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Red Terror

The Red Terror in Soviet Russia was a campaign of mass arrests, executions, and atrocities conducted by the Bolshevik government. In Soviet historiography, the Red Terror is described as having been officially announced on September 2, 1918 by Yakov Sverdlov and ended about October 1918. However, many historians, beginning with Sergei Melgunov, apply this term to political repression during the whole period of the Russian Civil War, 1918 1922.[1][2] The mass repressions were conducted by the Cheka (the Bolshevik secret police),[3] together with elements of the Bolshevik military intelligence agency (the GRU).[4]

The term "Red Terror" was originally used to describe the last six weeks of the "Reign of Terror" of the French Revolution, ending on July 28, 1794 with the execution of Maximilien Robespierre, to distinguish it from the subsequent First White Terror.[5][6] (historically this period has been known as the Great Terror (French: la Grande Terreur)



Historian I.S Ratkovsky argues that the establishment of the Red Terror regime in September 1918 was caused by various factors. There was economic and political disorganization in the country, the radicalization of the masses, the devaluation of life and polarization of society that intensified during the First World War, leading to the emergence of mob justice, banditry, and riots. Increasingly, a violent solution to political and social problems were emphasized. Ratkovsky notes that the use of coercion was inherent to all parties to the conflict. [7]

Ratkovsky places emphasis on the role of foreign countries in intensifying the civil war, involving German, Czechoslovakian, American, British, French, and Japanese forces. The use of repression was justified by the State on the basis of the foreignness of its enemies. There was the suppression of revolutions in Hungary, Germany, and especially Finland, which pushed for more decisive action by the Soviet state against its adversaries. Believing that its foes were diametrically opposed to it, the Soviet forces aimed at suppressing them, including their social basis. Thus, the repression was directed against ancien regime officials and military officers, policemen, and members of the upper classes [8]

In addition to destroying the old state apparatus, the Red Terror had a purpose in strengthening the Soviet state. The situation demanded the Bolsheviks retain power not only by suppressing rebellion, but also to prevent it at all costs, as well as signs of anarchy. The Red Terror sought to fix the problem of the spontaneous, individual terror. [9]

The Red Terror was presented by the Bolsheviks as a response to White Terror. The stated purpose of the Terror was to eliminate counter-revolutionaries who belonged to former "ruling classes". Martin Latsis, chief of the Ukrainian Cheka, explained in the newspaper Red Terror:

The Red Terror decree stated specifically,

Vladimir Lenin, writing in Pravda, criticised Latsis for this comment, saying that he had gone to "absurd lengths" and that "He wanted to say that Red terror meant the forcible suppression of exploiters who attempted to restore their rule".[10] Lenin stated "Our Red terror is a defence of the working class against the exploiters, the crushing of resistance from the exploiters with whom the Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks and an insignificant number of pro-Menshevik workers have sided.[11]

Grigory Zinoviev declared in mid-September 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."[12]


In the aftermath of the victory of the Russian Revolution in Petrograd in November 1917, rebellion flared up against the new government, such as with the Kerensky-Krasnov revolt. After this was defeated, numerous anti-Soviet plots were exposed, such as that of the monarchist V.M Purishkevich, who was sentenced to 4 years of probation. Similar lenient sentences in this in late 1917 were handed down. [13]

In Petrograd, there were major problems with law and order, as some 40,000 criminals stepped up their activities, which involved drunken riots and looting, some of which contained members of the Kadet Party. Robberies, murders, and other crimes were prominent in Petrograd. There were about 50,000 former kadets and officers in the capital. In addition, thousands of bureaucrats belonging to the ex-regime were trying to obstruct the work of the Soviet Government. The Soviet Government lacked the resources in dealing with this problem, and therefore the Cheka was established "at a time when there was no authority to assume the struggle against counter-revolution, sabotage, and speculation."[14]

Assessing the early period of Cheka in the first half of 1918, Ratkovsky states that the Cheka at this time did not use terror as a method of political intimidation of the enemy. Posessing extraordinary powers, the Cheka did not apply measures even remotely similar to terror, Ratkovsky states. The total number of executions carried out by the Cheka can be determined at about 150 to 180 in the first half of 1918, of which two-thirds were for criminal acts. [15]

