The Cheka (sometimes called VeCheka) was the much-feared Bolshevik security agency, formed to identify and eradicate counter-revolutionary activity. The Cheka is sometimes referred to as the Bolshevik ‘secret police’, though most Russians were well aware of its existence and activities.
The Cheka was formed in the wake of the October 1917 revolution, as a small agency to investigate and deal with threats to the new regime. It was to be the “sword and shield of the revolution”, defending the new regime against its enemies within. Its first leader was Felix Dzerzhinsky.
As opposition to the Bolshevik regime grew through 1918, so did the size and power of the Cheka. Between 1918 and 1920, the Cheka ballooned from a couple of hundred investigators to a bureaucratic and paramilitary behemoth containing more than 100,000 agents.
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. The Cheka became a model for 20th century secret police agencies in totalitarian states, including the Gestapo (Nazi Germany), the Stasi (East Germany) and the KGB (Soviet Russia).
Formation and early years
Like most significant aspects of the new regime, the Cheka began with a decree from Vladimir Lenin and the 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.
Dzerzhinsky the ‘Iron Count’
Dzerzhinksy had devoted his life to the Bolshevik cause. His ruthlessness and fanaticism came to rival that of Lenin.
Born in Poland in 1877, Dzerzhinsky’s family were wealthy landed gentry with claims to a noble title. He was a most unlikely radical – yet by the mid-1890s, Dzerzhinsky was involved in Marxist political groups in the Baltic. He eventually joined 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 agency grows
The Cheka became the embodiment of Dzerzhinsky’s ruthlessness. On receiving the decree, Dzerzhinsky began recruiting Cheka agents. He chose Bolsheviks he could trust 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). Increases in 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, Dzerzhinsky ordered the recruitment of thousands of new agents. He also organised Cheka paramilitary units. By the autumn of 1918, these units 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.
Unrestrained by law
During its four year lifespan, the Cheka carried out arrests, interrogations, executions and campaigns entirely of its own accord. Dzerzhinsky was technically accountable to the 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 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, Cheka agents were 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 both surpassed the activities of the Tsarist security police. In its first two years, the Cheka executed 900 people suspected of trading on the black market. 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”.
Creative methods of torture
CHEKA agents also developed inventive but ghastly means of torture and psychological torment. They used these to extract information or occasionally to create a public deterrent.
Written records of these methods were not kept so they are anecdotally based 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.
Some of the more ghastly 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 speciality. 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 victim’s 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’. In reality, not all 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, many wore long leather coats and could be easily identified. All this was purposely done: to show Russians that the CHEKA was everywhere and dealt 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 clowns, 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”.
A historian’s view:
“Its original mandate was to root out the regime’s enemies: the counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs, enemy agents and speculators. In doing so, driven by revolutionary fervour and unrestrained by law, by 1922 the Cheka had penetrated virtually every area of life in Soviet Russia. It was active in assuring the food supply, in maintaining transport, in policing the Red Army and Navy, in monitoring the schools, and in ensuring that industries continued to function and deliver essential material to the state. It hunted down speculators and hoarders, sometimes cordoning off entire neighbourhoods during its massive operations. It surrounded villages and short peasants resisting the forced requisitions of grain, often leaving the peasants who remained alive without enough to eat. It even suppressed strikes by factory workers, the presumed rulers of the ‘workers’ state’.”
1. The Cheka was the Bolshevik security force or secret police. It was formed by Vladimir Lenin in a December 1917 decree and charged with identifying and dealing with potential counter-revolutionaries.
2. The Cheka was headed by Feliz Dzerzhinsky, a Bolshevik of Polish extraction. Dzerzhinsky was loyal to the point of fanaticism and had been hardened by years of imprisonment.
3. Initially very small with just a couple of hundred agents, the Cheka grew rapidly during the turmoil and growing opposition of 1918. Within two years it had more than 100,000 employees.
4. Cheka agents operated on their own accord, carrying out arrests, detention and executions. The Cheka was not accountable to judges or courts and there was no legal oversight of its operations.
5. The Cheka routinely used extra-legal violence and torture. This was sometimes done publicly, in order to provide a deterrent to those who might oppose the regime.