the GRU.[7]

The term "Red Terror" came from French Revolution[16] and was used to describe the last six weeks of the "Reign of Terror," ending on July 28, 1794 (execution of Robespierre), to distinguish it from the subsequent period of the White Terror[17] (historically this period has been known as the Great Terror).

The Red Terror was significant as the first of numerous Communist terror campaigns which followed in Russia and many other countries.[18] It also unleashed Russian Civil War according to historian Richard Pipes [12]. Menshevik Julius Martov wrote about Red Terror:

The beast has licked hot human blood. The man-killing machine is brought into motion... But blood breeds blood… We witness the growth of the bitterness of the civil war, the growing bestiality of men engaged in it.[5]

The term Red Terror came to refer to other campaigns of violence carried out by communist or communist-affiliated groups. Often, such acts were carried out in response to (and/or followed by) similar measures taken by the anti-communist side in the conflict.

Examples of the usage of the term "Red Terrors" include

  • Red Terror (Hungary) The executions of 590 people accused of involvement in the counterrevolutionary coup against the Hungarian Soviet Republic on June 24, 1919.
  • Red Terror (Spain) during the Spanish Civil War.
  • Red Terror (Ethiopia) during Mengistu Haile Mariam's rule.
  • In China, Mao Zedong wrote: "Red terror ought to be our reply to these counter-revolutionaries. We must, especially in the war zones and in the border areas, deal immediately, swiftly with every kind of counter-revolutionary activity."[19]
  • The Nandigram violence in Nandigram, West Bengal in November 2007 was called "Red Terror" by critics of the actions by the local administration alluding at the Communist Party of India ruling in West Bengal.[20] The situation was described as one of "Red Terror" by media.[21]

See also


  1. Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (New York: Norton, 2000, ISBN 0393048187), 98.
  2. George Leggett, The Cheka: Lenin's Political Police (Oxford University Press, 1986, ISBN 0198228627), 114.
  3. Yevgenia Albats, The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia - Past, Present, and Future (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994, ISBN 0374527385).
  4. 4.0 4.1 Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West (Gardners Books, 2000, ISBN 0140284877), 34.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Panné, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stéphane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Harvard University Press, 1999, ISBN 0674076087).
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Edvard Radzinsky, Stalin: The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives (Anchor, 1997, ISBN 0385479549), 152-155.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Viktor Suvorov, Inside Soviet Military Intelligence (New York: Macmillan, 1984).
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Robert Gellately, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe (Knopf, 2007, ISBN 1400040051).
  9. The KGB in Europe, 38.
  10. George Leggett, The Cheka: Lenin's Political Police (Oxford University Press, 1986, ISBN 0198228627), 199.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia (Yale University Press, 2002, ISBN 0300087608).
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (2001, ISBN 0812968646), 39.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000, ISBN 0393048187), 101.
  14. Karl Kautsky, Terrorism and Communism, Chapter VIII, The Communists at Work, The Terror. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  15. Serge Petrovich Melgunov, Red Terror in Russia (Hyperion, 1975, ISBN 088355187X).
  16. Jan ten Brink, J. Hedeman (trans.), "Robespierre and the Red Terror." Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  17. Victorian Web, French Revolution Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  18. Andrew Christopher and Vasili Mitrokhin, The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (Basic Books, 2005, ISBN 0465003117).
  19. John K. Fairbank and Albert Feuerwerker (eds.), The Cambridge History of China (Cambridge University Press, 1986, ISBN 0521243386).
  20. BBC, BBC Article. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  21. Times of India, Red terror continues Nandigram's bylanes. Retrieved February 19, 2009.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Albats, Yevgenia. The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia - Past, Present, and Future. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. ISBN 0374527385
  • Andrew, Christopher, and Vasili Mitrokhin. The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West. Gardners Books, 2000. ISBN 0140284877
  • Conquest, Robert. Reflections on a Ravaged Century. New York: Norton, 2000. ISBN 0393048187
  • Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891–1924. Penguin, 1998. ISBN 014024364X
  • Gellately, Robert. Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. Knopf, 2007. ISBN 1400040051
  • Leggett, George. The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police. Oxford University Press, 1987, ISBN 0198228627
  • Melgounov, Sergey Petrovich. The Red Terror in Russia. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1975. ISBN 978-0883551875
  • Pipes, Richard. Communism: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2001. ISBN 0812968646
  • Radzinsky, Edvard. Stalin: The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives. Anchor, 1997. ISBN 0385479549
  • Suvurov, Viktor. Inside Soviet Military Intelligence. Macmillan, 1984. ISBN 0026155109
  • Fairbank, John K., and Albert Feuerwerker (eds.). The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge University Press, 1986. ISBN 0521243386
  • Werth, Nicolas, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Panne, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stephane Courtois. Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard University Press, 1999. ISBN 0674076087
  • Yakovlev, Alexander Nikolaevich. A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Yale University Press, 2002. ISBN 0300087608

External links

All links retrieved December 7, 2022.


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