The Civil War intensified due to the Czechoslovak invasion May 1918 that was supported by the Entente powers, [16]. Massive White Terror against the Soviet forces intensified. [17] The total number of victims of the White Terror in Central Russia at the hands of the Czechoslovaks and the SR-led Komuch regime amounted to more than 5000 people killed in the summer and autumn of 1918.[18] After the White Cossacks led by Krasnov seized control of the Don Province, more than 40,000 people were killed by Krasnov's regime. [19] In the Samara region on May 5, 1918, Dutov's Cossack forces killed 675 people by execution and burying the victims alive. [20] In the autumn of 1918, General Pokrovsky's forces killed 2500 people in the town of Maikop, while Ataman Annenkov's forces shot more than 1500 peasants in Slavgorod region. [21] The intensification in the summer of 1918 of massive and individual White Terror inevitably led to the revision of punitive-repressive policies of the Soviet government to an increase in repression. This policy more easily asserted itself with the more frequent reports of White Terror. [22]

In addition to White Terror, individual terrorism against the Soviet forces significantly increased as 1918 progressed. In the summer of 1918 in Petrograd, Socialist-Revolutionary cells organized plots of assassinations against Volodarsky, Zinoviev, and Uritsky, as well as Lenin, Trotsky, and other officials of the Soviet state. The situation in Petrograd after the assassination of Soviet official Volodarsky showed the willingness of the population for mass terror, as seen in the slogans of banners during his funeral. In Petrograd on June 22, a Menshevik member Vasiliev was killed, motivated by revenge over the death of Volodarsky. Individual terror against the Soviet government killed 339 people. The end of August 1918 marked a new surge of individual terrorism directed against the Soviet state.[23]

In July 1918, the Cheka carried out 160 executions and another 400 in August 1918. The Cheka dealt with a large extent with criminal acts rather than political enemies. In Petrograd, the Cheka up to August 30 1918 shot 21 people, 10 of them for criminal offenses and governmental misconduct. In Pskov province, out of the 16 people shot, 7 were criminals. The majority of the executions until September 1918 were for criminal reasons.[24]

The campaign of mass repressions was officially initiated as retribution for the assassination of Petrograd Cheka leader Moisei Uritsky by Leonid Kannegisser, and attempted assassination of Lenin by Fanni Kaplan on August 30, 1918. While recovering from his wounds, Lenin instructed: "It is necessary - secretly and urgently to prepare the terror" [25]

On August 5, 1918, a revolt led by wealthy peasants broke out in Kuchkino district in the Penza region. The rebellion was suppressed on August 8, but the situation in the region remained tense. On August 18, another revolt broke out, led by the Socialist-Revolutionaries. The Penza regional leaders were seen as not responding firmly enough against rebellion, which prompted Lenin to send several telegrams urging them to be more resolute in fighting against the rebels: "Essential to organise a reinforced guard of selected and reliable people, to carry out a campaign of ruthless mass terror against the kulaks, priests and whiteguards; suspects to be shut up in a detention camp outside the city."[26]

Five hundred "representatives of overthrown classes" were executed immediately by the Bolshevik communist government after the assassination of Uritsky.[3]

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".[2] . That was followed by the decree "On Red Terror", issued September 5, 1918 by the Cheka. On 15 October, checkist Gleb Bokiy, summing up the officially ended Red Terror, reported that in Petrograd 800 alleged enemies had been shot and another 6,229 imprisoned.[25]

According to Prof. Ratkovsky of Petersburg University, the number of executions carried out during the Red Terror amounted to 8000 people. 2000 executions occurred from August 30 to 5 September 1918, and another 3000 during the remaining days of September. 3000 more were executed during October-November 1918. [27]

In the Crimea, B la Kun, with Vladimir Lenin's approval,[28] had 50,000 White prisoners of war and civilians summarily executed via shooting or hanging after the defeat of general Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel at the end of 1920. They had been promised amnesty if they would surrender.[29] This is considered one of the largest massacres in the Civil War.[30]

On 16 March 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 [2]

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.[4] During the Red Terror, Berzin initiated the system of taking and shooting hostages[4] to stop desertions and other "acts of disloyalty and sabotage". 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.[4] He particularly distinguished himself in the course of the pursuit, capture, and killing of captured sailors.[4]


"Bolshevik freedom"  Polish propaganda poster with nude caricature of Leon Trotsky from the Polish-Soviet War


The Internal Troops of Cheka and the Red Army practised 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.[2] Thousands of deserters were killed, and their families were often taken hostage. According to Lenin's instructions,

In September 1918, in only 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:

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.[31]

This campaign marked the beginning of the Gulag, and some scholars have estimated that 70,000 were imprisoned by September 1921 (this number excludes those in several camps in regions that were in revolt, such as Tambov). 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.[32] Occasionally, entire prisons were emptied of inmates via mass shootings prior to abandoning a town to White forces.[33][34]

