After seizing the power, the Soviet government understood there were two great battlefronts to face the counter-revolution in the context of the Civil War. A “foreign front” in the military field, against the White Army and the imperialist troops. A conflict that reached 21 countries, with Czarist officials, international military advisors, white guards, Cossacks, and Kulaks[i]. Another “internal front,” within the Soviet Union, where spies, provocateur agents, foreign agents, and saboteurs attempted to mine the newly born Workers’ State.
By Américo Gomes.
The internal front lacked the working class, as over 380,000 workers had left the production to go to Civil War. The Putilov factory in Petrograd lost four-fifths of its skeleton staff.
Institutions were created to apply coercion, repression, violence, and terror to defend themselves. Trotsky was the main organizer of the Red Army. Felix Dzerzhinsky, also called Iron Felix, was in charge of setting up the Cheka,[ii] which had the mission to exterminate the counter-revolution agents and the bourgeoisie as a class within the State.
In Trotsky’s words, “But the revolution does require of the revolutionary class that it should attain its end by all methods at its disposal – if necessary, by an armed rising: if required, by terrorism. A revolutionary class which has conquered power with arms in its hands is bound to, and will, suppress, rifle in hand, all attempts to tear the power out of its hands.”[iii]
Brest-Litovsk divided waters
The Socialist Revolutionaries [SRs] left and Martov, along with the internationalist Mensheviks, supported the seizing of power by the Soviets, and the Bolsheviks called them to enter the government. Martov did not accept, but the SRs left did. They occupied posts in the Council of People’s Commissars, in the Army, and even in the political police: the Cheka.
However, they were against the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. They claimed that there was an agreement among Bolsheviks and Germans and that this was a policy against the world revolution. When it was signed, on March 3, 1918, the SRs broke with the government and went to armed struggle against the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
Fighting the coups
The allied imperialist countries did not accept the peace agreement nor for Russia to exit the war. Thus, they conspired against the government to overthrow it. The German Secret Service and the French Military Mission specifically, acted along with traditional right-wing organizations and the left-wing allies, like right-wing Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks. The German ambassador, Wilhelm von Mirbach,[iv] was in the center of the complots. They gathered arms and organized Junkers (Cadets), Cossacks, old officers of the Czarist army, and the bourgeois youth.
The first attempt to overthrow the government was the Kerensky-Krasnov uprising, in October 1917, supported by the “Junkers mutiny” in Petrograd. It was dismantled by the Red Guard of Petrograd, Moscow, and Kharkov, under the Antonov-Ovseenko command, supported by the sailors of Kronstadt and the Lethal Division of Yan Berzin. Kerensky run. Krasnov was imprisoned, set free after swearing “never again to take up arms against the people.”[v] After he escaped, he conspired again.
Repressing this uprising, Trotsky stated, “We maintain the Cadets as prisoners and hostages. If our men fall into enemy hands, they must know for every [dead] worker and soldier we will demand five Cadets… [we will be] unmerciful when defending the achievements of the revolution.”[vi]
“At this point, in the French Revolution, more honest men than Cadets were beheaded by Jacobins for opposing to the people”[vii]
The Civil War begins
In the same October, General Aleksei Kaledin organized the White army and begun the Civil War in Southeast Russia. Other armies and generals attacked on other fronts, supported by imperialist powers, the bourgeois Cadet party, and the “left”: the SRs right-wing and the Mensheviks. The Soviet government made the Cadet party illegal. Nevertheless, it attempted negotiations with the SRs and Mensheviks since the beginning. It was two years of war at the expense of ten million lives.
In territories occupied by the White Army, terror ruled. The first workers’ massacre took place three days after seizing the power when the Junkers opposed to revolution seized the Kremlin in Moscow.
In Finland, the White Army shot nearly 20,000 workers, among them women and children, and took over 70,000 prisoners in concentration camps. In these camps, almost 37,000 people were killed due to inhuman treatment. Of these, 16% were between 14 and 20 years old. Approximately, 20,000 children were left orphans.[viii] In Southeast Russia, Kornilov was decided to set fire to half the country to re-establish capitalism. When the Red Army retook Ekaterinodar, the capital of the region he commanded, they unburied his coffin, dragged his body to the main square and burnt his body in the trash.
