Origins Of The Cheka

The origins of the Soviet Secret Police, known as the Cheka, from its origins in 1917 until its formal abolition in 1922.

Although the Soviet Secret Police was officially formed as the Cheka (VChK; Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage) in December 1917, shortly after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, its origins go back to the earliest tsarist times. Ivan the Terrible, Russia's first tsar, established his secret police, the Oprichniki in 1565. The members of the Oprichnina dressed in black and rode atop black horses while carrying emblems of a dog's head and a broom. This symbolized their mission: to sniff out treason and sweep it away.

The basic tsarist mission of finding treason and eliminating it was essentially the same as the one given to Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka, by the ruling cabinet, the Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom):

1. To investigate and liquidate all attempts or actions connected with counter-revolution or sabotage, no matter from whom they may come, throughout Russia.

2. The handing over for trial by Revolutionary Tribunal of all saboteurs and counter-revolutionaries, and the elaboration of measures to fight them

By April 1918, the Cheka had set up its own three-man courts, known as troikas, to carry out extra-judicial reprisal. This extra-judicial reprisal gave the Cheka the power to perform investigation, arrest, interrogation, prosecution, trial, and execution of the verdict, including the death penalty.

During the summer of that year, three events occurred that greatly increased the scope of the Cheka's activities and initiated the period known as the Red Terror that lasted until the end of the Russian Civil War. These were the assassination of the German ambassador to Russia and the attempted assassination of Lenin by members of the Left Social Revolutionaries as well as the murder of the head of the Petrograd Cheka by a member of another socialist faction that were rivals to the ruling Bolsheviks.

From this point the Cheka initiated a period of mass executions of people not based only on their specific actions, such as sabotage, but also for their beliefs and class origins. In reprisal for the assassination of the German ambassador, the Cheka executed 350 Social Revolutionaries and 512 hostages were shot by the Secret Police after the assassination attempt on Lenin. It has been estimated that between 100,000 and 500,000 people were executed by the Cheka during the Red Terror.

In addition to mass executions, the Cheka also initiated the infamous slave labor camps to imprison not only those considered undesirable but also people who happened to have the wrong class origins, most particularly the bourgeoisie. By the end of 1920 Soviet Russia had 84 of these concentration camps with about 50,000 prisoners. This prison system grew rapidly immediately following the Russian Civil War so that by 1923 the number grew to a total of 315 camps.

Perhaps the greatest crime committed by the Cheka during the Red Terror was its campaign of executions and starvation against the peasantry. Lenin demanded strict adherence to the law that required the peasantry to sell all their excess grain to the state at fixed prices. Because of runaway inflation these payments were worth virtually nothing so most of the peasants opted not to sell any of their grain to the state. Lenin retaliated by sending Cheka teams to carry out executions against speculators who purchased grain from the peasants and then sold it on the black market. Since this succeeded only in driving up grain prices, the Cheka was ordered to seize the grain directly from the peasants. Whether wealthy or not, all peasants were branded as rich kulaks and the full fury of the Cheka was unleashed on them in what came to be known as the "Bread War." Not only were individual peasants executed but entire families and whole villages as well.

By the time the Russian Civil War ended in 1921 the Cheka was thoroughly hated by most of the populace, including even many Bolsheviks, because of its brutal methods committed during the Red Terror. Lenin found it necessary to remove its authority over ordinary crimes and limited its jurisdiction to only prosecution of state crimes. The Cheka was officially abolished on February 6, 1922 and immediately replace with a new security organization called the State Political Administration or GRU (Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie).

In 1924 this organization was renamed OGPU or Unified State Political Administration. Dzerzhinsky and most of the leaders of the old Cheka remained in the new GPU. Like the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, under Nicholas II, the GPU was made a part of the Ministry of the Interior. Over the next few years the GPU (OGPU) regained most of the powers of the old Cheka. For the next seven decades, this was to remain a pattern of the Soviet Secret Police; the names might change but the duties and powers of this organization in its various incarnations did not.

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