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.

11 April 2011

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

Part I: The Fear of the "Disappearing" Citizen

The Cheka (Chesvychaika) did not allow the Soviet Communist Party to seize power, but it allowed it to maintain it in Russia and the Soviet Union. Even as the less visible, more secretive GPU and eventually the KGB, they were the means by which leaders like Lenin, killers like Stalin and do-nothings like Brezhnev were able to keep control over an enormous, nine-time-zone country after WWII. The most unfortunate side effect or in some cases the result, was the deaths of tens of thousands - most of them innocent of anything but difference of political view point than those of the leadership. The elimination of opposition by physically removing them from their homes, families and eventually their lives, was so rampant during the early years of Bolshevik rule that the activities of the Cheka-GPU was called the "Red Terror" by both opposition, foreign and domestic, and the members of the Cheka itself.

Many Western journalists attempted to make their careers by reporting on the newly-formed government in Russia. One such anonymous British reporter wrote in 1929 that a high-ranking member of the Cheka said: "We have executed some twenty or thirty thousand persons, perhaps fifty thousand. They were all spies, traitors, enemies within our ranks, a very small number in proportion to the persons of this kind then in Russia. We instituted the red terror at a time of war, when the enemy was marching upon us from without and the enemy within was preparing to help him. Scotland Yard executed spies and traitors also in war time."*

The Lubyanka All-Russia Insurance Company headquarters building was built in 1898. This photo above was taken before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, after which it became the headquarters for the Soviet Secret and political police until 1991 when the KGB was officially disbanded. Though the basic structure has remained the same, multiple renovations and a massive addition have changed the building and the Lubyanka Square it occupies radically. In all, there are a total of three conjoined buildings that make up the final design of the most infamous security agency ever created. A section of the FSB (Federal Security Service) Border Guard is still housed here as well as a museum-memorial and a new statue in place of the giant one of Dzerzhinsky has been erected across from the main building as a memorial to those tortured and/or killed in the massive underground network of prison cells and "special purpose" rooms. Often, people were arrested and taken to Lubyanka without their families' ever knowing what happened to them.

Victor Serge, a controversial character in his own right, with Polish-Russian parents had a difficult time even getting into Russia after the 1917 revolution. Serge spent his early life in France as a radical revolutionary eventually becoming a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (slightly right of the Bolsheviks), and despite his confinement in a French prison until 1915 near the end of WWI, was reportedly rejected by the Cheka when he tried to move into Russia and join the revolutionaries. He was eventually allowed into the country in 1919 and spent his early years in Russia as a member of the Bolsheviks working under Maxim Gorky. He eventually became disenchanted with the Soviet Party and became a follower of Stalin's greatest foe - Leon Trotsky. By 1933 Serge had been spared execution only to find himself arrested by the GPU and locked up in the bowels of Lubyanka prison. He wrote of his time there in Memoires of a Revolutionary (1945):

The first acknowledged photo of the Lubyanka taken by a CIA operative
soon after the agency was created in 1947. The photo is from the early 1950s.

“Here, in absolute secrecy, with no communication with any person whatsoever, with no reading-matter whatsoever, with no paper, not even one sheet, with no occupation of any kind, with no open-air exercise in the yard, I spent about eighty days. It was a severe test for the nerves, in which I acquitted myself pretty well. I was weary with my years of nervous tension, and felt an immense physical need for rest. I slept as much as I could, at least twelve hours a day. The rest of the time, I set myself to work assiduously. I gave myself courses in history, political economy - and even in natural science! I mentally wrote a play, short stories, poems.”

Serge added: "Lubyanka was originally occupied by insurance company offices. Each floor formed a prison on its own, sealed off from the others, with its individual entrance and reception-kiosk; coloured electric light-signals operated on all landings and corridors to mark the various comings and goings, so that prisoners could never meet one another. A mysterious hotel-corridor, whose red carpet silenced the slight sound of footsteps; and then a cell, bare, with an inlaid floor, a passable bed, a table and a chair, all spic and span."

The caption on the above photo simply says: "In the Courtyard of the Lubyanka prison. 1928." It is most likely a weapons training session for NKVD and/or Cheka-GPU agents. As can be seen in the photo, women were often employed by the Soviet security services especially for so-called "undercover" assignments. By the time SMERSH was formed after the Soviet Union was embroiled in WWII, women played a prominent role in the ranks of SMERSH agents.****
"I believe that the formation of the Chekas was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918 when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads. All evidence indicates that revolutionary tribunals, functioning in the light of day and admitting the right of defence, would have attained the same efficiency with far less abuse and depravity. Was it necessary to revert to the procedures of the Inquisition?
"By the beginning of 1919, the Chekas had little or no resistance against this psychological perversion and corruption. I know for a fact that Dzerzhinsky judged them to be 'half-rotten,' and saw no solution to the evil except in shooting the worst Chekists and abolishing the death-penalty as quickly as possible," Serge also proclaimed.
The above photo is of the Lubynka taken in the 1980s with the statue of state security service founder Felix Dzerzhinsky prominently adorning the square on which the expanded building dominates the surface but hides a labyrinth of prison cells and torture chambers under the building and the street where automobiles continue to drive around above to this day. However, the statue of Dzerzhinsky was removed (not torn down as in other areas with similar statues) in 1991 and replaced with a modern monument to the memory of all those who were tortured and/or killed by officers from whatever security agency occupied the building and ran the prison at the time.