Industrial workers

On 16 March 1919, Cheka stormed the Putilov factory. More than 900 workers who went to a strike were arrested, of whom more than 200 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 Bolsheviks, freedom of press, and free elections. All strikes were mercilessly suppressed by Cheka using arrests and executions.[35]

In the city of Astrakhan, a revolt led by the White Guard forces broke out. In preparing this revolt, the Whites managed to smuggle more than 3000 rifles and machine guns into the city. The leaders of the plot decided to act on the night 9-10 March 1919. The rebels were joined by wealthy peasants from the villages, which suppressed the Committees of the Poor, and committed massacres against rural activists. Eyewitnesses reported atrocities in villages such as Ivanchug, Chagan, Karalat. In response, Soviet forces led by Kirov undertook suppressing these revolts in the villages, and together with the Committees of the Poor restored Soviet power. The revolt in Astrakhan was brought under control by 10 March, and completely liquidated by the 12th. More than 184 were sentenced to death, including monarchists, and representatives of the Kadets, Left-Socialist Revolutionaries, repeat offenders, and persons shown to have links with British and American intelligence services.[36] The opposition media with political dissidents like Chernov, and Melgunov, and others would later say that between 2,000 and 4,000 were shot or drowned from 12 to 14 of March 1919. [37]

However, strikes continued. Lenin was concerned about the tense situation regarding workers in the Ural region. On 29 January 1920, he sent a telegram to Vladimir Smirnov stating "I am surprised that you are taking the matter so lightly, and are not immediately executing large numbers of strikers for the crime of sabotage".[38]


Excavation of a mass grave outside the headquarters of the Kharkov Cheka

Claims were made by the Soviet state's opponents among the White regimes such as Denikin's Commission to Investigate Bolshevik Atrocities as well as political opponents like S. Melgunov about lurid tortures committed by Soviet forces. [39] At the head of the Commission was a member of the anti-Soviet Kadet Party G.A. Meyngard. The tasks of this commission was to publicize the alleged crimes committed by the Soviet forces, mainly intended for a Russian emigre audience.[40]However, the results of the Commission's work was met with controversy. Orenburg University professor L. Futoryansky argues that "the nature of these so-called documents is questionable" according to modern standards and are not suitable for a place in a scientific publication. Futoryansky notes that the commission engaged in exaggerations and instructed witnesses to emphasize negative aspects of the Soviet state and the Cheka. Another skeptical historian, Y. Semyonov, wrote that "As for the material created by the Denikin Commission to Investigate the Crimes of the Bolsheviks, this institution was least interested in the truth. It's purpose was anti-Bolshevik propaganda. The White Guard propagandists were so overdone with the exposure of Bolshevik atrocities that when the falsity of much of what they said became clear, western public opinion was inclined not to believe bad things about the Bolsheviks." [41]

Orlando Figes characterizes the details from the Denikin Commission as having "matched only by the Spanish Inquisition."[42] The Denikin Commission contained claims about how in Odessa the Cheka tied White officers to planks and slowly fed them into furnaces or tanks of boiling water. In Kiev, Chinese Cheka detachments allegedly placed rats in iron tubes sealed at one end with wire netting and the other placed against the body of a prisoner, with the tubes being heated until the rats gnawed through the victim's body in an effort to escape.[43]

Other claims in the Denikin Commission said that 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 by lorry, bound and gagged, to their place of execution, where they sometimes were made to dig their own graves.[44]

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".[3] During Decossackization, there were massacres, according to historian Robert Gellately, "on an unheard of scale." The Pyatigorsk Cheka organized a "day of Red Terror" to execute 300 people in one day, and took quotas from each part of town. According to the Chekist Karl Lander, the Cheka in Kislovodsk, "for lack of a better idea," killed all the patients in the hospital. In October 1920 alone more than 6,000 people were executed. Gellately adds that Communist leaders "sought to justify their ethnic-based massacres by incorporating them into the rubric of the 'class struggle.[45]

Members of the clergy were reported to have experienced brutal abuse. 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.[46] An estimated 3,000 were put to death in 1918 alone.[46]

The Denikin regime's "Commission to Investigate Bolshevik Crimes" and Russian political emigres made claims about executions of prisoners in areas under the authority of the Soviet forces. According them, there were up to 3000 executions in Kharkov between February-June 1919 and at least 3000 in Armavir in late 1920.[47] The Russian historian L.S. Gaponenko states that the Denikin regime hanged and shot without trial more than 3000 workers in Odessa and another 2000 people in Kharkov. During the rule of Denikin in Ukraine, an estimated 40,000 were executed. [48]

