The Bolshevik

The Bolshevik
A painting from 1920 by Russian artist Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev (1878–1927) currently in the possession of The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

07 November 2010

The Road to Revolution

One of the greatest weapons in any fight to win over the masses in any country at any time is a well-worded speech, editorial or slogan. Human beings survive on the very notion of communicating some idea or individual concept that they find important and worth sharing. Playing upon this basic need has been the cornerstone of nearly every major political change throughout the history of civilization. The more radical a departure the new ideas are from the ones they are meant to displace, the more necessary it is to sell those ideas as better than the ones they are intended to replace. Without the modern means of information sharing and gathering of the Internet, television or even regular broadcast radio (which would later become the main Soviet means of disseminating propaganda), the only thing the new government officials had were newspapers, pamphlets and the clever use of political posters on the streets of cities, small towns and villages - anywhere "workers and peasants" could be found.

Russia and its constituent "co-countries" and later republics under the Soviet Union was one of the few remaining regions of the world that had crossed the boundary into the 20th century with a functioning monarchy that kept the society in a duality of wealth and power - one small group had both while hundreds of millions were disillusioned, starving and desperate for some kind of change, a hope that the next day would not be their last. There had never been a significant "middle class" in Russia, and for over 300 years only merchants, high-ranking "professional" military officers, members of the Russian Orthodox Church and others who profited in some small way by the grace or goodwill of the Romanov family ever knew anything but poverty and a life dependent upon the monarchy for survival. 

Who Is Against the Soviets? Down with the Soviets! "Proletariat of the World, unite!" In this poster issued by the state press, it is obvious who would be against the soviets: the officer, the banker, the priest and the merchant.
 Hoover Political Poster Database. 2007

Intellectual unrest had been spreading throughout Europe for much of the 19th century with Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx organizing workers into early unions in Germany during the 1840s under their theories of communism as a means for everyone to live together on an equal footing while still producing the necessary goods and services to maintain a functioning society. The now famous Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 and was one of the basic tenets of the founding of the Soviet Union. Looking back it is easy to see that such a Utopian existence is unobtainable at our current stage of human development; however, at the time, the have-nots of European society were at the point where they could at least entertain any notions that involved them being outside of the lives they were subjected to.

Since the start of the 20th century the Russian people were in the throes of an economic depression that was only worsened by expansionist policies of the tsar's government. As a result of attempts to gain dominion over regions in the Far East in 1904, Nicholas II went to war with Japan over contested areas in China (Manchuria) and Korea since both empires were trying to dominate the same territories. The Russo-Japanese War did not end until September 1905 but was years in the making. The political unrest among the people was only aggravated by this war that had no bearing on their lives as ordinary citizens. In January of 1905, workers from a factory in St. Petersburg which minted many of the military orders awarded to officers fighting the war, went on strike over working conditions. Other workers throughout the city joined the strike until over 80,000 people were not at their jobs which eventually resulted in the capital city going without electricity in the middle of winter. Finally, a peaceful protest march was organized by a Russian Orthodox priest on behalf of the striking workers in St. Petersburg. He had drawn up a petition of fair labor demands and was leading the march of about 300,000 protesters to the Winter Palace to present this petition to the tsar (though ironically he was not in the palace at the time) when the protesters were met by a cordon of armed soldiers lined up in front of the palace. According to most reports of the event, the soldiers first fired a warning volley into the air, then took aim on the protesters. Official estimates by the government at the time state that 96 people were killed and 333 were wounded, but more likely estimates put the number of killed or wounded after the day's events at about 1000.

Russian Imperial soldiers lined up outside the Winter Palace ready to shoot at protesters on "Bloody Sunday"
From Wikimedia Commons

For more on the events of the "Bloody Sunday" Revolution, see the brief synopsis at:

