The Cheka

Title:                      The Cheka

Author:                  George Leggett

Leggett, George (1981). The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police: The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission For Combating Counter-Revolution And Sabotage, December 1917 to February 1922. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press

LCCN:    80041062

HV8224 .L35


Date Posted:      December 31, 2016

Reviewed by John Jolhffe[1]

Between its formation by Lenin in December 1917 and the transfer of its major functions to the GPU (later OGPU) in February 1922 the Cheka was responsible for the deaths of about 280,000 people, about half of them by execution and half “in the suppression of insurrection,” i.e. in the course of the civil war that Lenin had let loose. According to Soviet sources, there Were only 94 executions under Tsarist rule between 1866 and 1900, during which time there were nearly 40 assassinations by revolutionaries, including that of the Tsar Alexander II.

To understand this gruesome increase in the artificial death rate it is necessary to consider certain curious aspects of Lenin’s revolution that are sometimes overlooked. Marx, even when advocating violent revolution, generally disapproved of revolutionary terror (e.g. of the Jacobin variety[2]). But Lenin felt, as late as January 1917, that “we may not live to see the decisive battles of the coming revolution”, and least of all did he expect one in Russia, where in any case a revolution would be a race against time, before the gradual process of social and economic evolution would bring about a peaceful process of social and economic transformation, enshrined in a democratic constitution. Indeed, the February revolution was not started by a revolutionary conspiracy at all: it was a revolt of warweary industrial workers and hungry housewives against a weak and tired regime. And in order to make it fit into Marx’s arbitrary sequence of economic stages—feudal, capitalist, socialist—Lenin had to cook the books and make out that Russia was now ready to progress, or decline, from capitalism into socialism, having been (according to him) a parliamentary democratic society since the innovation of the Duma in 1906. (He also had to pretend that the peasant population of 160 million supported the aspirations that he attributed to the industrial work force of two million.) The Tsarist security police (Okhrana) had been a surprisingly efficient affair, particularly in the matter of infiltrating and neutralizing the main revolutionary movements, to the farcical extent that in 1908-9, as Mr. Leggett points out, four out of five of the Bolshevik Party’s St Petersburg Committee were Okhrana agents. So was the leader of the Bolshevik deputies in the Duma, R. Malinovsky; and when the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda was founded in 1910 Malinovsky duly became editor and another Okhrana agent treasurer.

All this, however, only lulled the Ministry of the Interior into a sense of security that may have been justified in peacetime, but was certainly disastrous by 1917. The vacuum was there, and Lenin effortlessly filled it. But to retain control was a very different matter from seizing it, and in order to do so, and to inflict his own perversion of Marx’s ideas onto his country, Lenin required wholesale powers of life and death. In January 1917 the Bolshevik Party numbered 23,600; and even in August, after the disintegration of the army, it was only 200,000. Terror was the indispensable substitute for popular support. Lenin himself asked “surely you do not imagine that we will be victorious without applying the most cruel revolutionary terror”, and again, “surely we shall not fail to find our own Fouquier Tinville[3], who will be able to tame the encroaching counter-revolution?”

The man who came to fill this role was Feliks Dzerzhinsky, a Pole of more or less intellectual-aristocratic origins but with impeccable revolutionary credentials who had spent a quarter of his life in prison or exile. He was personally involved in recruiting and training Cheka personnel, in interrogating suspects and investigating plots, and he developed the professional expertise of Fouche. Initially launched to suppress the public service strike of December 1917, the Cheka was also briefed to cover all aspects of counter-revolution. This amounted to carte blanche, and three months later the Cheka not only had powers of search and arrest, but summary trial and execution of sentence, including the death penalty. As Pravda put it at the end of 1918, “all who are dangerous to the cause of revolution must be exterminated. . . Henceforth the hymn of the working class will be a hymn of hatred and revenge”. Any semblance of ordinary legality in the Cheka’s activities ended when Dzerzhinsky joined the inner Soviet cabinet as People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs in Moscow. This is a book which will abundantly satisfy the specialist, and need not daunt the amateur provided he has a robust appetite for the subject. Admirably organized and produced, it is a worthy successor to the great pioneering works of Robert Conquest. Its only defect is that no information is given about the author, who is outstanding for his clarity, his thoroughness, and his determination to let his terrible story speak for itself.

“You cannot make omelettes without breaking egg”, bleated the inept admirers of the Soviet system in the wake of those bad shepherds Bernard Shaw and the Webbs. What was in fact being created, as this book calmly explains, was a horrifying mess of corruption and institutionalized terror.

[1] John Jolhffe, “Reign of Terror,” in The Spectator Archive (August 7 1981, p. 21). Downloaded December 31, 2016

[2] The Reign of Terror (5 September 1793 – 28 July 1794), also known as The Terror (French: la Terreur), was a period of violence that occurred after the onset of the French Revolution, incited by conflict between two rival political factions, the Girondins and Jacobins, and marked by mass executions of “enemies of the revolution”. The death toll ranged in the tens of thousands, with 16,594 executed by guillotine (2,639 in Paris), and another 25,000 in summary executions across France

[3] Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, (born June 10, 1746—died May 7, 1795, Paris), French Revolutionary lawyer who was public prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal during the Reign of Terror.

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