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.

30 April 2011

The Spread of Chekist Ideas and Ideals at a High Moral Cost: Part II

Other Battles Faced by the Soviet Government Against Its Own Citizens

A political poster from the Bolsheviks which literally translated
means: "Electrification and Counter-Revolution" and makes no
sense out of historical context. At this point in time the first
Soviet government was pushing for and promising the public
the availability of electricity throughout the country. The implied
meaning is that "light" shed by the completion of such a huge
task would help find counter-revolutionaries. The usual group
of potential suspects includes an officer from the Imperial White
Guard, a high-ranking clergyman from the Russian Orthodox
Church, a "wealthy" merchant/capitalist and in the center, a
spy/saboteur - commonly depicted as a thin German complete
with stereotypical monocle and the attire of a member of the 
foreign service or possibly an ambassador. 
Stalin's and later Soviet Union leaders' attempts at maintaining public order to keep the ideals of the Revolution not only alive, but in practice despite continuous, organized pockets of resistance - especially after WWII - was a constant battle that involved the extensive use of the NKVD and subsequently MGB/KGB specialized troops. However, long before Stalin attempted to repress counter-revolutionary pockets throughout the Soviet Union, the first major battles were fought in the form of an Imperial Russian - Bolshevik Russian Civil War from 1917-1923. The war started after the collapse of the short-lived Provisional Government established after Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and turned over the reigns of power to a number of revolutionary groups varying in degrees of communism and socialism. (See early chapters here regarding the revolutions of 1917 and the resulting turmoil for more information.) When the Bolsheviks were clearly on one side, they were referred to as the "Red Guard" and later, more formally as the "Red Army." The Imperialists and their supporters were called the "White Guard." Other splinter groups not clearly in either of these groups either joined one side or the other with hopes of a better future for themselves or formed their own paramilitary organizations, such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationals (OUN). During the Russian Civil War several other countries joined in the fight (usually against the Red Guard) for at least some of the time - but most lost interest as the Bolsheviks gained the upper hand on the battlefield throughout Russia and her component parts.

Post-WWII Rebels
When counter-revolutionaries were suspected within the contexts of cities, teachers or professors, writers, musicians and other members of the intelligentsia, or even just an average Soviet citizen who said something within earshot of the wrong person who would then turn said person in to the current security organization, the matter was dealt with a bit differently than the all too common battles waged against whole organizations - the most prominent and enduring of which was the OUN. The OUN was formed almost immediately after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and became a constant problem for MGB/KGB troops.
Above is a photo of the reverse of a velvet banner made for "Friends"/"Supporters" of the Ukrainian Nationalists. The Ukrainian inscription (слава україні) simply means "Glory to Ukraine." The front of the flag (below) has the national symbol of Ukraine (currently in use again) and three Cyrillic letters for D, U, and N, or Друзі українських націоналістів for Friends of Ukrainian Nationalists. This particular flag was allegedly captured by NKVD or NKGB/MGB troops depending on whether it was seized during or shortly after WWII. Regardless of when it was captured, those who were arrested or killed immediately because of it were certainly treated as enemy combatants and were referred to by the Soviets as an "Enemy of the People" - a term that came to be known under the NKVD's and Stalin's "terror" as synonymous with a death warrant from the security services.

The OUN was most noticeable and problematic for the Soviets in the decades immediately following WWII, as were a number of other independence groups formed in parts of Mongolia and the newly annexed Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. In fact, the Lviv Oblast (something like "county" or "parish" in English) and the city of Lviv was a bastion of continuous ill will toward Soviet rule. The city was once part of Poland but after WWII became a permanent part of western-most Ukraine. As a border region that had ties to Poland and Germany in addition to Ukraine many people got tastes for other governments varying from Imperial to Nazi and of course Communism. The city was a regular source of irritation for the KGB and its predecessor the Ministry of State Security (MGB) since it spawned anti-Soviet groups including members of the ranks of the most organized of them, the OUN. Because of this ongoing problem with the local public opinion, the KGB established one of its most notorious regional offices in Lviv. Serving as an agent there was either a punishment or a chance to gain notoriety and move up the ranks faster than in other parts of the USSR, and which situation it was depended on the individual officer and why he (very few women were actually KGB agents - despite various spy novel authors' fantasies) was assigned to that location. The security services and the border guard were always closely linked if not under the same agency name and this is understandable given the unstable nature of borderlands and the thought processes of people who have been rapidly shifted from one regime to another and the division of loyalties that results.

The pictures below show close-ups of the embroidery work on a flag from a prominent Ukrainian rebel-supporting group ostensibly from a group called the DUN or Druzhnnik or "friends"/"supporters" of the Ukrainian Nationalists. This flag was likely made during the early part of the Soviet involvement in WWII. Germany had been a potential ally of the Ukrainian people against the Soviets as early as the initial series of revolutions in 1917 when German troops were sent in support of members of the White Guard and other imperialists who wanted to maintain the status quo as far as the Russian Empire and the leadership thereof. (See for more information on the White Guard and the initial revolutions.)

