In December, 1917, Lenin appointed Felix Dzerzhinsky as Commissar for Internal Affairs and head of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka). As Dzerzhinsky later commented: "In the October Revolution, I was a member of the Military Revolutionary Committee, and then I was entrusted with the task of organizing the Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Sabotage and Counterrevolution I was appointed its Chairman, holding at the same time the post of Commissar for Internal Affairs."
Soon afterwards Dzerzhinsky appointed Yakov Peters as his deputy. Richard Deacon, the author of A History of the Russian Secret Service (1972), has pointed out: "The truth is that Peters, despite his humble origins and his unostentatious employment in England, was a highly professional revolutionary, a good organiser and an exceptionally intelligent, self-educated man. Dzerzhinsky believed in him because he saw in Peters something of the implacable fanaticism he possessed himself."
In his first address as chief of the Soviet secret police Dzerzhinsky declared: "This is no time for speech-making. Our Revolution is in serious danger. We tolerate too good-naturedly what is transpiring around us. The forces of our enemies are organizing. The counter-revolutionaries are at work and are organizing their groups in various sections of the country. The enemy is encamped in Petrograd, at our very hearth! We have indisputable evidence of this and we must send to this front the most stern, energetic, hearty and loyal comrades who are ready to do all to defend the attainments of our Revolution. Do not think that I am on the look-out for forms of revolutionary justice. We have no need for justice now. Now we have need of a battle to the death! I propose, I demand the initiation of the Revolutionary sword which will put an end to all counter-revolutionists. We must act not tomorrow, but today, at once!"
One of Dzerzhinsky's fellow revolutionaries, Victor Serge, later argued: "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?" Robert Bruce Lockhart, a British diplomat in Russia, met Dzerzhinsky during this period. "A man of correct manners and quiet speech, but without a ray of humour in his character. The most remarkable thing about him was his eyes. Deeply sunk, they blazed with a steady fire of fanaticism. They never twitched. His eyelids seemed paralysed."
Dzerzhinsky explained in July 1918: "We stand for organized terror - this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. When confronted with evidence criminals in almost every case confess; and what argument can have greater weight than a criminal's own confession."
David Shub, a former member of the Mensheviks, reported: "In his little room Dzerzhinsky was constantly sharpening the weapon of the Soviet dictatorship. To Dzerzhinsky was brought the mass of undigested rumours from all parts of Petrograd. With the aid of picked squads of Chekists, Dzerzhinsky undertook to purge the city. At night his men moved from the dark streets into apartment houses; towards dawn they returned with i their haul. Few if any challenged the authority of these men. Their password was enough: Cheka, the all-powerful political police. Little time was wasted sifting evidence and classifying people rounded up in these night raids. Woe to him who did not disarm all suspicion at once. The prisoners were generally hustled to the old police station not far from the Winter Palace. Here, with or without perfunctory interrogation, they were stood up against the courtyard wall and shot. The staccato sounds of death were muffled by the roar of truck motors kept going for the purpose."
George Seldes, an American journalist working in Russia, wrote: "Because of Cheka, freedom has ceased to exist in Russia. There is no democracy. It is not wanted. Only American apologists for the Soviets have ever pretended there was democracy in Russia.... Freedom, liberty, justice as we know it, democracy, all the fundamental human rights for which the world has been fighting for civilized centuries, have been abolished in Russia in order that the communist experiment might be made. They have been kept suppressed by the Cheka. The Cheka is the instrument of militant Communism. It is a great success. The terror is in the mind and marrow of the present generation and nothing but generations of freedom and liberty will ever root it out."
On 17th August, 1918, Moisei Uritsky, the Commissar for Internal Affairs in the Northern Region, was assassinated by Leonid Kannegisser, a young military cadet. Anatoly Lunacharsky commented: "They killed him. They struck us a truly well-aimed blow. They picked out one of the most gifted and powerful of their enemies, one of the most gifted and powerful champions of the working class." The Soviet press published allegations that Uritsky had been killed because he was unravelling "the threads of an English conspiracy in Petrograd".
Despite these claims, Robert Bruce Lockhart, Head of Special Mission to the Soviet Government with the rank of acting British Consul-General in Moscow, continued with his plans to overthrow the Bolshevik government. He had a meeting with a senior intelligence agent based in the French Embassy. He was convinced that Colonel Eduard Berzin was genuine in his desire to overthrow the Bolsheviks and was willing to put up some of the money needed: "The Letts are Bolshevik servants because they have no other resort. They are foreign hirelings. Foreign hirelings serve for money. They are at the disposal of the highest bidder."
