Fair Use Blog

“Enemies In Almost All Our Institutions”: The Rise and the Tactics of the Cheka under Dzerzhinskii, from W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War (1989), 381-385.

The following passage comes from pp. 381-385 of Chapter 11, The Struggle to Survive in W. Bruce Lincoln’s book Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989). The passage is cited as a source in recent revisions of Wikipedia:Cheka, but the text of the passage was not yet fully available online, so here it is, for reference. Hyperlinks have been added; footnotes are from the original text.

[…] Rather than admit the real enemies they faced were an acute lack of civic responsibility among the people they ruled, the Bolsheviks proclaimed bungling, shirking, and sabotage to be the reason for their inability to mobilize the working men and women of Russia in the cause of economic reconstruction. To deal with such spectral foes required a massive invasion of Russians’ daily lives. For the first time in their modern history, the men and women of Russia became responsible not only for what they said and did, but for what they thought.

Now openly acknowledged by the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee as an instrument for fulfilling the will of the Party and the proletariat,[112] Dzerzhinskii‘s Cheka became the Bolsheviks’ chief defense against their inability to mobilize Russians to rebuild their nation’s economic life. Although its brutality against the Whites continued unabated in those areas where Bolsheviks still vied for control, the Cheka now became an instrument to coerce a nation as [382] it began to search for enemies of the people among peasants, Red Army soldiers, workers, bureaucrats, and even loyal Bolsheviks. The form of our struggle against our enemies must change, Dzerzhinskii told the Central Executive Committee in February 1919 as he argued (very prematurely, it turned out) that the battle against the Whites had been won. They now are trying to worm their way into our Soviet institutions so that, once they have infiltrated our ranks, they can sabotage our work. Nothing could have expressed more clearly the Bolsheviks’ increasingly paranoid response to the crises that surrounded them. We know that we have enemies in almost all our institutions, Dzerzhinskii concluded, but we cannot smash our institutions. We have to dig out clues and try to catch them.[113] Its resources now focused upon government offices, trade unions, factories, villages, and party headquarters, the Cheka declared war against the Russians. In this struggle, the organs of the Cheka must become an instrument for realizing the centralized will of the proletariat, Lenin told the Fourth Conference of Provincial Chekas a year later. He therefore insisted that the Cheka must become a weapon for creating the sort of discipline that we have been able to establish in the Red Army [in society as a whole].[114]

Dzerzhinskii shared all the fears of internal enemies that plagued Lenin and his comrades. Power had not softened him physically or morally, for he had continued to live a thoroughly ascetic life, even when others had begun to enjoy the comforts that their newly won positions made possible. Although he had exercised the power of life and death over men under the most trying conditions, Dzerzhinskii still remained true to his once-stated ideal that a Chekist must always have a cool head, a warm heart, and clean hands.[115] His features sharpened by age and the burdens of office, Dzerzhinskii now resembled the Grand Inquisitor more than ever. When his appointment as commissar of internal affairs in March 1919 enabled him to combine the personnel of the Cheka with the much larger institutional and financial resources of one of Soviet Russia’s most important commissariats, he shaped the two into an institution of uniquely pervasive coercive abilities. Eventually, the Cheka became reorganized as the GPU, the acronym for Gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie (State Political Administration), which, popular gallows humor bitterly remarked, really stood for the phrase Gospodi, pomilui umershikh, or Lord, have mercy upon the dead.[116] With a clear mandate to act as the Party’s special [383] instrument to rout out sedition and sabotage wherever it might threaten the Bolsheviks’ efforts to move ahead with Russia’s economic reconstruction,[117] Dzerzhinskii‘s Cheka became in every sense the avenging sword of the Revolution.

As the Cheka expanded its work beyond those Civil War fronts where it faced enemies in open battle, it took control of Russia’s railways, waterways, frontiers, cities, large towns, factories, and government offices. Everywhere, it searched for White Guardists, saboteurs, and shirkers who might be trying to undermine Russia from within. Far distant were the days when Dzerzhinskii had carried the Cheka‘s entire files around Petrograd in a briefcase. Now the Cheka‘s dossiers about real, suspected, and imagined enemies numbered in the tens of thousands. How a person’s parents and grandparents had been employed, where and how they had lived, and whom they had entertained in their homes all became important, as things written or said in days long past returned to haunt innocent Russians. Inheritor of the tsarist belief that it was in man’s nature to do evil, the Cheka lived with the frustrating conviction that most crimes inevitably would go undiscovered and unpunished. Its agents always tried to uncover new crimes in the course of every inquiry. One should never … confront [a suspect] … with material evidence convicting him of guilt at the beginning of an interrogation, the Cheka instructed its interrogators. It is important to ascertain first other participants in the case and the possibility of other as yet undisclosed crimes.[118]