The Denikin army was known for mass executions and pillage. In the small town of Fastov, in the Kiev region, it killed over 1,500 Jews, mostly elder, women and children.[ix] Winston Churchill warned, personally, that his anti-Semitism limited the English support to his troops. Meanwhile, he called Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George “Jews” due to the little support he received from them.
Admiral Kolchak, in Western Siberia, gave the order to shoot every Bolshevik found and their collaborators, even if they were women or children. After the coup d’état in the region, he also shot the SRs and the Mensheviks. Those who remained were imprisoned and exiled.
The Czechoslovak Legion beheaded hundreds of communists wherever it passed through, in Siberia, the Volga, and the Urals. In Kazan, guided by informants, the Czech hunted down red soldiers and beheaded them.
Even the “democratic bourgeois” government of the SRs and Mensheviks, in the Volga region, massacred the Bolsheviks, and the cities remained in state of siege. In Simbirsk, they led a lynching epidemic.
The Mensheviks aligned with the bourgeoisie and imperialism against Soviet power in many places. In 1918, they constituted the Democratic Republic of Georgia in agreement with the German Empire, and after its fall, also with Great Britain, which protected them in exchange for arms, transportation, and provision for the White Army, for their territory. In it, they killed Bolsheviks and carried out ethnic atrocities against minority peoples, specifically the Armenian.
To Lenin, “The workers and peasants answered to the white terror of the enemies of the workers’ and peasants’ government with massive red terror against the bourgeoisie and its agents.”[x]
Anarchists against the Revolution
Serge observes, “The insignificance of the influence of anarchists among working masses is verified by the small number of seats they occupied in the Soviets and the Congress of Soviets, where, as a rule, never added more than half a dozen.”[xi] However, between the months of April and May of 1918, there was an actual battle in Moscow under the slogan of the need of the “Third Revolution.” Hundreds of members came armed. Known monarchs joined them, as it usually happened when the Society for Defence of Motherland and Freedom [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Savinkov] infiltrated its members in anarchist clubs, because “the libertarian principles did not allow closing doors of the Organizations to anyone, not even to establish true control over anyone’s acts.”[xii]
The chief of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, asked the Soviets to eliminate the anarchist Black Guard. With this authorization, they invaded the headquarters on April 11 and 12. Confronting them with machine guns, in combats that lasted up to 10 hours, 600 people were imprisoned and dozens were killed and wounded.[xiii]
By December of 1917, the SR leader Nicolai Avkxentiev was imprisoned along with other members, for organizing a conspiracy against the Soviet government. He was the first “socialist” imprisoned by the Soviet regime.[xiv] He had presided the Central Executive Committee of the Peasant Soviets and served as Minister of Interior during the Kerensky administration.
In the VII Congress, in May of 1918, the right-wing SRs passed the support to foreign intervention against the Bolshevik government. They voted for the policy of “Union for Regeneration,” a front “to organize democratic resistance to the Bolshevik dictatorship” and free the country from the “German-Bolshevik” yoke. Popular socialists, right-wing socialist revolutionaries, and bourgeois politicians composed this front. Abandoning any policy of class independence for the policy of national salvation, against the Soviet government, defending an uprising to re-summon the Constituent Assembly.
When the Czechoslovakia Legions defeated the Bolsheviks in Siberia, the Urals, and the Volga, the SRs turned this into their center. They declared Constituent Assembly in Samara in June, and with the support of the Mensheviks they formed the Provisory Government of Autonomous Siberia.
