The Red Terror

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

The Red Terror was a Bolshevik-led campaign of intimidation, arrests, violence and executions. It unfolded in the second half of 1918 as the new regime struggled to eliminate opposition and threats to its own power, in the face of a looming civil war. This wave of state-sanctioned political violence was overseen by the fanatical CHEKA leader, Felix Dzerzhinsky, and carried out mainly by his agents. They targeted any individual or group deemed to be a threat to Bolshevik rule or policies, including tsarists, liberals, non-Bolshevik socialists, members of the clergy and kulaks (affluent peasants). Under the auspices of the Terror the size of the CHEKA, the much-feared Bolshevik secret police, 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, while ten times that number were arrested, interrogated, detained, tried or sent to prisons and labour camps. The true numbers of extra-legal killings carried out during the Terror were undoubtedly much higher, possibly approaching six figures.

Historians have long speculated about the origins and indeed the starting point of the Bolshevik terror. Most believe the Red Terror began in the summer of 1918, a time when opposition to Lenin’s regime had increased to the point where another revolution was expected. This growing anti-Bolshevik sentiment had many parents. As it had been in October 1917, support for the Bolsheviks was concentrated in the industrial areas of major cities; beyond those places their 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 added to public concern about the direction of the new regime. Opposition peaked in July 1918, when the Bolsheviks suppressed a spontaneous Left SR uprising in Moscow and other cities, breaking with their only political ally. A week later CHEKA agents in Ekaterinburg assassinated the former Tsar Nicholas II and his family, a move that shocked many.

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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 peasant opposition to grain requisitioning, Lenin called for a “ruthless mass terror” and a “merciless smashing” of counter-revolutionary activity. On August 9th he 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, in retaliation for the CHEKA’s execution of one of Kanegeiser’s own friends. 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 survived this assassination attempt, though his life hung in the balance for a short time. Kaplan was arrested, interrogated and tortured by the Cheka before being shot. Kaplan’s 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 soon became clear that Kaplan had acted alone, her attempt on Lenin’s life triggered an immediate response against the Left SRs and other political opponents. 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”.

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CHEKA agents with the body of a torture victim, 1920

The first victims of the Red Terror were the Social Revolutionary party, of which Kaplan herself had been a member. 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 branded as 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. 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 large government agency employed around 200,000.

“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, historian

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. 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; thus began the notorious network of gulags used extensively by Stalin in 1930s.

Though official figures were much lower, most historians believe more than 100,000 people were executed under the umbrella of the Red Terror, a figure that does not include casualties caused by the Civil War. Historians have also debated both the nature and the inevitability of the Red Terror. Some 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. Others consider terrorism as inherent in Bolshevik ideology and methodology. The Bolshevik movement, 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 argue that the seeds of the Red Terror were sown weeks before the anti-Bolshevik violence of mid-1918. When Lenin was shot at the end of August, it generated outrage and led to the formalisation, expansion and intensification of methods that the Bolsheviks had already used.

red terror russia

1. The Red Terror was a two-year period of coercion, violence and extra-legal killing by the CHEKA, starting in 1918.

2. The trigger point for this was anti-Bolshevik violence by the Left SRs and an attempt on Lenin’s life in August 1918.

3. The Terror targeted suspected counter-revolutionaries, including Whites, tsarists, liberals, clergy and kulaks.

4. Some Bolsheviks portrayed the Terror as a class war, an attempt to purge Soviet Russia of bourgeois elements.

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.

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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 Red Terror” at Alpha History,, 2018, accessed [date of last access].