The CHEKA (sometimes called VeCHEKA) was the much-feared Bolshevik secret police, though to most Russians it was no secret. Formed in the wake of the October 1917 revolution, the CHEKA began as a small agency responsible for dealing with threats to the new regime. It was to be the “sword and shield of the revolution”: defending the Soviet regime by attacking the enemies within. But as opposition to the new regime grew in 1918, so too did the size and scope of the CHEKA. Led by Felix Dzerzhinsky, a fanatical Bolshevik cut from the same mould as Lenin, the CHEKA ballooned from a couple of hundred investigators to a bureaucratic and paramilitary behemoth containing more than 100,000 men. More significantly, the CHEKA operated outside the rule of law: it acted of its own accord, investigated and arrested whoever it chose, and answered to no-one.
Like most significant aspects of the new regime, the CHEKA began with a decree from Lenin and Sovnarkom, dated December 19th 1917. The decree ordered the formation of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. The name CHEKA was an abbreviated form of Chrezvychainaia Komissiia, the Russian for ‘Extraordinary Commission’. The CHEKA’s directive was to “persecute and break up all acts of counter-revolution and sabotage all over Russia, no matter what their origin”; to “bring before the Revolutionary Tribunal all counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs and to work out a plan for fighting them”; and to “make preliminary investigation only, enough to break up [counter-revolutionary acts]“. A week later, the phrase “combating profiteering” was also added to the CHEKA’s formal title. The decree forming the CHEKA was broadly worded and contained few specific instructions about how it should operate. Lenin preferred to leave the CHEKA’s operational details and methods to the man he chose to lead it: Felix Dzerzhinksy.
Michael Kort, historian
Dzerzhinksy, like Lenin, had devoted his life to the Bolshevik cause. Born in Poland in 1877, Dzerzhinsky’s family were wealthy landed gentry with claims to a noble title, making him a most unlikely radical. Yet by the mid-1890s he was involved in Marxist political groups in the Baltic, before joining Lenin’s Bolshevik faction in 1906. Dzerzhinksy spent more than a decade in prisons and labour camps before his release during the 1917 amnesty. In the lead up to the October Revolution he became one of Lenin’s most trusted lieutenants. According to Louise Bryant, Dzerzhinsky adored Lenin and was “shy, aloof and deeply puritanical” – but he was also ruthless and dispassionate, hardened by years of abuse and persecution. “One feels he can neither understand nor forgive moral weaknesses in others, since he himself possesses that fanatical devotion which has made it possible for him to travel the hard, bitter road where his ideals lead”, Bryant wrote. Dzerzhinsky’s incorruptible fanaticism and hard-heartedness earned him the epithets ‘Iron Felix’ and the ‘Iron Count’.
The CHEKA became the embodiment of Dzerzhinsky’s ruthlessness, just as the Bolsheviks had become the embodiment of Lenin’s obsessive impatience for revolution. On receiving the decree Dzerzhinsky began hand-picking Bolsheviks he knew could be trusted for the difficult task of securing the revolution: men who were neither corruptible nor squeamish. At first, the CHEKA was small and its operations were limited: by early March 1918 there were only 120 Chekists (CHEKA agents). But increased anti-Bolshevik activity, the onset of the Civil War, the failed Left SR uprising of July 1918 and the assassination attempt on Lenin the following month saw the ranks of the CHEKA grow exponentially. Given a virtual blank cheque by Lenin, Dzerzhinsky ordered the recruitment of thousands of new agents. He also organised CHEKA paramilitary units, which by the autumn of 1918 numbered 33 battalions and more than 20,000 men. By 1919 the CHEKA employed more than 100,000 people and was one of the largest and best-funded agencies of the Soviet state.