What could befall practically anyone who lived in or entered Revolutionary Russia and later the Soviet Union became more than legend. Everyone who had an opinion that was contrary - or "counter" - to the revolutionary Bolshevik thought process was either forced to remain silent on the matter or suffer from a varying array of ill fates demanded by the political elite and enforced by the political police. When the Cheka was created it was to prevent political dissent or anything that might increase the instability of the new regime. As time passed and the Cheka-KGB re-formed society and itself to conform with a number of Party leadership changes and general attitudes, the once temporary "necessity" as both and Lenin and Stalin had called it for not-so-different reasons, was as much a part of Soviet Union Communist ideology and practice as the Party itself.

Lubyanka post-1991 without the prominent statue of Dzerzhinsky.
Before the post-war world changed global maps and theories of government forced new political maps to be drawn between the Western democracies and the Eastern Bloc of Communist countries, Lenin had a number of battles with the various classes of people who opposed his (modified) Marxist principles that included groups as diverse as writers, artists, philosophers and other members of the intelligentsia to farmers who strongly opposed collectivization. Most of these farmers had been so-called peasants who had managed their farms in such a way that they made enough profits to make them financially self-sufficient - though not "wealthy" by the imperial definition. This "class" was known in non-affectionate terms as the Kulaks and were considered dangerous by Lenin and his devoted followers. They were a powerful class in a supposedly classless society. The battle between Lenin and the Kulaks was both open by means of public opinion and very private in the sense that he signed a number of warrants for the whole scale executions of hundreds of these independent farmers at a time - a task ultimately completed by Stalin. The battle between the Soviets and the Kulaks was so intense that violence was the standard way for both sides to approach the situation.

Photo of the rearmost part of the contemporary Lubyanka building and square it centers. (Photo by Barry Kent)
For decades, the Kulaks, a group of people who were the "middle class" long before the term was widely accepted in academic circles in the US until the early 1950s. Again, the idea of financially self-sufficient groups within the Soviet system of government precluded an official separation of peoples by birth, title, land or other wealth.

The poster at right is a prime example of the attempt by the Communist Party leadership trying to demonize the Kulaks and achieve the goal of a classless society devoid of aristocracy and other forms of social class distinction, regardless of what it was based on.

After WWII when the maps had been redrawn, the next war waged by the Communist Part of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was against organized groups of rebels in areas of Ukraine, the Baltic States and other Warsaw Pact countries that were not necessarily part of the Soviet Union proper, but also in the new regions considered under the stewardship (voluntary or not) of the Soviet Union known as "Spheres of Influence." The war to maintain communist and/or socialist forms of government friendly to the Soviet Union was one that lasted the entire lifespan of the SU itself, an antagonistic situation faced by every leader of the SU from 1917 to 1991.

This is a photo static copy of a handwritten letter from Lenin in 1918 to authorities in the Penza Province about 600 miles southeast of Moscow and a grain farming region. Lenin's letter orders the hanging of 100 "Kulak farmers" to set an example for others who opposed his plans.

This letter is from the archives of the Smithsonian Institution acquired on loan from the Russian Federation MVD with the approval of several other federal organizations. The following is the English translation of the text of the letter provided by Smithsonian translators:

Send to Penza to Comrades Kuraev, Minkin, and other Penza communists

Comrades! The revolt by the five kulak volosts must be suppressed without mercy. The interests of the entire revolution demands this, because we have now before us our final decisive battle [with the kulaks]. We need to set an example.

1. You need to hang (hang without fail, so that the public sees) at least 100 notorious kulaks, the rich, and the bloodsuckers.

2. Publish their names.

3. Take away all of their grain.

4. Execute the hostages - in accordance with yesterday's telegram.

This needs to be accomplished in such a way that people for hundreds of miles around will see, tremble, know and scream out: let's choke and strangle those bloodsucking kulaks.

Telegraph us acknowledging receipt and execution of this.



P.S. Use your toughest people for this.”

“Translator's note: A “volost” was a territorial/administrative unit consisting of a few villages and surrounding land.”

Without question, the “toughest people for this” brutal public display and executions were members of the local Cheka. If nothing else, the letter demonstrates the absolute contempt which Lenin felt for the Kulaks and those like them who had become financially independent, but had not achieved any social rank during the period of the Russian Empire.

* Whether or not the quote is true to the alleged speaker, the quote is true of the questionable and certainly controversial actions of the Cheka through the KGB.

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