Interpretations by historians

Some Russian historians such as L.S Gaponenko argue that the the Red Terror was a forced measure of the working-class, aimed at protecting the country from the encroachments of its adversaries. He argues that the repression of counter-revolutionaries in fact helped to save the lives of thousands of workers, and that those executed were the organizers and managers of armed resistance. [49] Iu. Korbalev states that, "The punitive policies of the Soviet regime, including terror as an instrument of policy, were directed against the vanquished, beaten, but still resisting class of exploiters, and against the White Guard. However, the White Terror was directed by the bourgeoisie, monarchists, and their lackeys against workers and peasants, that is, against the majority of the people." [50] Historian A.S. Velidov also wrote about what he saw as the appropriate measures of the Soviet forces, "The question arose: was the Soviet Government to be or not to be? In such a difficult, critical situation, the Cheka was to direct repression against the organizers and active participants in the armed conspiracies and revolts. At the same time, it was granted the right to take hostages from among the former landlords, capitalists, police officers, and dignitaries...The Red Terror was a forced emergency measure of self-defense of the proletarian state, introduced in response to white terror."[51]

Some anti-communist historians such as Stephane Courtois and Richard Pipes have argued that the Bolsheviks needed to use terror to stay in power because they lacked popular support.[2][52] Although the Bolsheviks dominated among the workers and soldiers and in their revolutionary soviets, they won less than a quarter of the popular vote in elections for the Constituent Assembly held soon after the October Revolution since they commanded much less support among the peasantry (though the Constituent Assembly ballots predated the split between the Right SRs, who opposed the Bolsheviks, and the Left SRs, who were the Bolsheviks' coalition partners, with the result that many peasant votes intended for the latter went to the former).[53][54][55] Massive strikes by Russian workers were "mercilessly" suppressed during the Red Terror.[53]

According to Richard Pipes, violence was implicit in Marxism itself. He argued that terror inevitably resulted from what he saw as a Marxist belief that human lives are expendable in the cause of building Communism. He quoted Marx: "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".[52][56] Edvard Radzinsky noted that Joseph Stalin 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."[3]

Robert Conquest argued that "unprecedented terror must seem necessary to ideologically motivated attempts to transform society massively and speedily, against its natural possibilities."[53]

However Orlando Figes argued that the Red Terror was implicit, not so much in Marxism itself, as in the violent conditions of the Russian Revolution. He noted that there were a number of Bolsheviks, led by Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin and M. S. Olminsky, who criticised the Terror and warned that thanks to "Lenin's violent seizure of power and his rejection of democracy... [t]he Bolsheviks [would be] forced to turn increasingly to terror to silence their political critics and subjugate a society they could not control by other means.".[57] According to Figes, "The Terror erupted from below. It was an integral element of the social revolution from the start. The Bolsheviks encouraged but did not create this mass terror."[58]

The German Marxist Karl Kautsky argued that the Red Terror was a form 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".[59]

In The Black Book of Communism, Nicolas Werth contrasts the Red and White terrors. He claims that terror was official policy of the Bolshevik government, while the Whites committed unauthorized excesses. [60]

However, Petersburg University Professor I.S. Ratkovsky argues that even during the Red Terror, particularly from August 30 to September 5, 1918, much of the violence was unofficial and spontaneous, carried out by overzealous forces, until the Soviet state sought to take control of the situation with the issuing of the Red Terror decree on September 5, 1918. [61]

Historians also dispute the claim that the White Terror was not the policy of the various White leaders. Rather, they emphasize that the White terror was premeditated and systematic, as orders for terror came from high officials in the White movement, as well as legislative actions of the White regimes.[62][63][64]

Yuri Semyonov argues that "apologists for the Whites, trying to justify them, often say: the White Terror simply amounted to the excesses of individuals wronged by the Bolsheviks, while the Red Terror was a deliberate policy of the Bolsheviks in general and particularly Lenin. This, however, is not true." Semyonov cites documents from Siberia stating "it's forbidden to arrest the workers, you're commanded to shoot or hang them." Kolchak himself issued an order to "I order you to shoot all captured Communists. Now we rely on the bayonet." Kolchak's governor for Yenisei region Lieutenant-General S. Rozanov issued an order stating "The villages, whose people meet government troops with weapons, burn them down and shoot the adult males without exception. Confiscate property, horses, wagons, and grains in favor of the treasury." [65]

Historical significance

Red Terror was significant as the first of numerous Communist terror campaigns which followed in Russia and many other countries.[66] It also unleashed Russian Civil War according to historian Richard Pipes.[52] 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.[67][68]

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. See White Terror.

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

See also

Memorial stone to victims of the red terror in Daugavpils


References and further reading

External links

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