The Red Terror

red terror
A German poster from 1919 depicting the Bolshevik Red Terror in Russia

The Red Terror was a Bolshevik-ordered campaign of intimidation, arrests, violence and executions. It began in mid-1918 following an assassination attempt on Vladimir Lenin and was carried out chiefly by the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. The Red Terror was a determined campaign that sought to eliminate opposition, political dissent and threats to Bolshevik power.

Dzerzhinsky and the Cheka

At the helm of this wave of state-sanctioned political violence was the Cheka and its fanatical leader, Felix Dzerzhinsky. Cheka agents targeted any individual or group considered a threat to Bolshevik rule or policies. Among the victims of the Red Terror were tsarists, liberals, non-Bolshevik socialists, members of the clergy, kulaks (affluent peasants), foreigners and political dissidents of all stripes. 

Under the auspices of the Red Terror, the size of the Cheka and the extent of their activities increased exponentially. 

The true impact of the Red Terror is difficult to quantify. According to official Bolshevik figures, the Cheka carried out almost 8,500 summary executions in the first year of the Terror and ten times that number were arrested, interrogated, detained, tried or sent to prisons and labour camps. The true numbers of extra-legal killings were undoubtedly much higher, possibly approaching six figures.

The origins of terror

Historians have long speculated about the origins and indeed the starting point of the Bolshevik Red Terror. Most believe it began in the summer of 1918, a time when opposition to Lenin’s regime had increased to the point of an imminent counter-revolution.

This growing anti-Bolshevik sentiment had many parents. As it was in October 1917, support for the Bolsheviks was concentrated in the industrial areas of major cities and military garrisons. Beyond those places, Bolshevik support was limited.

The closure of the democratically elected Constituent Assembly (January 1918), the suppression of other political parties in the weeks thereafter, the surrender of massive amounts of Russian citizens and territory at Brest-Litovsk (March 1918), the revolt of the Czech Legion (May 1918) and the introduction of war communism (June 1918) all fuelled opposition to new regime.

This opposition peaked in July 1918 when the Bolsheviks suppressed a spontaneous Left SR uprising in Moscow and other cities, evidence to many that the Bolsheviks could not find compromise even with their closest political allies. A week later, Cheka agents in Ekaterinburg assassinated the former tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, a move that shocked many.

Lenin’s ‘hanging order’

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Fanya Kaplan, the SR who made an attempt on Lenin’s life in August 1918

August 1918 was a critical month in the formalisation and expansion of the Terror. Infuriated by the formation of White brigades and resistance and burgeoning uprisings among the peasants, Lenin called for a “ruthless mass terror” and a “merciless smashing” of counter-revolutionary activity.

On August 9th, the Bolshevik leader issued his famous ‘hanging order‘, instructing communists in Penza to execute 100 dissident peasants as a public deterrent. 

On August 17th, Petrograd Cheka leader Moisei Uritsky was assassinated by a young cadet officer called Kanegeiser. Uritsky’s murder was a retaliation for the Cheka’s execution of one of Kanegeiser’s own friends.

Attempt on Lenin’s life

A fortnight later, while Lenin was visiting a factory in Moscow, a young woman named Fanya Kaplan stepped forward from the crowd and shot the Bolshevik leader in the chest and shoulder. Lenin received immediate medical care and survived this assassination attempt, though his life hung in the balance for a time.

Kaplan was arrested, interrogated and tortured by the Cheka before being shot. Her motives were revealed in a letter written after the event: “I do not think I succeeded in killing him. If I regret anything, it is only that. He is a traitor to the Revolution. I lay the responsibility for the treacherous peace with Germany and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly at his feet.”

Though it became clear that Kaplan had acted alone, her actions triggered an immediate response against the Left SRs and other groups and individuals suspected of anti-Bolshevik violence or activity.

Terror is widened

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This photograph from 1918 or 1919 shows victims of the Red Terror awaiting burial

In the first days of September, several Bolshevik leaders and Cheka commanders made public statements about the threat of counter-revolution and the necessity of using terror as a necessary tactic.

On September 5th, the Central Committee issued a decree calling on the Cheka “to secure the Soviet Republic from the class enemies by isolating them in concentration camps”. It also ordered that suspected counter-revolutionaries “must be executed by shooting [and] that the names of the executed and the reasons of the execution must be made public.” 