George Alexander Hill, Sidney Reilly and Ernest Boyce were brought into the conspiracy. Over the next week Hill, Reilly and Boyce were having regular meetings with Berzin, where they planned the overthrow of the Bolsheviks. During this period they handed over 1,200,000 rubles. Some of this money came from the American and French governments. Unknown to MI6 this money was immediately handed over to Felix Dzerzhinsky. So also were the details of the British conspiracy.
Berzin told the agents that his troops had been to assigned to guard the theatre where the Soviet Central Executive Committee was to met. A plan was devised to arrest Lenin and Leon Trotsky at the meeting was to take place on 28th August, 1918. Robin Bruce Lockhart, the author of Reilly: Ace of Spies (1992) has argued: "Reilly's grand plan was to arrest all the Red leaders in one swoop on August 28th when a meeting of the Soviet Central Executive Committee was due to be held. Rather than execute them, Reilly intended to de-bag the Bolshevik hierarchy and with Lenin and Trotsky in front, to march them through the streets of Moscow bereft of trousers and underpants, shirt-tails flying in the breeze. They would then be imprisoned. Reilly maintained that it was better to destroy their power by ridicule than to make martyrs of the Bolshevik leaders by shooting them."
Reilly later recalled: "At a given signal, the soldiers were to close the doors and cover all the people in the Theatre with their rifles, while a selected detachment was to secure the persons of Lenin and Trotsky... In case there was any hitch in the proceedings, in case the Soviets showed fight or the Letts proved nervous... the other conspirators and myself would carry grenades in our place of concealment behind the curtains." However, at the last moment, the Soviet Central Executive Committee meeting was postponed until 6th September.
On 31st August 1918, Dora Kaplan attempted to assassinate Lenin. It was claimed that this was part of the British conspiracy to overthrow the Bolshevik government and orders were issued by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of Cheka, to round up the agents based in British Embassy in Petrograd. The naval attaché, Francis Cromie was killed resisting arrest. According to Robin Bruce Lockhart: "The gallant Cromie had resisted to the last; with a Browning in each hand he had killed a commissar and wounded several Cheka thugs, before falling himself riddled with Red bullets. Kicked and trampled on, his body was thrown out of the second floor window."
Robert Bruce Lockhart was woken by a rough voice ordering him out of bed in Moscow. "As I opened my eyes, I looked up into the steely barrel of a revolver. Some ten men were in my room." As he dressed "the main body of the invaders began to ransack the flat for compromising documents." Lockhart was taken to Lubyanka Prison. He later recalled: "My prison here consists of a small hall, a sitting-room, a diminutive bedroom, a bathroom and a small dressing-room, which I use for my food. The rooms open on both sides on to corridors so that there is no fresh air. I have one sentry one side and two on the other. They are changed every four hours and as each changes, has to come in to see if I am there. This results in my being woken up at twelve and four in the middle of the night."
Lockhart was eventually interrogated by Yakov Peters, Dzerzhinsky's deputy at Cheka. "At the table, with a revolver lying beside the writing pad, was a man, dressed in black trousers and a white Russian shirt... His lips were tightly compressed and, as I entered the room, his eyes fixed me with a steely stare." Lockhart added that his face was sallow and sickly, as he never saw the light of day.
Lockhart, who was an accredited diplomat, complained about his treatment. Peters ignored these comments and asked him if he knew Dora Kaplan. When he explained that he had never heard of her, Peters asked him about the whereabouts of Sidney Reilly. Lockhart now knew that Cheka had discovered the British plot against Lenin. This was confirmed when he produced the letter Lockhart had personally written for Colonel Eduard Berzin as an introduction to General Frederick Cuthbert Poole, the head of the British invasion force in Northern Russia. Despite the evidence he had against him, Peters decided to release Lockhart.
Joseph Stalin, who was in Tsaritsyn at the time of the assassination attempt on Lenin, sent a telegram to Yakov Sverdlov suggesting: "having learned about the wicked attempt of capitalist hirelings on the life of the greatest revolutionary, the tested leader and teacher of the proletariat, Comrade Lenin, answer this base attack from ambush with the organization of open and systematic mass terror against the bourgeoisie and its agents."
Dzerzhinsky, on the advice of Stalin, instigated the Red Terror. The Bolshevik newspaper, Krasnaya Gazeta, reported on 1st September, 1918: "We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard, and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will let loose the floodgates of that sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky, Zinovief and Volodarski, let there be floods of the blood of the bourgeois - more blood, as much as possible."
