There are many occasions when myth surpasses reality. Moments in which the black legend devours the truth to sculpt, without mercy, a new and modified to taste. However, that was not the case with the “Extraordinary Commission for the Fight against Counter-Revolution and Sabotage of All Russia”, better known as Cheka. Founded by Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin, his nom de guerre), this sort of Bolshevik police or armed wing of the new government established after the fall of the Tsars became sadly famous for taking the lead in the so-called Red Terror: a period of repression that cost the lives of thousands of suspects of not getting along with the new regime.
The origin of the Cheka must be sought after Lenin traveled 3,200 kilometers from his exile in Switzerland to direct the Bolsheviks against a bourgeoisie that, in his words, remained in power thanks to “violence and lack of conscience” . After arriving at his home and seizing power by fanning the fire that led to the October Revolution of 1917, the red leader and his clique opted to nationalize the threat as a means of repression against their enemies. His colleague Leon Trotsky has already said it: «Terror is effective against the reactionary class that does not decide to leave the battlefield. Bullying is the most powerful means of political action. ”
The Cheka is born
In December, Lenin, clamoring for a system that “kept the entire counter-revolutionary rogue in check,” put his wishes into practice. On the 6th, the Soviet of People’s Commissars (the body, led by itself, which took power after the fall of the provisional government established to lead the country to replace the ousted Tsar) asked the Polish Bolshevik Félix Dzerzhinsky to write a series of proposals that would help to combat “the spoilers and the counterrevolutionaries” who were eager to destroy the new regime established after the successful October Revolution.
The following morning, and as the American historian Rex A. Wade explains in his work “1917: the Russian Revolution,” the Soviet of People’s Commissars turned Dzerzhinsky’s ideas into the “Extraordinary Commission for the Fight against Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. of All Russia »(better known as Cheka -Chrezvichainaya Kommisiya-). Thus, the words Lenin himself uttered in “Polnoe surplus ochineii” materialized: “Unless we apply terror to speculators, a bullet to the head in the moment, we will not get anywhere!” Something similar, by the way, to what the revolutionary Grigory Zinoviev had already pointed out: “To get rid of our enemies we need our own socialist terror.”
As might be expected, Lenin chose Dzerzhinsky himself as the first leader of the Cheka because of his past as a political agitator and his insistence on the need to use violence against those who wanted to end the revolution. Felix, who liked to be known as the “Knight of the Proletariat” and who had desired to wear a cassock in his youth, was entrusted with three tasks.
As Eric Fratinni explains in his work «KGB. History of the center “, the first was” to investigate and liquidate any attempt of action connected with the counter-revolution and sabotage “, but also” to bring to trial and before the revolutionary courts “any of these agitators and” to carry out the preliminary investigations in case it is necessary to take preventive measures »against someone.
In practice, Cheka became the armed wing of the Lenin government. Or, as defined by the Institute of International Relations of Argentina, an organization of political and military intelligence that succeeded the old Okhrana (the secret police designed to infiltrate groups opposed to Tsar Alexander II and, if necessary, execute the most dangerous leaders). Although, as the historian and professor Richard Pipes explains in his work “The Russian Revolution”, in principle (and on paper) he could not “preventively detain any citizen”, “inspect each and every one of the institutions of the country ”, create concentration camps or sign death sentences. Powers that, yes, he won over the years.
Cheka’s first attacks
The Cheka charged at lightning speed against all those considered to be counter-revolutionary by Lenin. One of his first targets was the officials, on strike since the Bolsheviks had come to power. As Iñigo Bolinaga explains in “A Brief History of the Russian Revolution,” this demobilization kept the new government in check and wobbled its foundations. “The officials of various ministries, post offices, railway or telegraph administrators organized quickly, and a first insubordination led to a general strike that left the new government without arms to execute its administrative provisions.”
His insubordination was nipped in the bud shortly after. Unable to convince them to return to work, the Bolshevik government took the ministries by force and occupied the different headquarters. La Cheka, shortly after starting to walk, was in charge of arresting unsubmissive officials and – as revealed by the Russian historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in “GULAG Archipelago” – and the Strike Committee organized by his union. Thus, the veiled threats that the new counter-revolutionary police had sent to their agents in December 1917 materialized:
“In view of the sabotage of the officials, take your own initiatives as much as possible in situ without renouncing confiscations, coercion and arrests.”
By then Lenin himself had charged the officials and called for “a rigorous revolutionary order” to be crushed “mercilessly outbreaks of anarchy among drunks, hooligans, counterrevolutionaries and other individuals.” After that massive arrest orchestrated by the Cheka, his armed arm, the red leader flew up dozens of lesser officials related to the Bolshevik regime and started a government network loyal to his ideas. The new state was, for Ulyanov, a “system of organized violence” against the wealthy and the bourgeoisie.
Or so he officially stated … And it is that, in addition to using the Cheka to lynch anyone who did not consider himself part of the proletariat, Lenin also threw his political police against the “harmful bugs” (the “workers who shun work »). “In which big city neighborhood, in which factory, in which village, are there no saboteurs who call themselves intellectuals?” He pointed out. Nor were politicians close to his ideology like Avxentiev, a member of the Social-Revolutionary Party, freed. Representative of the local peasantry, he was detained by the Chrezvichainaya Kommisiya on December 30, 1917.
Worse was the raid that, according to various historians in the “Livre Noir Du Communisme: Crimes, Terreur, Répression”, the Cheka undertook on the night of April 11, 1918. “The Cheka launched its largest operation between 11 and April 12, when more than 1,000 men from a special detachment assaulted some twenty anarchist headquarters located in Moscow ». In the words of these experts, members of Lenin’s armed police managed to arrest 520 anarchists after hours of hard fighting. “A total of 25 were executed as ‘bandits’, a term that, from then on, referred to workers who were against their ideas, deserters from the military service or peasants who refused to deliver the grain to the government.”
With the rise to power of the Bolsheviks and the birth of the Cheka, a period known as the Red Terror or the Bolshevik Terror arrived in Russia: the repression of any suspect. An example of this is that, in the four months that lasted from October 1917 to March 1918, the chronicler of the Sergei Melgunov era collected a total of 882 chronicles of executions in the press. Pipes is in favor of the fact that, in this early phase, “the vast majority of the victims of the Cheka were men of the Old Regime and wealthy ordinary citizens” who, in more than a few cases, even approved the persecution of the wealthy by the government of Lenin.
During the four years that it extended in time (until its dissolution in 1922, when it was renamed) the Cheka carried out an infinity of processes through a series of courts made up of three members, called Troika. In turn, and in Fratinni’s words, “he established concentration camps” and carried out “summary executions without trial”. Pipes recalls in his work that, in subsequent years, several provincial chekas also opened up who “committed bestialities” without fear “of being denounced by foreign diplomats or journalists.”
The strength it acquired, as well as its independence within the party, led its members to charge against this institution. One of them was Mikhail Olminsky, Lenin’s close friend and member of the editorial team of “Pravda”. He accused Cheka of considering himself above the party and the Soviets themselves.
In principle, and in order to avoid internal criticism, the government limited its power on paper, although in practice it strengthened it. Thus, in 1921 it had no less than 31,000 civilian collaborators, 137,000 soldiers and 94,000 border guards. The power of all of them was extreme and it took the life, according to the data offered in «Livre Noir Du Communisme: Crimes, Terreur, Répression», of 15,000 victims (although there are no reliable figures). And this, without taking into account torture. “The agents were authorized to deport them to labor camps for five years,” adds Fratinni. The excesses caused, in the words of this author, its re-foundation under another name in 1922..