In September 1918, the Russian Bolsheviks began a campaign of repression that would be later known as the ‘Red Terror’. It refers to a campaign of mass killings, torture and systematic oppression launched by the new Bolshevik regime a few months after its rise to power.
Officially, the start of this campaign was announced on September 2nd, while the government decree was published 3 days later, and it ended – according to official statements – a month later. However, historians believe that the terror campaign lasted at least until 1922, the year the Civil War ended. The ‘Red Terror’, led by the secret police (Cheka) and the GRU (foreign military intelligence), helped strenghten the Bolshevik regime by means ofviolence never before seen in Europe. It was, however, the mere start of the soviet terror regime.
The Red Terror was the first stage in the proletariat’s dictatorship. As such, it was justified by the authorities as a necessary step in eliminating class enemies. According to official ideology and propaganda, the eradication of class enemies and revolutionaries could only be achieved through violence.
"Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words. Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror." Martin Latsis, head of the Ukrainian Cheka
The first official orders for a terror campaign date from august 1918, after the assassination of Moisei Uritski (head of the Petrograd Cheka) and the attempted assassination of Lenin (by Fanny Kaplan). While recovering from his gunshot wounds, Lenin gave orders for a repressive campaign. After Uritski’s death, 500 people – ‘representatives of the enemy classes’ – were executed. Afterward, on September 3rd, Izvestiapublished the first article on the Red Terror, through which the Bolsheviks were appealing to the ‘working class’ to contribute to the destruction of their enemies through terror.
“In this dogma, with its basic altruism of purpose, they found justification for their instinctive fear of outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifice they felt bound to demand.”
The repressive campaign was conducted very quickly. On October 15th, Gleb Bokii, a high ranking Cheka official, reported that 800 state enemies had already been shot and another 6229 arrested.
Excavation of a mass grave outside the headquarters of the Kharkov Cheka (Image source:Wikipeia)
According to estimates based on lists published by the government (regarding the people who had been executed), historians have concluded that the first two months of Terror made 10-15.000 victims. As the Civil War continued, more and more people died. Tens of thousands were executed in only a few months, most of them without a trial, at the decision of the Cheka. For example, at the end of 1920, in Crimea, 50.000 POWs and civilans were executed (shot or hanged) at the initiative of Bela Kun, with Lenin’s direct approval.
The Red Terror was also the beginning of the Soviet Gulag. Officially, the GULag, the institution responsible with the administration of work colonies and camps, was established in 1930. However, the practice of sending ‘enemies’ to labor camps for reeducation dated back to the first years of the Bolshevik regime.
With this repressive campaign, the Bolsheviks demonstrated they had no other means of gaining power other than violence and brutality, and that the only way they could maintain their position was through terror. They found their justification in communist ideology, which said that the old regime could be overturned only through violence. However, their terror campaign didn’t end after the White movement was defeated, and the propaganda kept uncovering new enemies (from the outside – the capitalist world, or from the inside – saboteurs, spies etc.), which meant that the terror had to go on.