It is estimated that in the next few months 800 socialists were arrested and shot without trial. Dzerzhinsky reported "Our enemies are now suppressed and are in the kingdom of the shadows." Lev Kamenev admitted: "Not a single measure of the Soviet government could have been put through without the help of the Cheka. It is the best example of communist discipline."
Lenin defended the work of Felix Dzerzhinsky and Yakov Peters by publicly stating: "What surprises me about the howls over the Cheka's mistakes is the inability to take a large view of the question. We have people who seize on particular mistakes by the Cheka, sob and fuss over them... When I consider the Cheka's activity and compare it with these attacks, I say this is narrow-minded, idle talk which is worth nothing... When we are reproached with cruelty, we wonder how people can forget the most elementary Marxism.... The important thing for us to remember is that the Chekas are directly carrying out the dictatorship of the proletariat, and in this respect their role is invaluable."
On 2nd September, 1918, Bolshevik newspapers splashed on their front pages the discovery of an Anglo-French conspiracy that involved undercover agents and diplomats. One newspaper insisted that "Anglo-French capitalists, through hired assassins, organised terrorist attempts on representatives of the Soviet." These conspirators were accused of being involved in the murder of Moisei Uritsky and the attempted assassination of Lenin. Lockhart and Reilly were both named in these reports. "Lockhart entered into personal contact with the commander of a large Lettish unit... should the plot succeed, Lockhart promised in the name of the Allies immediate restoration of a free Latvia."
An edition of Pravda declared that Lockhart was the main organiser of the plot and was labelled as "a murderer and conspirator against the Russian Soviet government". The newspaper then went on to argue: "Lockhart... was a diplomatic representative organising murder and rebellion on the territory of the country where he is representative. This bandit in dinner jacket and gloves tries to hide like a cat at large, under the shelter of international law and ethics. No, Mr Lockhart, this will not save you. The workmen and the poorer peasants of Russia are not idiots enough to defend murderers, robbers and highwaymen."
The following day Robert Bruce Lockhart was arrested and charged with assassination, attempted murder and planning a coup d'état. All three crimes carried the death sentence. The couriers used by British agents were also arrested. Lockhart's mistress, Maria Zakrveskia, who had nothing to do with the conspiracy, was also taken into custody. Xenophon Kalamatiano, who was working for the American Secret Service, was also arrested. Hidden in his cane was a secret cipher, spy reports and a coded list of thirty-two spies. However, Sidney Reilly, George Alexander Hill, and Paul Dukes had all escaped capture and had successfully gone undercover.
Yakov Peters interrogated Lockhart for several days. Giles Milton, the author of Russian Roulette (2013) has pointed out: "Lockhart found Peters a curious figure, half bandit and half gentleman. He brought books for Lockhart and made a great show of his generosity. Yet he had a ruthless streak that chilled the blood. He had lived for some years in England as an anarchist exile and had even been tried at the Old Bailey for the murder of three policemen. To the surprise of many, he had been acquitted. In conversations with Lockhart he recalled the happy years he had spent living in London as a gangster. After five days of imprisonment in the Loubianka, Lockhart was transferred to the Kremlin. Accusations continued to be levelled against him in the press and he was told that he was to be put on trial for his life. Yet the trial was continually delayed and he eventually heard that it was unlikely to go ahead." On 2nd October, 1918, the British government arranged for Lockhart to be exchanged for captive Soviet officials such as Maxim Litvinov.
Peters was made Chief of Internal Defence and on 14th June 1919 Pravda printed an order by Peters that the wives and grown-up children of all officers escaping to the anti-Bolshevik ranks should be arrested. The following day he ordered the disconnection of all private telephones in Petrograd and the confiscation of all wine, spirits, money above £500 and jewels. In Petrograd he insisted that all citizens had to carry identity cards issued by Cheka. He also had three thousand hostages transported to Moscow.
Arthur Ransome was a journalist working in Petrograd who got to know Yakov Peters during this period. He described him as being "a small man with a square forehead, very dark eyes and a quick expression... he speaks fair English, though he is gradually forgetting it. He knows far less now than a year ago." Ransome enjoyed the company of Peters and described him as a man of "scrupulous honesty". Peters told Ransome that his methods was keeping crime under control: "We have now shot eight robbers, and we posted the fact at every street corner, and there will be no more robbery. I have now got such a terrible name that if I put up a notice that people will be dealt with severely that is enough, and there is no need to shoot anybody."
