Tsarist Russia had secret police before, but Tsarist Russia was to be swept away to make room for the workers' paradise. However, setting up the most powerful, all-consuming state in history required unprecedented police action. On December 20, 1917, after seizing power in Russia, Vladimir Lenin created the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage—the Cheka, the Soviet Union’s secret police. The organization's name would change throughout the lifetime of the Soviet Union, but the terror inspired by the name “Cheka” would not.
The world rightly shudders to the think of the Nazi SS and its concentration camp terror, cruel medical experiments, and arbitrary imprisonments and executions. But this phenomenon had direct historical precedent in the Cheka. The Cheka was directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of executions, and indirectly responsible for millions of other deaths.
Its mission was “to punish and liquidate all attempts or actions connected with counter-revolution or sabotage, whatever their source, throughout Russia; to hand over for trial by a revolutionary tribunal all saboteurs and counter-revolutionaries, and to elaborate measures to combat them; and to carry out a preliminary investigation only in so far as was necessary for preventive purposes.”(1) The Council of People’s Commissars named Felix Dzerzhinsky as its chief.
Dzerzhinsky did not attempt to hide the essence of his group. In a newspaper interview he stated, “we represent organized terror—this must be said openly—a terror which is absolutely essential in the revolutionary period we are passing through.”(2)
This revolutionary period quickly saw the Cheka expand its already-terrifying powers. Where the law was vague, and it usually was, the Cheka stepped in with firm determination to implement the revolution at all costs and with Lenin’s full support. Though the new government outlawed capital punishment, a hated Tsarist tradition, the reality of the Cheka’s mission led the government to brush this ban aside.
Though initially the Revolutionary Tribunals were supposed to oversee the Cheka, Dzerzhinsky and his henchmen quickly began holding their own trials and executions. Its extraordinary powers met some resistance from party officials and the official machinery of the Soviet justice system, but Lenin’s enthusiastic support always allowed the Cheka to overstep its bounds and consider the new territory its new bounds, over and over.
The haze of the revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War brought many new communist organizations into existence, which the Cheka swallowed piece by piece. It soon became the primary instrument in the worker’s paradise for strike-breaking, censorship of the press, interference in elections, surveillance of the general citizenry, disruption of the Russian Orthodox Church, and ideological enforcement in the Red Army.
In 1919 the Main Directorate for Corrective Labor camps was established under the Cheka. Commonly known as the Gulag, this string of concentration camps swelled under the influence of politically unreliable “criminals” as well as ordinary criminals who would usually have been sent to a local jail. The conditions in these camps were similar to those in more famous concentration camps: insufficient food, forced labor, torture, twisted medical experimentation, and rampant disease. Life expectancy in the Gulag was notoriously low.
Soviet law required peasants to sell all their excess grain to the state at prices determined by the state. These payments being practically worthless, many peasants chose to keep it themselves or sell their grain at better prices to black marketeers, who then distributed it elsewhere with market-like mechanisms. Given that “class enemies” were often denied rations entirely, illegal means of acquiring food through these middlemen were the only option for many people. Lenin fought these “speculators” by having his Cheka execute them ruthlessly. After even this failed to transfer the desired amounts of grain to official Soviet stocks, the Cheka was ordered to confiscate the excess grain itself.
Entire villages were destroyed and many peasants were executed during this campaign. As they were opponents of these agricultural policies, they officially became enemies of the Revolution and could be slaughtered mercilessly. This in the name of protecting their class from exploitation.
Exact numbers are unknown, but estimates of those killed by the Russian famine of 1921 that resulted from this campaign range from three to ten million.
At the end of the Civil War, the Soviet government disbanded the Cheka. However, to safeguard the now firmly-established Revolution, a new agency was created with powers and a mandate almost exactly like the Cheka’s, and was substantially manned by Chekists, including its head, “Iron” Felix Dzerzhinsky. This new organization, the State Political Directory, continued terrorizing the Russian people, as did its successors.
Having one organization that seeks out, arrests, and punishes criminals—in addition to deciding what criminality is in the first place—is a recipe for disaster. However, the loaded term “disaster” implies that the results, mass tyranny and death, are undesirable. For the Soviet government and its Cheka, mass tyranny and death were exactly the goal. No amount of blood was too much to be shed in the name of the Communist Revolution.
(1) John Keep, The Russian Revolution: A Study in Mass Mobilization.
(2) Raphael Abramovitch, The Soviet Revolution, 1917-1939.