As they violated the minds and bodies of their victims, the Cheka‘s inquisitors abandoned every moral principle that guided the behavior of civilized men and women. Usually, prisoners were questioned late at night after they had been kept without sleep and fed starvation rations for long periods. Hunger and disease were part of everyday life in Cheka prisons, but so were physical and psychological tortures. Rapes of female prisoners by Cheka guards and interrogators were so commonplace that they occasioned comment from superiors only if performed in some particularly brutal or perverted fashion. Threats against relatives, whippings, and beatings (during which interrogators sometimes gouged out one of the victim’s eyes) were everyday methods of extracting confessions, but each Cheka headquarters evidently developed certain specialties. The Cheka in Voronezh rolled its prisoners around inside a barrel into which nails had been driven, while the Cheka in Kharkov used scalping as a preferred form of torture. In Armavir, the Cheka [384] used a death wreath that applied increasing pressure to a prisoner’s skull; at Tsaritsyn, they separated prisoners’ joints by sawing through their bones; and, in Omsk, they poured molten sealing wax on prisoners’ faces, arms, and necks. In Kiev, Chekists installed rats in pieces of pipe that had been closed at one end, placed the open end against prisoners’ stomachs, and then heated the pipes until the rats, maddened by the heat, tried to escape by gnawing their way into the prisoners’ intestines.[119]

Like the sword of Damocles, the threat of death hung over every prisoner of the Cheka, not only because interrogators terrorized prisoners with mock executions,[120] but because real executions occurred very often. Estimates of men and women killed by Cheka executioners between 1918 and the end of the Civil War in 1921 vary wildly from a few thousand (Dzerzhinskii‘s lieutenant Martyn Latsis set the total for this period at 12,733)[121] into the hundreds of thousands, and one estimate set the number of Cheka victims for the somewhat longer period between the October Revolution and Lenin‘s death at the astronomical figure of one and three-quarters million.[122] Although they do not take into account those killed when the Cheka suppressed hundreds of insurrections against Soviet authority, the best estimates set the probable number of executions at about a hundred thousand,[123] or about seven times the number killed by the tsarist government during the entire century before the Revolution. That staggering statistic becomes even more appalling if we remember that it does not include those who died in Cheka prisons from disease, hunger, or beatings. To this day, it remains impossible to do more than guess at the number of men, women, and children whose lives were snuffed out by the Cheka between 1918 and 1921.

If any estimate of the Cheka‘s victims must remain an uncertain conjecture, the methods by which they met their deaths are far better known. Chekist executioners sometimes crucified their vctims in Ekaterinoslav and Kiev. In Odessa, they favored chaining White officers to planks and pushing them slowly into furnaces or boiling water. The Sevastopol Cheka preferred mass hangings. In other places, the Cheka beheaded its victims by twisting their necks until their heads could be torn off. Some executioners had their victims stoned to death. Denikin‘s investigators discovered corpses whose lungs, throats, and mouths had been packed with earth. Other victims died after being chopped apart with axes. Still others were skinned alive. Severing arms and legs, disemboweling, blinding, cutting [385] off tongues, ears, and noses, and various sorts of sexual mutilation often prolonged victims’ agonies before the executions.[124]

Most commonly, an executioner fired a single bullet into the base of his victim’s skull. When larger numbers of prisoners needed to be killed quickly, as in cases where sudden advances by White forces threatened their liberation, Cheka firing squads and machine-gunners did the killing. As the armies of General Denikin advanced toward Kiev, more than four hundred Cheka prisoners met their deaths in that fashion on the night of August 26, 1919. In Kharkov, the Cheka killed seventy-nine in a single night, and there were reports that some two thousand died in Ekaterinodar during one twenty-four-hour period in August 1920.[125] The whole of it was coated with blood–blood ankle deep, wisps of hair, and the like, investigators from Denikin‘s forces reported after they visited the main Cheka slaughterhouse in Kiev. A conspicuous object, their report concluded, was the wooden block upon which the victims had to lay their heads for the purpose of being brained with a crowbar, with, in the floor beside it, a traphole filled to the brim with human brain-matter from the shattering of the skulls.[126]

  1. [112]Obrashchenie TsK RKP(b), p. 250.
  2. [113]Dzerzhinskii, pp. 254-255.
  3. [114]Lenin, Rech’ … na 4-i konferentsii, pp. 370-371.
  4. [115]Quoted in Legett, p. 187.
  5. [116]Quoted in Mel’gunov (1925), p. 265.
  6. [117]Obrashchenie TsK RKP(b), p. 250.
  7. [118]118. Quoted in Gerson, p. 150.
  8. [119]119. Mel’gunov (1925), p. 111.
  9. [120]See, for example, Berkman (1925), p. 166.
  10. [121]121. Latsis (1921), p. 9.
  11. [122]Mel’gunov (1925), p. 111.
  12. [123]Chamberlin, II, p. 75; Gerson, pp. 172-176; Leggett, pp. 466-468.
  13. [124]Mel’gunov (1925), pp. 78-81, 172-187.
  14. [125]125. Chamberlin II, p. 83, note 16; Leggett, p. 200; Mel’gunov (1925), pp. 73-74, 174-175.
  15. [126]Ibid., pp. 75-85; Leggett, p. 200.

Leave a Reply