02 November 2010

A Brief History of the Soviet State Security Services

Part I
Shortly after the revolution that spawned the creation of the Soviet Union a state security service was created to maintain power for the new regime and combat its enemies, real and perceived. Since the newly formed Soviet Union had no legitimacy as a governing body based on popular support of the people it purported to lead, the self-declared leadership realized the essential necessity of a powerful, politically based state security system. The entire system of self-preservation of Bolshevik authority included several elements such as a standard internal police force, judicial and prosecutorial bodies and an overall state security structure which included political/secret police as well as a foreign intelligence and external security organizations. The first such state security organization was the Cheka and was initially created by Vladimir Lenin as a temporary necessity which he believed would become obsolete as soon as the Soviet citizenry were fully organized under the new government.
The simple facts were the following: 
  • Lenin and the other Bolsheviks seized power from the provisional government, and were not elected by a popular vote, or in fact any vote at all;
  • Because the Bolsheviks had no means of maintaining power in a period of political flux and bitter disgust with the Imperial Russian leadership when many liberal political parties and other groups were competing for leadership of Russia and its many republics and vast territories, staying in power was perhaps more difficult than achieving it; 
  • Despite Lenin's alleged initial hesitation regarding the need for a secret political police, he agreed rather readily to its creation at the behest of advisers and others close to him;
  • The Cheka was created as a temporary organization and was touted as an unpleasant necessity by the Bolshevik leadership who announced that the Cheka would be disbanded as soon as the political and social situation had settled down and the "enemies of the state and its people" had been routed from the country;
  • The number of these so-called enemies of the people grew as the Russian Civil War drew to a close in 1922 and Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP) had been in effect for about a year, which in itself created many new groups of "class enemies" for Stalin to "purge" when he had assumed power and abandoned an otherwise successful policy as contrary to communist principles in favor of the disastrous collectivisation;
  • In the years few years before his death at 53 on 21 January 1924, Lenin used the power of the Cheka more than a few times to crush rebellions, particularly among groups of farmers and communities opposed to the NEP, writing out a number of orders by hand calling for the execution of these rebels;
  • Shortly after Lenin's death, Joseph Stalin used (abused) the Cheka's offspring, the NKVD as his personal tool to forcibly relocate, imprison, torture and execute tens of millions of Soviet citizens (an exact number has never been objectively determined) mostly for imagined charges dreamed up by Stalin's deranged imagination and reinforced by his paranoid delusions;

  • Though tempered by future Soviet leaders and finally divided up under new names beginning in 1991, the "temporary" Cheka exists to this day.

Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1919

On December 20, 1917, barely two months after the first days of the October Revolution, the Cheka – an acronym for “the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage” – was established by Lenin and the rest of the new leadership under the rule of the intractable Polish Bolshevik Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky. Born to Polish nobility, Dzerzhinsky was a highly educated individual who became a devout, if not fanatical, Marxist in his youth and joined the Bolsheviks in their earliest endeavors to overthrow the increasingly unpopular Russian Tsarist Imperial regime. With the newly nicknamed “Iron Felix” at its head, the Cheka became the most feared institution in the whole course of the Russian Civil War which continued from 1917 to 1922, and in some respects long after that. In fact, the Cheka (and its subsequent incarnations including the NKVD) became so widely revered throughout Europe for its effectiveness that it eventually had its imitators, the most infamous of which was the Nazi’s Gestapo. Though, as with all imitations, the Gestapo fell far short of the original in terms of achievable goals and success in reaching them.
Political police in Russia has a long history dating back to Tsar Ivan IV, more commonly known as “Ivan the Terrible,” and his creation of the Oprichnika in 1565. Ivan’s 6000 member political police got their name because they were formed to enforce Ivan’s will on a portion of Russian territory ruled by the Tsar at the time known as Oprichnina from the now archaic Russian word meaning “exempt” or “except.” Though the Oprichnika are historically responsible for the torture and murder of thousands of Russians that included peasants and other nobles alike who opposed Ivan’s will, they were disbanded after only eight years because they were ineffective in achieving political success for Ivan. However, the same name was used by later tsars when they had need of a secret political police. The origin of the name Oprichnika is significant because of the foreboding coincidence that the security/political police of the Soviet Union was “exempt” or operated separately from the rest of the government and to some degree outside of the socio-political structure itself. Although the tsarist political police was ruthless and unscrupulous, the Cheka greatly surpassed its predecessors in terms of terror and violence. At the same time, however, it also succeeded where the Oprichnika failed. The Bolsheviks allowed the Cheka almost unrestricted powers to persecute those who were perceived as “class enemies” or “enemies of the revolution.” As the powers of the Cheka grew and expanded unchecked, for the most part, seemingly more with each new name change, it is relatively easy to see how such a powerful organization could and would eventually be abused under the brutal Stalinist police state. Millions of people were executed or exiled under the purges of the “Great Terror” of the 1930s and 40s by another leader who sought to impose his personal will upon the people he ruled.

