In the aftermath of the October Revolution, a strike by the former government bureaucrats paralyzed Petrograd and threatened the Bolsheviks’ hold on power. It was in reaction to this that Vladimir Lenin proposed a new body with expansive powers to arbitrarily detain or arrest whomever it saw fit. The “All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Combat the Counterrevolution, Speculation and Sabotage” (VChK) came into being on December 20, 1917, less than two months after the coup that brought Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power. The VChK soon became known as the Cheka. Under this and other names—GPU, OGPU, NKVD, NKGB, MGB, KGB—it would be an infamous instrument of terror throughout the existence of the Soviet Union.
Lenin nominated Polish revolutionary Felix Dzerzhinsky to head the new organization. His logic was simple: “Of all of us, it’s Feliks who spent the most time behind bars of the tsarist prisons, and who had the most contact with the Okhrana [the tsarist political police]. He knows what he’s doing!” After being arrested in 1912, Dzerzhinsky had spent nearly five years suffering imprisonment and torture in tsarist Russia’s most notorious prisons before being released in the February Revolution of 1917 and throwing his lot in with the Bolsheviks. Dzerzhinsky hardly looked the role of the Revolution’s secret policeman. He was an aging Polish aristocrat who could speak at little more than a whisper. Long periods in chains nearly cost him the use of his legs, and heavy beatings left him with a permanently unhealed jaw. But despite his appearance, he would become one of the most feared men in the world.
“Iron Felix” quickly made clear how he intended to lead his new organization. In a speech delivered to the Council of People’s Commissars, Dzerzhinsky stated that he sought “determined comrades—solid, hard men without pity.” He went on to define his mission: “We have no concern about justice at this hour! We are at war, on the front where the enemy is advancing, and the fight is to the death. What I am proposing, what I am demanding, is the creation of a mechanism that, in a truly revolutionary and suitably Bolshevik fashion, will filter out the counterrevolutionaries once and for all!”
Convinced by his savage speech, the Council of People’s Commissars delegated him enormous power. Dzerzhinsky had no laws to follow—the Bolsheviks did not prioritize the creation of a new legal code—and only limited supervision from above. A week into his tenure, Dzerzhinsky issued a public appeal for local soviets throughout the former Tsarist Empire to set up their own Chekas. The result was that Dzerzhinsky’s organization grew from 100 members at the end of 1917 to 12,000 members six months later, with more than 2,000 men reporting to Dzerzhinsky personally. By 1919 it would have 37,000 men; when temporarily put in charge of border troops in 1921, Dzerzhinsky’s secret police counted on over 250,000 troops. When the Bolshevik government moved from Petrograd to Moscow, the Cheka took over the building of an insurance company in central Moscow—the soon-to-be infamous Lubyanka.
The new Cheka went to work immediately, first by eliminating anti-Bolshevik anarchist positions that had sprung up around Moscow. Hundreds were arrested, and 25 would be shot on the spot. The increasing authoritarianism of the new Bolshevik government, with its censorship, conscription, and food confiscation, provoked a further violent backlash in July and August. Lenin and Dzerzhinsky responded with a “Red Terror” against their enemies. In Yaroslavl, a city 160 miles from Moscow, Dzerzhinsky would superintend the first large-scale executions: 428 “counter-revolutionaries” were shot in five days in late July. In August, the Cheka began building its first concentration camps.
In the face of growing national resistance, the Council of People’s Commissars decided to formally delegate vast powers to the Cheka to crush any defiance. On September 5, Soviet leadership issued an official proclamation “legalizing” the Red Terror; it decreed that “anyone found to have had any dealings with the White Guard organizations, plots, insurrections, or riots will be summarily executed.” Simultaneously, Central Committee member Grigory Zinoviev suggested that the Cheka’s Red Terror might need to kill up to ten million people to secure the revolution. Dzerzhinsky would take up this call with abandon, executing up to 15,000 people without trial in less than two months.
The violence was so ferocious that it horrified even some hardened Bolsheviks. In October 1918, Lev Kamenev proposed the abolition of the Cheka; Nikolai Bukharin demanded the Cheka be brought under political control; and the Bolsheviks’ own commissar for internal affairs called the Cheka “an organization filled with criminals, sadists and degenerate elements from the lumpenproletariat.” But Lenin intervened on Dzerzhinsky’s behalf in December, assisted by Stalin and Trotsky. They went so far as to ban debate or criticism of the Cheka in the press or party, effectively stifling any discussion. By January 1919, Dzerzhinsky would begin expanding his empire of terror with a new network of concentration camps, secret prisons, and mass-grave sites. By the next year there would be 107 concentration camps under the Cheka’s administration.
From the first days of Bolshevik rule, Vladimir Lenin and Felix Dzerzhinsky began building a fully-empowered apparatus of state terror. The Cheka would serve as the dynamo of a democidal machine, destined to consume hundreds of thousands over the following three years. In the coming decades, the Cheka, instilled with purpose and power, would consume millions more.
Photo by Gonzo Gooner under the permission of Anton Merkurov