The V Congress of All-Russian Soviets, on July 4th, 1918, adopted the proposal to set in illegality all parties that conspired against the government.[xv] Zinoviev and Trotsky presented the proposal, “The salvation of the Republic is the supreme law. Whoever opposes to it will be eliminated”… “all agitators that after the publishing of this instruction continue to promote insubordination to the Soviet government will be imprisoned, brought to Moscow and tried by Extraordinary Tribunals. All agents of foreign imperialism that claim for an offensive action (against Germany) and offer armed resistance to Soviet authorities, must be shot… Everywhere there is an armed complot, an attempt, a revolt, repression will be ruthless.”[xvi]
In the midst of this Congress, the SRs left organized an uprising from military detachments commanded by the military and members of the Cheka. They killed the German ambassador, Mirbach; they took the building of the Peoples Commissar for Mail and Telegraphs. Then, they bombarded the Kremlin and sent bulletins and telegraphs declaring they had seized the power. Dzerzhinsky and other Chekists went to the headquarters of the insurgents without weapons and “gentlemanly as it was characteristic, he took it (the task), despite his friends’ warnings”[xvii]. Even being a gentleman, he was imprisoned by the insurgent SRs.
The V Congress adopted the immediate suppression of the insurrection. The capital was practically without troops because they had been sent to the front. The SRs were defeated by the Red Guards, commanded by Antonov-Ovseenko; the regiment of the Latvian policemen, commanded by coronel Vatzetis; and the internationalist unity of Austro-Hungarian war prisoners, commanded by Bela Kun. The rebellion was suffocated on July 7, with 330 prisoners.[xviii] Some were executed for treason, among them Alexandrovitch, an important SR cadre who led the Petrograd struggles of 1917, but who as commander of the Cheka used his power to murder Mirbach and diverted 500,000 rubles for the Central Committee of the left SRs to organize the revolt.
Trotsky defended indulgence with the insurgent, whom he called “disoriented children;” only those in command posts were shot. “The imprisoned conspirators were treated with mercy by the Cheka, the executions were absolutely exceptional cases”.[xix] The left SRs were illegalized, imprisoning their deputies.
The right-wing SRs maintained a terrorist organization (“combat groups”) led by Avram Gotz,[xx] associated to the Cadets and Mensheviks in the Renaissance League, working along with Boris Savinkov, of the “Nation and Freedom Defense League,” financed by France and Czechoslovakia.[xxi]
Savinkov’s boldness led him to infiltrate people inside Soviet institutions, especially in the food supply and the army. One of his agents got to be Lenin’s chauffeur. He was preparing Lenin and Trotsky’s kidnap and murder, but the Cheka, “still composed of a small number of nearly 150 inexperienced people”,[xxii] managed to uncover the conspiracy.
After the repression suffered in hands of Kolchak’s imperialist troops, in February of 1919, the SR Popular Army joined the Red Army. The Executive Committee of the Soviets returned legality to the SRs, except those who continued supporting, directly or indirectly, the counter-revolution.
Once again in August 1920, the SRs were in the lead of the Tambov peasants’ revolt against enforced harvest. The Red Army destroyed the rebellion, in mid-1921, led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky and the Political Commissar Antonov-Ovseenko.
Murders and Attacks
The Soviet Commissars were received with bullets in some locations of the countryside. Rakovsky was threatened with bombs during peace negotiations with the right-wing Ukrainian Rada. The Soviet Information Commissar, Moises V. Volodarsky, was murdered on June 20, 1918. On August 17, Moisei Uritsky, chief of the Cheka in Petrograd and Bolshevik Party leader, was killed.[xxiii] And finally, on August 30, Lenin survived a murder attempt by Fanny Kaplan. Fanny shot Lenin twice: one pierced his left lung – the bullet stopped near his right clavicle, and the other hit his left shoulder.
These crimes affected the party and evidenced the need for better defense. These facts unleashed the “Red Terror”: “Each drop of Lenin’s blood should cost hundreds of deaths of bourgeois and white… The interests of the revolution demanded the physical extermination of the bourgeois class. They had no mercy, let us not have any mercy.”[xxiv]
“One felt the last bell had rung, the revolution had to kill or die.”[xxv]
The editorial of the Krasnaya Gazette of Petrograd, on August 31, explained the meaning of Red Terror, “Blood for blood! But we will not carry out massacres, no!… The danger was people foreign to bourgeoisie falling and authentic enemies of the people escaping. How we will seek the fat bourgeois and their allies…” To organize terror had limits. Hundreds of SRs and other political opponents were executed without trial. Kaplan and Kaneguisser were shot.