Arno Walter Dosch-Fleurot, an American journalist working in Russia reported that "the most awful figure of the Russian Red Terror, the man with the most murder on his soul, is the present Extraordinary Commissioner against Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, a dapper little blond Lett named Peters, who lived in England so long that he speaks Russian with an English accent." Dosch-Fleurot attempted to obtain a visa for a Russian woman he knew who wished to visit her parents in England. When Peters learned that her father was an officer he refused point-blank to help. "I protested that the girl was working for her living." Peters replied, "No matter. She belongs to a class we must destroy. We are fighting for our lives."
By 1921 the Kronstadt sailors had become disillusioned with the Bolshevik government. They were angry about the lack of democracy and the policy of War Communism. On 28th February, 1921, the crew of the battleship, Petropavlovsk, passed a resolution calling for a return of full political freedoms. Lenin denounced the protest as a plot instigated by the White Army and their European supporters. On 6th March, Leon Trotsky announced that he was going to order the Red Army to attack the Kronstadt sailors. However, it was not until the 17th March that government forces were able to take control of Kronstadt. An estimated 8,000 people (sailors and civilians) left Kronstadt and went to live in Finland.
The Cheka was also responsible for dealing with the sailors arrested during the Kronstadt Uprising. Official figures suggest that 527 people were killed and 4,127 were wounded. Historians who have studied the uprising believe that the total number of casualties was much higher than this. According to Victor Serge over 500 sailors at Kronstadt were executed for their part in the rebellion.
Felix Dzerzhinsky transformed Cheka into the Government Political Administration (GPU). One GPU official admitted that in the first ten years of its existence: "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."
Dzerzhinsky was aware that the British continued to conspire against the Bolshevik government. The two main figures in this was Boris Savinkov, a former Russian terrorist and member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party and Sidney Reilly, an agent of MI6. Dzerzhinsky decided to establish his own anti-Bolshevik organization, Monarchist Union of Central Russia (also known as "The Trust"). As Richard Deacon, the author of A History of the Russian Secret Service (1972) pointed out: "Boris Savinkov... was given to understand that all the plotters inside Russia were waiting for was an assurance of massive support from the anti-Bolsheviks outside Russia. Soon Savinkov's own agents were being smuggled in and out of Russia."
Savinkov asked Reilly to carry out investigations into "The Trust". Reilly contacted Ernest Boyce, the head of the Russian section of MI6. Boyce confirmed that the organization was apparently a movement of considerable power within Russia. Its agents had supplied valuable intelligence to the Secret Services of a number of anti-Bolshevik countries and was convinced that it was not under the control of Russian Secret Service. Unknown to Reilly, Boyce was in the pay of Cheka.
Sidney Reilly knew Winston Churchill was a passionate supporter of intervention. He told him that Boris Savinkov was the best man to coordinate an overthrow of the Bolsheviks. Reilly arranged for Churchill to meet Savinkov. Churchill agreed that that Savinkov was a man of greater stature than any of the other Russian expatriates and that he was the only man who might organize a successful counter-revolution. Prime Minister David Lloyd George had doubts about trying to overthrow the Bolsheviks: "Savinkov is no doubt a man of the future but I need Russia at the present moment, even if it must be the Bolsheviks. Savinkov can do nothing at the moment, but I am sure he will be called on in time to come. There are not many Russians like him."
The Foreign Office was unimpressed with Savinkov describing him as "most unreliable and crooked". Churchill replied that he thought that he "was a great man and a great Russian patriot, in spite of the terrible methods with which he has been associated". Churchill rejected the advice of his advisors on the grounds that "it is very difficult to judge the politics in any other country". With the agreement with Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the head of MI6, it was decided to send Savinkov back into Russia. Richard Deacon has argued that "It was not that he (Savinkov) did not realise there was a risk of deception, but that he had become desperate in his quest for a solution to the problem of defeating the Bolsheviks. His impatience caused him not merely to take a cautious gamble but to risk his life in the cause of counter-revolution."
On 10th August 1924, Savinkov left for Russia. Nineteen days later Izvestia announced that Savinkov had been arrested. Over the next few months the newspaper announced that he had been condemned to death; sentence had been commuted to ten years' imprisonment and finally released. It was reported that he was living in a comfortable house in Loubianka Square. Savinkov wrote to Sidney Reilly, that he had changed his views of the Bolsheviks: "How many illusions and fairy tales have I buried here in the Loubianka! I have met men in the GPU whom I have known and trusted from my youth up and who are nearer to me than the chatter-boxes of the foreign delegation of the Social-Revolutionaries... I cannot deny that Russia is reborn."
