The Cheka during the Russian revolution - notes for a talk


Was the Cheka integral to Lenin's doctrine or did it arrive by chance?
Lenin's Doctrine

In State and Revolution which was written during the October revolution, Lenin outlined the role of the police and the Army

The Evolution of the Cheka

Under the tzar existed the much hated secret police the Okharana which included a special department which operated against the SR's, the Bolsheviks and other left groups.

After the February revolution and the abdication of the Tsar the provisional government was set up, the Okharana was abolished, and the police was replaced by People Militias certain principles such as freedom of the press were implemented. These were dissolved in March.

The Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) was formed by the Petrograd Soviet ostensibly for the defence of Petrograd on the 12th October. In reality, it had been decided two days earlier by the Bolsheviks to go for a coup d'etat and the real function of the MRC was to carry this out. At the first meeting of the MRC on 20th of October, Commissars were elected to the task of preparing for a rising. Initially 55 commissars were elected, later hundreds more mostly to military units in the Petrograd area. The headquarters of the MRC was at the head of the Petrograd Soviet at the Smolny Institute. The MRC also had at its disposal the Bolsheviks party's paramilitary force, the Red Guard.The Red Guard was formally subordinated to the Petrograd Soviet but of course had it's first allegiance to the Bolshevik party. During the October Revolution, the Red Guard mobilised 20,000 men.

An order of the Petrograd Soviet (which was drafted by Lenin) called for a coup on October the 25th. The MRC directed the armed seizure of Petrograd during the night of the 24th/25th.

On the 25th the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets opened at 10:45 in the evening met in order to take over control of the revolution.

Present were 300 Bolshevik deputies, 80 left SRs and 270 others. The majority of the Mensheviks, moderate SR's and the Bundists walked out in order to protest against the Bolshevik usurpation of authority. Two interim bodies were elected pending the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. The Constituent Assembly had not yet met, it was to be the democratic parliament just like our Dáil and it's interesting to note that the it was envisaged by the Bolsheviks that the Constituent Assembly should control the state rather than the Soviets.

As said above the Bolsheviks-LSR were in the majority at the Congress and they elected two interim bodies.

The VTsIk which was to be the legislative body of the state was described as the "organ if active control over the Workers and Peasants Government". The second body which was set up was the Sovnarkom which was to be the Government. The VTslk consisted of 62 Bolsheviks, 29 LSR's and 10 others. The Sovnarcom or government consisted solely of Bolsheviks since the LSR's would only agree to participate in a coalition government combining all the parties. In it's first decree the Congress had specifically subordinated the Sovnarkom to Vtslk authority, it subsequently ordained that the Vtslk could at any time suspend, amend or recind any Sovnarcom resolution

A number of things happened immediately. The very next day (26th Oct), at 03.00 am an organisation called Salvation of Country and Revolution was founded by some Peasant, Menshevik and SR leaders (obviously founded as soon as they had walked out of the 2nd Congress.) (in the City Duma Building). They proclaimed that the 2nd Congress was illegal, that the first Congress was still in office and that they were the legitimate heir of the Provisional government.

A strike of government and municipal employees was called. On the 29th, four days after the Revolution, rail workers delivered and ultimatum on threat of strike that all socialist parties should negotiate for the formation of a widely based coalition government. This would have crippled the Bolshevik military and supply capacity.

On the same day (29th oct) the Bolsheviks suppressed the officer-cadet rising in Petrograd, the next day a small Cossack force was repelled.

(1st November) Many leading Bolsheviks (Kamenev, etc) seemed disposed to accept such terms, Lenin opposed coalition, threatening to 'Go to the Sailors'. Five of the coalition advocates resigned from the Bolshevik central committee.

(4th November) At a VTsIk meeting a number of Peoples Commissars resigned for the same reason stating,

"We hold that it is essential to form a socialist government....we consider that beside this there is only one other path:- the maintenance of a purely Bolshevik government by means of political terror. The VtsLk has entered upon that path."

Two further criticisms of the VTsLK were made by LSR's, firstly they protested against a Bolshevik resolution which not only approved the closing down of the "Bourgeois" newspapers, but also authorise the control and if need be the confiscation of all private presses by the Soviet Authorities.

Their second criticism was that the Sovnacom had issued a number of decrees without first submitting them to the Vstik for approval .

Therefore 10 days after the revolution the Bolsheviks were charged with refusing to share power with the other socialist parties, destroying freedom of the left press and ruling by decree.

Back to the MRC.

as we have seen the MRC carried out the revolution. Afterwards it was given specific tasks by the Sovnarcom (i.e. the Bolsheviks) (30th October).

Those tasks were

1. Safe guarding of revolutionary order.

2. Combating of counter revolution.

3. Protection of the Sovnarcom and Petrograd soviet.

The MRC was headed by a Presidium and Central Executive Committee.

It spread out into the provinces and local branches were told there duties were

1. combating of counter revolution

2. supervision of the press

3. maintenance of revolutionary order.

Within the MRC, auxiliary committees were set up to deal with different problems.