On September 2, the Cheka gave a blow to the foreign conspiracy, arresting the spy Bruce Lockhart, employee of the British mission, and killing the British ally in Petrograd, who was killed in an attack to the embassy. Lockhart was unmasked by Yan Berzin, Latvian commander, who carried out regular meetings with him, convincing him that he wanted to overthrow the Soviet government, and received 1,200,000 rubles for the mission, immediately handed to Dzerzhinsky.[xxvi]
“Sword and Shield of the Revolution”
On September 2, 1918, a decree regularized the Cheka. Its members were named by the Soviets and its president answered to the Interior Commissar. Its tasks, “To end all counter-revolutionary and sabotage activities and all attacks in Russia, to hand in counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs to revolutionary tribunals, to develop the measures to combat them and ruthlessly apply them in real situations… The commission was authorized to apply such repression measures as ‘confiscation, deprivation of ration cardboards, publishing of lists of enemies of the people, etc.’.”[xxvii]
During the first months, it was composed by only forty employees; a team of soldiers of the Sveaborgesky regiment and a group of Red Guards. Its main members were: the Polish Felix Dzerzhinsky and Yosef Unszlicht; the Latvian Martin Latsis; the British-Latvian Yakob Peters, and the Ukrainian Moises Uritsky, who composed the collegiate body led by Gregory Petrovsky[xxviii] until November 1918, when the latest went to the frontline in Ukraine. Dzerzhinsky then assumed the command and named the British-Latvian Yakov Peters as his right arm.
In the beginning, the Cheka practically did not commit murders and attempted above all to negotiate with the counter-revolution, using fear more than acts of violence. Until November of 1918, it was oriented to free even the members of the Cadet party when they had not had renamed political activity.
With the terrorist attacks, repression increased. The function of the Cheka was not to dose or measure the guiltiness of each one but to repress the conspiracy of a social class. In Dzerzhinsky’s words, “Do not think I am seeking forms of revolutionary justice. We do not need justice now.”[xxix] Or as Latsis[xxx] expressed, “The Extraordinary Commission is not an investigation committee nor a tribunal… It does not trial the enemy, it knocks it down.”[xxxi]
The Cheka had the right to stop, to search, to apprehend, and other preventive measures against the counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs; to carry out preliminary investigations and hand in cases of the Revolutionary Tribunals. On Lenin’s proposal, the subordination to the Council of Commissars of the People was adopted. It functioned in Moscow, in the building of an old and great insurance company, in Lubyanka Square.
The investigations were abbreviated; they happened in almost absolute secrecy; death sentences could only be taken by unanimity in a Special Commission. Many executions were also secret, rapid and without boasting.
It also acted behind enemy lines in revolutionary resistance. For example, against the Kolchak troops, in Siberia, or in the combat to the forces of General Wrangel, in Crimea, carrying out a work of location and extermination of counter-revolutionary enemies. In the Poland Campaign of 1920, Dzerzhinsky went to Warsaw personally, with a delegation of the Cheka, to locate and suffocate the conspiracies and white riots, ensuring favorable positions to the Red Armed Forces.
Many revolutionaries questioned its existence, among them Kamenev within the Bolshevik Party, and Maximo Gorki and Victor Serge out of it. But Lenin and Trotsky rejected their preoccupations. Bukharin presented many doubts, but he reconsidered it when Anarchists bombarded a meeting in Moscow where he was speaking, and 12 people were murdered and 55 wounded, including Bukharin.
Dzerzhinsky explained, “The Cheka is the defense of the revolution, just as the Red Army. Just as in the Civil War the Red Army cannot stop to ask if it may harm specific individuals, it must only take into account one thing, the victory of the revolution over the bourgeoisie; the Cheka must also defend the revolution and dominate the enemy, even though its sword may occasionally fall over innocent heads.”[xxxii]
The Bolsheviks believed in world revolution and the imminence of proletarian revolution in Western Europe, thus they saw the Cheka as a temporary matter.
The control of violence was always a preoccupation, and its evolution happened according to the attacks suffered, to the point that in the first semester of 1918, only twenty-two executions took place; compared to the second semester, with six thousand. It is estimated that in three years (1918 to 1920), 12,000 people were executed; evidently, these numbers corresponded to centralized activities. In the Red Army, there were around three million deserters, and one million three hundred thousand were captured mainly by the Cheka.