In the photos above and below, some of the especially intricate details of this obviously handmade flag are more visible than from a distance. Besides the unusually long-fibered construction of the velvet, sheets of silk  and the embroidery discussed above were sewn together in this weighty example of what one might expect was a form of public announcement about the group and where their sympathies lay - a potentially life-threatening gamble depending on who saw the flag. The national colors of dark blue over a gold field are the dominant colors and have since been restored on the current Ukrainian flag.

Gulags and Asylums
Those who spoke out against the Soviet system in whatever form, faced severe reprisals from the security service personnel in a variety of forms. Arrest was merely an initial step in the final disposition of an individual's case. Most victims of political or alleged criminal activity that wound them up in the hands of the security services were exiled to potentially lethal servitude in one of many forced labor camps (widely known by the Russian acronym: GULAG). A disturbingly high number of people who were arrested particularly by the NKVD during Stalin's reign, were executed either publicly or in secret without a body ever turning up for family members to claim and bury. Both imprisonment and execution were almost always prefaced by some sort of torture.

One of the oldest jokes told about the KGB hearkens back to the theme of beating a confession out of someone, whether real or more likely an elaborately imagined one presented by the interrogating officers: Agents from the CIA, MI6 and the KGB were each told that they had to launch a mission to route out a a certain black rabbit. As per the joke, the British and MI6 were first up. The set about immediately to form organizational groups, discuss and debate strategy, until they finally deemed the whole project unfeasible economically and abandoned the whole task. The Americans and their CIA were up next and after a brief discussion among the highest members of the organization, decided to call in a massive air strike laying the whole forest barren and desolate - much to the protests of the locals. "But at least we know he is not alive down there or at worst, he has gotten away somewhere else," was the CIA agents' response. The KGB officers approached for their assignment already a little tipsy on vodka - but it was almost noon and this is understandable. "You want black rabbit, we get black rabbit." Three KGB officers went into the scorched woods and returned a few minutes later with a brown bear in cuffs and custody, mumbling and rubbing his whole head delicately. Finally, as the KGB officers and the bear approach the judging table, the badly beaten brown bear is heard saying, "Sure, I'm a black rabbit; anybody else you want me to be? I see the evil inherent in just being just a bear."

"I'm...a British, French, American, Japonese, Italian, German and some
other kind of spy probably..." [trans]. This drawing was reportedly  
done by an inmate of a gulag depicting members of the current
security service (possibly Smersh, probbably NKVD) obtaining a
"confession"from an arrested individual. This drawing and others below
 are from abook Drawings from the Gulag by Danzig Baldaev.*
The very existence of the gulags was a means for the security forces to eliminate the "enemies of the people" sent there together with hardened criminals - the ones who not only ran the prisons but also did some of the killings the NKVD wanted done in some of these labor prisons. Actual criminal convicts who had been multiple offenders and were sentenced to lengthy prison stays were known as the "thieves by law" and occupied a certain rank above more petty, non-violent criminals. Among these "lesser" prisoners, the counter-revolutionaries or "enemies of the people" were the lowest class and if they survived the initial tortures that brought them to the gulags then the were very often killed by either prison guards (NKVD) or hired or otherwise motivated members of the "thieves by law" groups. Those that survived the prison camps were either very clever or very lucky - or both.

The prisoners at the top of the hierarchy in gulags dispensed their form of "justice" based on the orders of the guards and on the whims of the the gangs of "thieves by law" and could be capricious at best. 
According to the author of Drawings from the Gulag the leading
gangs executed other prisoners with the cooperation of the guards
and administration as well as on their direct orders. The drawing above
shows a sentence of beheading ordered by a "court of thieves" according
to the author.* 
Another fate faced some people rather than being publically branded an “enemy of the people” for various reasons including being “saved” by influential Communist Party members who were either friends or family. One of the most common ways to make someone “disappear” other than by execution or gulag was to have them committed indefinitely to insane asylums. The theory was that if someone objected to the party line, then he or she must not be thinking correctly. The type of person sentenced to this sort of fate varied, but more often than not, this is where an artist, musician or writer might spend his or her life at least while Stalin remained in control of the Soviet Union. A very large number of people were either released from whichever sort of prison they found themselves in as a result of Stalin's paranoia or were "posthumously rehabilitated" - which meant that even though they had died in captivity, their families were not held to blame and their names were restored to good standing. This happened, of course, after Stalin's death during the subsequent reforms to the system. In order to prevent obvious discrepancies between the Communist Party dogma and the repatriation of accused and sentenced "enemies of the people," the task of freeing political prisoners was not a swift one. It crawled along and continued until well after the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.


1 comment:

  1. All 4 of the books by Danzig Baldaev are excellent.

    Harrowing, but Excellent.

    Really enjoying your site Phillip!