Reilly believed the letter had been written by the GPU. A long letter appeared in The Morning Post on 8th September, 1924: "I claim the great privilege of being one of his most intimate friends and devoted followers, and on me devolves the sacred duty of vindicating his honour. Contrary to the affirmation of your correspondent, I was one of the very few who knew of his intention to penetrate into Soviet Russia. On receipt of a cable from him, I hurried back, at the beginning of July, from New York, where I was assisting my friend, Sir Paul Dukes, to translate and to prepare for publication Savinkov's latest book, The Black Horse. Every page of it is illuminated by Savinkov's transcendent love for his country and by his undying hatred of the Bolshevist tyrants. Since my arrival here on July 19th, I have spent every day with Savinkov up to August 10th, the day of his departure for the Russian frontier. I have been in his fullest confidence, and all his plans have been elaborated conjointly with me. His last hours in Paris were spent with me."
Boris Savinkov died on 7th May, 1925. According to the government he committed suicide by jumping from a window in the Lubyanka Prison. However, other sources claim that he was killed in prison by agents of the All-Union State Political Administration (GPU). Sidney Reilly insisted that Savinkov was murdered in August 1924: "Savinkov was killed when attempting to cross the Russian frontier and a mock trial, with one of their own agents as chief actor, was staged by the Cheka in Moscow behind closed doors."
Ernest Boyce, the MI6 station chief in Helsinki, wrote to Sidney Reilly asking him to meet the leaders of Monarchist Union of Central Russia in Moscow. Reilly replied: "Much as I am concerned about my own personal affairs which, as you know, are in a hellish state. I am, at any moment, if I see the right people and prospects of real action, prepared to chuck everything else and devote myself entirely to the Syndicate's interests. I was fifty-one yesterday and I want to do something worthwhile, while I can." According to Keith Jeffery, the author of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (2010), Boyce had sent Reilly into Russia without clearing the scheme with his superiors in London. "Boyce had to take some of the blame for the tragedy. Back in London, as recalled by Harry Carr, his assistant in Helsinki" he was "carpeted by the Chief for the role he had played in this unfortunate affair."
Reilly crossed the Finnish border on 25th September 1925. At a house outside Moscow two days later he had a meeting with the leaders of MUCR, where he was arrested by the secret police. Reilly was told he would be executed because of his attempts to overthrow the Bolshevik government in 1918. According to the Soviet account of his interrogation, on 13th October 1925, Reilly wrote to Felix Dzerzhinsky, saying he was ready to cooperate and give full information on the British and American Intelligence Services. Sidney Reilly's appeal failed and he was executed on 5th November 1925.
Felix Dzerzhinsky died of a heart attack on 20th July 1926. Vyacheslav Menzhinsky became the new head of the organization and played an important role in the Red Terror. It has been argued by Edvard Radzinsky, the author of Stalin (1996: "Though Menzhinsky had a hand in all the dreadful deeds of the Red Terror, he fastidiously absented himself from the torture chamber and from executions... He became the effective head of the Bolshevik secret service."
Richard Deacon, the author of A History of the Russian Secret Service (1972), has argued that Menzhinsky was very different from his master, Joseph Stalin: "He was in almost every respect the antithesis of the men with whom he worked and he behaved in the manner of an idle dandy. He would even conduct interrogations lying on a settee draped in rich Chinese silks, manicuring himself while he put his questions... Brusque, efficient and completely detached in his attitude to his work, he had an almost effortless command of the complexities of the job... While despising the proletariat, he wanted the Russian people to have and to enjoy culture. Off duty he constantly talked of the need for saving the proletariat from themselves by artistic education." Stalin described him as "my amiable, but watchful Polish bear".
During the early stages of the Spanish Civil War, the Cheka was in Spain. Edward Knoblaugh reported: "Cars labeled CHEKA and carrying red or red and black flags patrolled everywhere, loaded with armed men on the lookout for Quinta Columna suspects. Their work was simplified by the fact that Spanish law requires citizens to carry identification cards giving age, description of bearer and place of residence. These could be checked against the political credentials supplied to Leftists in good standing with their respective parties. The raiders entered cafes, some standing guard in the doorway while the rest passed from table to table demanding to see everyone's credentials. Even army officers in uniform were not exempt... One device the Cheka employed in an effort to ferret out conspirators was to seize any two persons walking together, separate them quickly out of earshot of each other, and demand to know what they were talking about at the moment they were separated. The replies then would be checked against each other and if they failed to tally, the pair was arrested. Sometimes the sheer fright of being so seized made the victims stutter and forget what they had been talking about."
In 1934 the Communist Secret Police became known as the Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). Later that year the new head of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, arrested Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, Ivan Smirnov, and thirteen others and accused them of being involved with Leon Trotsky in a plot to murder Joseph Stalin and other party leaders. All of these men were found guilty and were executed on 25th August, 1936.