In 1922, the Cheka was reorganized under the title of the State Political Directorate - Gosudarstvennoye Politicheskoye Upravlenie - or GPU. The name was soon changed again to the OGPU -  or All-Union State Political Directorate, emphasizing its significant role as the security service for the entire Soviet Union.

Dzerzhinsky and Chekist Shield in 1938 Moscow parade*
YouTube link:
for footage of the full "Blooming Youth Sports Parade"
Dzerzhinsky died in 1926 officially of natural causes, though some historians have questioned this conclusion. Though admired by many and feared by many more while living, Dzerzhinsky achieved a cult-hero status among a significant number of Soviet citizens after his death. This was due in large part to propaganda disseminated by the Soviet state security bodies that continued to evolve and change names until the most renown, the KGB, was officially formed on 1 January 1954 – though this was not the last name change. His statue was a common sight in Red Square until 1991 and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dzerzhinsky is still a symbol of current security organizations in the Russian Federation from the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) to the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) and the FSB (Federal Security Service). The last two agencies were originally united under the KGB. The SVR is essentially the former First Chief Directorate (FCD) of the KGB whereas the FSB encompasses the remaining directorates responsible for state security on Russian soil. The FCD is perhaps the most well known aspect of the KGB by anyone who lived outside of the Soviet Union during the Cold War because this is the department under which Soviet spies operated across the rest of the world with a special emphasis on the “Main Adversary” – the code name given to the United States by the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union (the uppermost body of government and the one to which the KGB answered) even before the US had a non-military foreign intelligence service of its own.
This is of course a simplified version of an extremely complex series of dismantling and reassembling of various structures within the KGB after the organization was officially dissolved in 1991 by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin. It is possible that the KGB would still exist basically in its original form had not some of its highest ranking members participated in the attempted coup in August 19-21, 1991.
Note: The link to the SVR official Russian Federation website is under the list of "Links" in the margin.
* Photo of Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky from Wikimedia Commons public domain images.

25 October 2010

The Confusion of 1917 and the "Breadless" Revolution

1917 was a tumultuous year for not only Russia, but for much of the rest of what we call the "modern world" as well. World War I was still being fought and would not be officially over until 1918. Since the Germans were the enemy that Russia and its allies were pitted against, the country's capital at the time, St. Petersburg, was given a less Germanic name - Petrograd, roughly its Slavic equivalent - shortly after the war started in 1914 and did not change again until 1924 after Vladimir Lenin died and the city was renamed again in his honor - Leningrad.

This city is essential to the beginnings of the Soviet Union as the capital of Imperial Russia. Perhaps in 1918 when Lenin, now thoroughly entrenched as the leader of the country, decided to move the capital to Moscow on the premise that Petrograd was in danger of being overrun by German forces, he had other motives as well. As the centuries old political, religious and economic center of Imperial Russia, the city itself stood as a very conspicuous reminder and symbol of the previous government.

However, it was also the location of the origin of the February Revolution which began on February 23 (Old Style date according to the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time - March 8 according to the New Style or Gregorian calendar currently in use), when women celebrating International Women's Day in Petrograd headed protests against food shortages and the comparatively high price of bread. Spurred on by socialist and other revolutionaries waiting for such a chance, the protests grew as mostly working-class women and men swelled the ranks daily, resorting to looting city shops for bread and other food until on March 2 (O.S.), Tsar Nicholas II found it necessary to abdicate his position as leader of Russia. More than 300 years of Romanov rule came to an end and the Provisional Committee of the State Duma took over the political reigns of power. The next day, the Committee issued a proclamation establishing, among other things, the amnesty of all political and religious activists, either imprisoned or wanted by the police. It also abolished the police as it was and created a national militia, but that is another topic for later discussion. Even though the tsar was no longer in power, neither were the Bolsheviks or any single other revolutionary political party - a fact which is often overlooked in Western history classes dealing with this period of time.

The wretched state of the economy in Russia was heavily blamed by many on World War I and the constant strain the the war put on workers who were forced to supply the military and its numerous soldiers in the field with food, weapons, ammunition and able-bodied young men. The lack of bread for the civilian population was a symbolic part of the revolt against the tsarist regime. In fact, bread prices are still a source of dark humor for many Russians and during the early 1990s were used by the population as a measurement of the rate of runaway inflation throughout the Former Soviet Union (FSU).