Lenin defended the work of Dzerzhinsky and Peters, publicly declaring “What surprises me of the howls on the errors of the Cheka is the incapability of having a great view of the question. We have people who take advantage of specific errors committed by the Cheka, making noise over them… When I consider the actions of the Cheka and compare it to the attacks we suffer, I say this is cheap, a useless, worthless conversation…”[xxxiii]
In November of 1921, in the VI Russian Congress of Soviets, amnesty was adopted ordering the liberation of the imprisoned by the Cheka who were no longer involved in conspiracies, and of the hostages that were not necessary to guarantee the hostages detained by the enemies. There was also a resolution “On Soviet Legality”, which limited the work of the Cheka.
On February 8, 1922, the Executive Committee of the Soviet published a decree that abolished the Cheka and its local commissions, transferring its functions to the Commissar of the People for Internal Affairs and creating the political administration of the State (Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie – GPU). With this, the task to trial the Cheka definitively passed to the tribunals; it could not execute people considered counter-revolutionaries; in contrast, the GPU had more arbitrary powers to deal with political crimes.
Translation: Alejandra Ramírez.
[i] Wealthy peasants; they were landowners, with great land extensions, who used wage earning labor.
[ii] Vtchk, Russian abbreviation for “All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Combating Counter-revolution, Speculation, and Sabotage.”
[iii] TROTSKY, León. (1922). Terrorism and Communism, A reply to Karl Kautsky. In: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1920/terrcomm/ch04.htm
[iv]He was murdered by Yakov Blumkin, Cheka agent, leader of the Central Committee of the left-wing SRs, in 1918.
[v] CARR, E. H. Historia de la Rusia Soviética, La Revolución Bolchevique. [A History of Soviet Russia, The Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Ed. Afrontamento, vol 1, p. 176. [Our translation]
[vi] Izvestia, 30 de Octubre en: E.H. Carr, Historia de la Rusia Soviética, La Revolución Bolchevique. [A History of Soviet Russia, The Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Ed. Afrontamento, vol. 1, p. 182. [Our translation]
[vii] Izvestia, 6/19 de Diciembre, in E. H. Carr. Historia de la Rusia Soviética…, ibidem.
[viii] SERGE, Victor. O Ano I da Revolução Russa. [Year One of the Russian Revolution]. San Pablo: Editora Boitempo, p. 240. [Our translation].
[ix] History of Jewish communities in Ukraine, http://jewua.org/fastov/
[x] Pyatsi Sozyv VTsIK (1919): Izvestia, 30 de Octubre, in E.H.Carr, Historia de la Rusia Soviética, La Revolución Bolchevique. [A History of Soviet Russia, The Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Editora Afrontamento. Vol. 1, p. 193. [Our translation].
[xi] SERGE, Victor. El Año I de la Revolución Rusa [Year One of the Russian Revolution], in https://translate.google.com.br/translate?hl=ptBR&sl=en&u=https://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1930/year-one/ch07.htm&prev=search [Our translation].
[xii] SERGE, Victor. El Año I de la Revolución Rusa [Year One of the Russian Revolution], in: https://translate.google.com.br/translate?hl=ptBR&sl=en&u=https://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1930/year-one/ch07.htm&prev=search [Our translation].
[xiii] Izvestia, 30 de octubre, en: E. H. Carr, Historia de la Rusia Soviética, La Revolución Bolchevique. [A History of Soviet Russia, The Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Editora Afrontamento, vol. 1, p. 182. [Our translation].
[xiv] CARR, E. H. Historia de la Rusia Soviética, La Revolución Bolchevique. [A History of Soviet Russia, The Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Ed, Afrontamento, vol. 1, p. 136. [Our translation].
[xv] The Mensheviks were excluded for associating with the counter-revolutionaries and for “organizing armed attacks against the workers and peasants”.
[xvi] SERGE, Victor. O Ano I da Revolução Russa. [Year One of the Russian Revolution]. San Pablo: Editora Boitempo, p. 331. [Our translation].