1. dealt with arrested military personal, officials sabotaging their duties, leader of counter-revolutionary parties. This committee was important in suppressing the officer cadet rising and Russian Assembly ( a monarchist organisation)

2. closed down 'bourgeois newspapers" which was described as a "purely temporary and exceptional measure" . (26th October)

The Vstik voted for government controls of printing presses later by 34 votes to 24. (4th November)

3.Security of the Smolny

4. Reorganise security of Petrograd.

5. Combating counter-revolution and sabotage

6. combating pogroms, white palace wine

On the 29th of October the VtsIk delegated 13 representatives to join the MRC. Control of the MRC was at this stage transfered from the Petrograd Soviet to the VtsLK and the Sovnarkom.

The next day (30th November) the Sovnarkom declared Civil War had broken out under the direction of the liberal cadet party, a Sovnarkom pronouncement signed by Lenin, collectively labeled members of the Kadet party as "enemies of the people".Within the VTsLK the LSR's opposed this as to condemn an entire category comprising of countless individuals was to create a convenient scapegoat for the sins of the bourgeoisie and set a dangerous precedent for other parties.

The term "enemies of the people" was further applied to people who engaged in sale of Vodka, in programs, in sniping from houses, in looting or just in insobriety. Plunders, marauders and speculators were also termed "enemies of the people"

The Committee for the Salvation of Country and Revolution had called for a strike of government employees, advancing them wages up to 1st Jan 1918. The members of the committee were arrested by the MRC and on order of the Sovnarkom, the MRC dissolved the Duma .

On the 26th it was declared that all people who were employees of public departments and who sabotaged the national economy were "enemies of the people"

The MRC was always meant to be a provisional apparatus until the regular dept of state, the peoples commiserates emerged.

The MRC ,talking the view that it's military tasks connected with the revolution were completed, on the 5 Dec began to dissolve itself, it liquidated its responsibility, its affairs were transfered to the Sovnarcom, the VTsiK, the Petrograd Soviet and the Local Soviets.

Meanwhile the general strike of government employees that had been called by Committee for the Salvation of Country and Revolution continues.

In response to this crisis the Sovnarcom charged Dzerzhinsky to set up a special commission to examine the possibility of combatting the strike using "energetic revolutionary measures" and to "determine the methods of suppressing sabotage".

Before Dzershinsky reported back, Lenin met him saying it was not possible to set up a department to deal with the issue and instead he proposed that all persons whose income or assets exceeded a certain level , all employees of banks, firms and state or public enterprises should be obliged to register and to work under pain of Punishment"

( 7th Dec)

In the end the Cheka was set up to inherit the security functions of the MRC. (page 17). It was subordinated to the Sovnarkom. It was not subordinated to the VTsLK as the Bolsheviks still shared power with other parties there. It was not attached to the interior ministry, the NKVD, as would be normal as this might create the impression that the proletarian government's security organ was being constituted as part of the regular machinery of the state under departmental control, thus too much like the Tsarist Ochrana.

The Cheka was meant to be a temporary organisation, initially it was an administrative body designed to carry out investigative functions. It was not judicial and had no powers of arrest, however quickly it acquired more and more powers. Nine days later it was granted power of arrest, in Jan it was being assigned armed units, in February it was granted the power of summery trials and execution of sentences which included the death sentence.

One of the first act of the 2nd Congress was the repeal of the death penalty, this was restored


Up to July 1918 the Cheka executed only criminals as the LSR's vetoed all others. After the LSR rising they were one of the first non criminals to be executed.

According to Legget initially the Bolshevik Central Committee wasn't much interested in the Cheka, departments and commissions were being set up all the time.

The Public service strike petered out due to lack of funds, but the Cheka continued.

At the end of 1917 it had 23 personal, by mid 1918 it had over 10,000.

It was organised into departments and sub-departments which dealt with various matters for e.g..

1. acquisition of information

2. organisational matters

3. suppression of counter-revolutionary activity and sabotoge

4. speculation

5. misconduct in office

sub departments

1. Provocation "designed to discredit Soviet Authority"

2. Crime

The Cheka was there responsible for 'security in the provinces" while the Dept of the Interior, the NKVD was responsible for "rights and duties of the soviets". Local Chekas were subordinate to central Chekas. On the other hand local militias were attached to the Soviets which answered to the NKVD. There was therefore an uneasy relationship between the Cheka and local soviets and the the NKD.

On the 5th January the constituent assembly was dissolved (the guard is tired)

Bolshevik soldiers fired on an unarmed crowd of protesters officially killing 21.

The Brest-Litovsk treaty was signed of the 3 march ending was with Germany. Under threat from white guard attack the government moved to Moscow.

On the 8th April the Cheka demanded it needed more troops at its disposal for combatting counter revolution. On the 11/12 Cheka and Lettish troops surrounded 26 Anarchist clubs in Moscow, in the insuing fighting Anarchists suffered 40 casualties and 500 were taken prisoner. On the 26 of April similar raids were carried out in Petrograd. At this stage Dzershinsky justified his action on the ground that the anarchists had been preparing an insurrection and that in any event most of those arrested proved to be criminal riff raff. He stressed that the Cheka had nether the mandate or the desire to wage war on ideological anarchists. Yet on the 13 June, secret documents outlined that the department for counter revolution investigative section and intelligence unit had sections allocated to dealing with anarchists.

'Revolutionary Terror', summary executions, etc. was kicked off by two proclamations signed by Lenin, see 57.

Phase 1 lasted during aug,/ Sept / nov/dec

The Civil War had started, there were peasant risings sparked off by food requisitions (36 in July, 47 in August, 35 in Sept)


notes for a talk given to the Dublin branch, March 11th 1992 by Aileen O'Carroll