Soviet commissar Grigori Petrovski called for an expansion of the Terror and an “immediate end of looseness and tenderness”. In October 1918, CHEKA commander Martin Latsis likened the Red Terror to a class war, explaining that “we are destroying the bourgeoisie as a class”. “For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky”, said a pro-Bolshevik newspaper, “let there be a flood of bourgeois blood, as much as possible”.

Fellow socialists targeted

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CHEKA agents with the body of a torture victim, 1920

The first victims of the Red Terror were the Socialist-Revolutionaries, of which Kaplan herself had been associated. Over the next few months, more than 800 SR members were executed, while thousands more were driven into exile or detained in labour camps.

The Terror was soon expanded to include anyone who might pose a threat to the Bolshevik party or its policies: former tsarists, liberals, Mensheviks, members of the Russian Orthodox church, foreigners, anyone who dared to sell food or goods for profit.

Peasants who refused to meet state requisition orders were condemned kulaks – greedy parasitical speculators who hoarded grain and food for profit, while other Russians starved – and were subject to arrest, detention and execution. Later, industrial workers who failed to meet production quotas or dared to strike were also targeted.

The Cheka grows

As the Bolsheviks expanded their definition of who was an enemy of the revolution, they also expanded the Cheka. A small force of just a few hundred men in early 1918, within two years the Cheka was one of the largest Soviet agencies, employing around 200,000 people.

The wanton violence of the Terror soon surpassed the worst excesses of the tsarist Okhrana, the Nardonaya Volya and the terrorism of radical SRs in 1905. As its name suggests, the Red Terror was conducted to intimidate and force ordinary Russians to obedience, as much as it was to eliminate opponents.

The function and methodology of the Terror were left up to the Cheka: anyone could be singled out for persecution, arrest or worse. Often it was individuals who had distant associations with the old regime or those who dared speak publicly against Lenin, the Bolsheviks or their policies. Even bourgeois dress, intemperate jokes or scornful gestures might attract the attention of the CHEKA.

Prison and labour camps

To contain suspected counter-revolutionaries and dissidents, the Bolsheviks revived the katorgas – remote prison and labour camps that were operated by security agencies of the tsarist government – and shipped thousands there.

In time, this network of labour camps would become the notorious gulags used extensively by Stalin in 1930s.

Though official figures were much lower, most historians believe more than 100,000 people were executed during the Red Terror, a figure that does not include casualties caused by the Civil War.

Historians on the Red Terror

Historians have also debated both the nature and the inevitability of the Red Terror. Revisionists and libertarian historians see it as a creature of its time, a frantic and panicked response to the anti-Bolshevik terrorism and opposition that erupted around Russia in the first months of 1918.

Many Western liberal and conservative historians, in contrast, claim that violence and terror were inherent in Bolshevik ideology and methodology. The Bolshevik movement, itself forged in the heat of revolution, could only retain power through violence and intimidation; the Bolshevik regime could only impose policy or reform through coercion and class warfare.

Historians of this view believe the seeds of the Red Terror were sown weeks before the anti-Bolshevik violence of mid-1918. When Lenin was shot in August 1918, it only led to the formalisation, expansion and intensification of methods that the Bolsheviks had already used.

A historian’s view:
“Bolshevik terror crept out of European Russia like a biblical pestilence, months before Dzerzhinsky publicly declare ‘We stand for organised terror’ and an official government terror campaign was formalised by the order ‘On Red Terror’ in September 1918. Arbitrary arrests, mass shootings, torture and imprisonment were an integral element of Bolshevik policy long before anti-Bolshevik armies gathered.”
Jamie Bisher

red terror russia

1. The Red Terror was a two-year period of coercion, violence and extra-legal killing by the Bolshevik regime. It was developed and implemented during mid-1918.

2. There were many causes for the Red Terror, including growing opposition to the Bolsheviks leading to the Civil War and the August 1918 assassination attempt on Lenin.

3. Much of the Red Terror was carried out by the notorious Cheka under the leadership of Feliz Dzerzhinsky. The Cheka grew exponentially during this period.

4. The Terror targeted a range of groups including suspected counter-revolutionaries, Whites, tsarists, liberals, clergy and peasants who resisted Bolshevik policies.

5. Historians debate whether the Terror was a Bolshevik response to the increasing opposition of mid-1918 or whether it was inevitable, given the history, ideology and methodology of the Bolshevik movement before it seized power.

Citation information
Title: “The Red Terror”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 11, 2019
Date revised: March 5, 2022
Date accessed: September 11, 2023
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