[xvii] TROTSKY, León. “Los Escritos militares” [Military Writings], vol. 1, 1918. “Como la revolución armada, La Guerra civil en el RSFSR en 1918”, [How the Revolution Armed, Civil War in RSFSR in 1918]. in: https://translate.google.com.br/translate?hl=pt-BR&sl=en&u=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitry_Ivanovich_Popov&prev=search. [Our translation]
[xviii] TROTSKY, León. “Los Escritos militares” [Military Writings], vol. 1, 1918. “Como la revolución armada, La Guerra civil en el RSFSR en 1918 [How the Revolution Armed, Civil War in RSFSR in 1918], in: https://translate.google.com.br/translate?hl=pt-BR&sl=en&u=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitry_Ivanovich_Popov&prev=search
[xix] SERGE, Victor. El Año I de la Revolución Rusa [Year One of the Russian Revolution], en: https://translate.google.com.br/translate?hl=ptBR&sl=en&u=https://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1930/year-one/ch07.htm&prev=search. [Our translation].
[xx] Gotz and other 33 SR leaders led to the so-called “Trial of the SRs Right”, in 1922; Theodor Liebknecht, Karl’s brother, was the defense lawyer; helped by Karl Kautsky. They were sentenced to death, but the sentences were suspended. He was imprisoned again in 1937 and this time killed by the GPU.
[xxi] Provocateur with a turbulent life, in 1906 he killed the Russian Interior Minister and participated in the murder of the Great Duque Sergei Alexandrovich, imprisoned and sentenced to death. He managed to escape from the Odessa prison. He became chief of the SR combat organization in 1908, when the former chief, Azef, was discovered an Okhrana agent. He participated as voluntary in the French Army in the First War. He returned to Russia in April of 1917, and in July he became a deputy of Kerensky’s War Minister. He was dismissed and expelled from the SR due to his support to Kornilov. He was imprisoned years later through the Trust Operation; in 1924, he admitted to having planned the attack against Lenin through Fanny Kaplan and having received money from the Czechoslovakia president, Thomas Garrigue Masaryk. Condemned to death, his sentence was commuted to ten years. According to the official version, he committed suicide in the Lubyanka prison, in Moscow. However, according to other versions, he was killed by the GPU.
[xxii] SERGE, Victor, op. cit. [Our translation]
[xxiii] The infiltrated Leonid Kannegisser, linked to Savinkov.
[xxiv] Gazette Krasnaya of Petrograd, Bolshevik journal, 31 de agosto de 1918. In: Victor Serge, O Ano I da Revolução Russa. [Year One of the Russian Revolution]. San Pablo: Editora Boitempo, p. 369.
[xxv] SERGE, Victor. Op.cit., p. 369
[xxvi] In 1918, Lockhart escaped trial for a trade of agents with the Russian Maksim Litvinov. He wrote Memories of a British Agent.
[xxvii] MOZOKHIN, O. B. Out of history of activities of VChK, OGPU, NKVD, MGB,http://mozohin.ru/article/a-4.html
[xxviii] Ex-deputy of the 4th State Duma in 1912, member of the CC in 1913, editor in chief of Pravda.
[xxix] Novaia Zhin, July 14, 1918.
[xxx] Bolshevik since 1905, imprisoned in 1937, accused of being a counter-revolutionary and shot in 1938.
[xxxi] “Dos años de lucha en el Frente Interno”, Moscú: Gos IZD-VO, 1920, “It does not serve to judge, the enemy, but strikes it”. Written in the Cheka Journal “The Red Sword”, in: Victor Serge, O Ano I da Revolução Russa. [Year One of the Russian Revolution]. San Pablo: Editora Boitempo, p. 392. [Our translation].
[xxxii] Quoted in Karl Radek, “Portrety i Pamflety” (1933), in: Izvestia, 30 de octubre, in: E. H. Carr, Historia de la Rusia Soviética, La Revolución Bolchevique. [A History of Soviet Russia, The Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Editora Afrontamento, vol. 1, p. 192. [Our translation].
[xxxiii] Communist Secret Police: Cheka – Spartacus Educational http://spartacus-educational.com/RUScheka.htm