In the days immediately following the initial February 23 protests, regiment after regiment of the Russian Imperial Army became members of the Red Guard - later the Red Army - as news spread through the ranks that Nicholas and his family had been arrested and imprisoned, but that it was necessary to remain steadfast in their battle against the Germans to maintain the honor of the Russian Army and the people it represented and defended. However, not all of the ranks of the army supported the new provisional government and many were simply loyal to the tsar and the imperial leadership's aristocracy. Therefore, though the fighting of World War I ended in late 1918, Russia and the countries loyal to her remained at war within itself until 1923. Historically, the Russian Civil War started with the abdication of Nicholas II in 1917. However, some sources establish the dates of the Civil War as 1918 through 1921, depending on their definition of who was at war with whom and when exactly one side (the Bolsheviks) had entirely defeated their opposition.

Understandably, when there is a war within a war, a certain amount of confusion as to what was occurring both politically as well as socially is expected. But 1917 saw yet another revolution in Russia. This time, it was the one which the Soviet Union proclaimed as its birth on October 25 (O.S. - November 7, N.S.) when the battle cruiser Aurora fired a blank canon round while at dock only a few hundred meters from the Winter Palace which signaled the waiting armed mob made up mostly of workers and peasants to storm the palace where they arrested nearly all of the ministers and other members of the heretofore largely ineffective democratic Provisional Government. The October Revolution was the one celebrated throughout the 73 years of the existence of the Soviet Union, because this was the date Lenin became the new, single leader of the people.

What is often not known or even taught in many Western countries (including the United States) is that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not unanimously approved of as the country's new leaders, and in order to maintain his own and his party's position, Lenin agreed to the formation of what was originally intended to be a temporary secret political police - at least that is how historians continue to explain the origin of what would become the most powerful, feared and effective state security agency in the world that has yet to be surpassed. Barely more than a month after the October Revolution began, the "All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage," commonly known as the Cheka after the initial letters of its abbreviated Russian title, was established by a decree of Sovnarkom on December 7, 1917, effectively assuming the responsibilities that the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet had performed up to that point. The Cheka was the precursor of a succession of formidable Soviet secret police organizations that included the GPU (1922-23), the OGPU (1923-34), the NKVD (1934-43), the MGB (1943-54), and the KGB" (Seigelbaum, Lewis. "1917: State Security,"

24 October 2010


Memory is fickle at best. History is very simply the study of the past. Since history does not have to be the distant past, relatively recent memories are part of human history. However, what we remember and how we remember the past are often not the way events actually occurred so much as a complicated mixture of fact, personal and external propaganda and sometimes pure fiction.

The way most US students like myself were taught about the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union in particular was a disproportionate solution of one part fact, one part fiction and two parts political propaganda resurrected and recycled from McCarthyism in the Reagan era during the 1980s. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the official end of the Soviet Union in 1991 together with the remaining ideologies of the 80s cemented the impression that the West had emerged victorious from the Cold War with the "Evil Empire" we were told was the Soviet Union.

This blog is not devoted to political rights or wrongs. It is intended mainly for the study of the history of the awards system developed by the Soviets and in part adapted from the long tradition of Russian Imperial orders, medals and special recognition badges and jetons. The main difference between the Soviet system and its predecessor was that instead of awarding only high-ranking career military officers, wealthy or nobly born persons, the emphasis was supposed to shift to the average "workers and peasants." In fact, after the initial revolution in 1917, the two armies fighting the civil war that ended in 1922 were the "White Army" made up essentially of former soldiers still loyal to the Russian crown and members of the newly formed Workers' and Peasants' Red Army (RKKA).

Taking on the entire history of the Soviet military and civilian decoration system in this format may be the only way in which to do it since the topic is the subject of numerous books, articles and various forms of digital and Internet media and could take several lifetimes worth of work to cover entirely. The actual facts, all of them, may not be available for an unpredictable amount of time due to the current laws regarding the regulation of the flow of information out of Russian Federation archives. In the meantime, this is an attempt at piecing together available information and facts that arise in the future. It is also a place in which I will attempt to catalog the awards, documents, uniforms, flags and other items which I have collected over the years since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and my departure from the Russian Federation in 1996 after working in Moscow during some of the early years of the transformation from the communist system of the Soviet Union to the current government of the Russian Federation.

I do not have a very specific plan for taking on this task, but I do plan on displaying photos of the items in my personal collection as well as those from other sources to illustrate various subjects that may be under discussion. Input and obervations are both welcome and strongly encouraged, as long as they contribute to the overall education of readers.