During its four year lifespan, the CHEKA carried out arrests, interrogations, executions and campaigns entirely of its own accord. Dzerzhinsky was technically accountable to Sovnarkom but only reported CHEKA operations after they had taken place. In 1918 the CHEKA came into conflict with the Commissariat of Justice, which demanded to be notified before the arrest of suspects. This infuriated Dzerzhinsky, who queried how it was possible for him to “crush counter-revolution with legal niceties”. Lenin subsequently altered Soviet regulations so that the CHEKA was required to notify the Commissariat of an arrest or execution after it had happened, rather than before. From that point the CHEKA was never restricted by the rule of law or any obligation to due process or the rights of suspects. Chekists operated as investigators, arresting authorities, interrogators, prosecutors, judges, juries and executioners.
With this free rein the CHEKA was able to persecute, detain, torture and summarily execute thousands of suspected spies, tsarists, counter-revolutionaries, kulaks, black-marketeers and other ‘enemies of the state’. While the CHEKA’s methods drew on those used by the Okhrana, its size and willingness to use extra-legal killing soon surpassed the activities of the former tsarist security police. In its first two years the CHEKA executed 900 people suspected of trading on the blackmarket; another 600 bureaucrats were executed for “economic crimes”, mostly taking bribes. Official government figures suggest that just over 12,000 people were killed by Chekists in 1918-20. Some historians suggest that 200,000 or more are more realistic figures. Dzerzhinsky neither denied nor retreated from the CHEKA’s brutal role, declaring that “we stand for organised terror, terror being absolutely indispensable in the current revolutionary conditions”.
CHEKA agents also developed inventive but ghastly means of torture and psychological torment by which they extracted information or simply created a public deterrent. Written records of these methods were not kept so they are only anecdotally known, and possibly prone to exaggeration or falsification. According to historian Edward Peters, some of the torture methods employed by the CHEKA included beating, burning, branding and scalping. Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes that some CHEKA victims were force-fed large amounts of salted fish – but were prevented from drinking water. Other CHEKA methods are described by historian Orlando Figes in his book A People’s Tragedy:
The ingenuity of the Cheka’s torture methods was matched only by the Spanish Inquisition. Each local Cheka had its own specialty. In Kharkov they went in for the ‘glove trick’ – burning the victim’s hands in boiling water until the blistered skin could be peeled off: this left the victims with raw and bleeding hands and their torturers with ‘human gloves’. The Tsaritsyn Cheka sawed its victims’ bones in half. In Voronezh they rolled their naked victims in nail-studded barrels. In Armavir they crushed their skulls by tightening a leather strap with an iron bolt around their head. In Kiev they affixed a cage with rats to the victims torso and heated it so that the enraged rats ate their way through the victim’s guts in an effort to escape. In Odessa they chained their victims to planks and pushed them slowly into a furnace or a tank of boiling water. A favourite winter torture was to pour water on the naked victims until they became living ice statues.
The CHEKA is often described as the ‘Bolshevik secret police’ but in reality only some of its operations were secretive or concealed. The existence and activities of the CHEKA were widely known and many of its operations were conducted openly and publicly. Though CHEKA agents had no standard uniform, most wore long leather coats and could be easily identified. All this was purposely done: to show Russians that the CHEKA was everywhere and could deal swiftly with those who betrayed or opposed the Bolshevik regime. Some CHEKA killings were carried out more for public effect than any political purpose. In 1918 CHEKA agents appeared in the audience of a Moscow circus and began shooting, after one of its clown acts, Bim Bom, made fun of the Bolsheviks and their leaders. Another example of this public gesturing was Lenin’s famous order to the Penza CHEKA to hang at least 100 men, “and make sure that the hanging takes place in full view of the people”.
1. The CHEKA was the Bolshevik security force, formed by decree in late 1917 to combat counter-revolution.
2. It was headed by Feliz Dzerzhinsky, a fanatical Bolshevik who had been hardened by years of imprisonment.
3. Initially very small, the CHEKA grew rapidly during 1918, fed by growing unrest and opposition to the Bolsheviks.
4. It operated on its own accord, carrying out arrests, detention and executions without any due process of law.
5. The CHEKA routinely used extra-legal violence and torture, often doing so publicly to provide a deterrent to others who might oppose the Soviet regime.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The CHEKA”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/cheka/.