Yakov Sverdlov; Dzerzhinsky; Moisei
Uritsky; Bela Kun; Martin Latsis;
Yan Karlovich Berzin
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Red Terror in Soviet Russia was the campaign of mass arrests and
executions conducted by the Bolshevik government. In Soviet
historiography, the Red Terror is described as officially announced on
September 2, 1918 by Yakov Sverdlov and ended in about October
1918. However many historians, beginning with Sergei Melgunov, apply
this term to repressions for the whole period of the Russian Civil War,
1918-1922. The mass repressions were conducted without judicial
process by the secret police, the Cheka, together with elements of the
Bolshevik military intelligence agency, the GRU.
The term "Red Terror" was originally used to describe the last six
weeks of the "Reign of Terror" of the French Revolution, ending on July
28, 1794 (execution of Robespierre), to distinguish it from the
subsequent period of the White Terror (historically this period has
been known as the Great Terror (French: la Grande Terreur)).
Purpose of the Soviet Red Terror
The Red Terror was claimed to be introduced in reply to White
Terror. The stated purpose of this campaign was struggle with
counter-revolutionaries considered to be enemies of the people. Many
Russian communists openly proclaimed that Red Terror was needed for
extermination of entire social groups or former "ruling classes". Lenin
planned the terror in advance. In 1908 he had written of "real,
nation-wide terror, which reinvigorates the country". Communist leader
Grigory Zinoviev seemed to be advocating genocide when he declared in
mid-September of 1918:
"To overcome of our enemies we must have our own socialist
militarism. We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100
million of Soviet Russia's population. As for the rest, we have nothing
to say to them. They must be annihilated."
For many people the major evidence of their guilt was their social
status rather than actual deeds. Martin Latsis, chief of the
Ukrainian Cheka, explained in newspaper "Red Terror":
"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
The campaign of mass repressions was officially initiated as retribution
for the assassination of Petrograd Cheka leader Moisei Uritsky,
and attempted assassination of Vladimir Lenin by Fanya Kaplan on August
30, 1918. While recovering from his wounds, Lenin instructed: "It is
necessary - secretly and urgently to prepare the terror"
before the assassinations, Lenin was sending telegrams "to introduce
mass terror" in Nizhny Novgorod in response to a suspected civilian
uprising there, and "crush" landowners in Penza who protested, sometimes
violently, to requisition of their grain by military detachments:
"Comrades!... You must make example of these people. (1) Hang (I
mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich
bastards, and known bloodsuckers. (2) Publish their names. (3) Seize all
their grain. (4) Single out the hostages per my instructions in
Five hundred "representatives of overthrown classes" were executed
immediately by the Bolshevik communist government after the
assassination of Uritsky. The first official announcement of Red
Terror, published in Izvestiya, "Appeal to the Working Class" on
September 3, 1918 called for the workers to "crush the hydra of
counterrevolution with massive terror! ... anyone who dares to spread
the slightest rumor against the Soviet regime will be arrested
immediately and sent to concentration camp". This was followed by
the decree "On Red Terror", issued September 5, 1918 by the Cheka. On 15
October, checkist Gleb Bokiy, summing up the officially ended Red
Terror, reported that in Petrograd 800 alleged enemies had been shot and
another 6,229 imprisoned. Casualties in the first two months were
between 10,000 and 15,000 based on lists of summarily executed people
published in newspaper "Cheka Weekly" and other official press.
As the civil war progressed, significant numbers of prisoners,
suspects and hostages were executed on the basis of their belonging to
the "possessing classes" and such numbers are recorded in cities
occupied by the Bolsheviks:
In Kharkiv there were between 2,000 and 3,000 executions in
February-June 1919, and another 1,000-2,000 when the town was taken
again in December of that year; in Rostov-on-Don, approximately 1,000 in
January 1920; in Odessa, 2,200 in May-August 1919, then 1,500-3,000
between February 1920 and February 1921; in Kyiv, at least 3,000 in
February-August 1919; in Ekaterinodar, at least 3,000 between August
1920 and February 1921; In Armavir, a small town in Kuban, between 2,000
and 3,000 in August-October 1920.
The list could go on and on.
In the Crimea, Bela Kun, with Lenin's approval, had 50,000
White officers shot or hanged after the defeat of general Pyotr
Nikolayevich Wrangel at the end of 1920. They had been promised amnesty
if they would surrender, and were then murdered. This is considered one
of the largest massacres in the Civil War.
On 16 March 1919, all military detachments of the Cheka were combined
in a single body, the Troops for the Internal Defense of the Republic
which numbered 200,000 in 1921. These troops policed labor camps, ran
the Gulag system, conducted requisitions of food, put down peasant
rebellions, riots by workers, and mutinies in the Red Army, which was
plagued by desertions
One of the main organizers of the Red Terror for the Bolshevik
government was 2nd Grade Army Commissar Yan Karlovich Berzin
(1889-1938), whose real name was Kyuzis Peteris. He took part in the
October Revolution and afterwards worked in the central apparatus of the
Cheka. During the Red Terror, Berzin initiated the system of taking
and shooting hostages to stop desertions and other "acts of
disloyalty and sabotage". Chief of a special department of the Latvian
Red Army (later the 15th Army), Berzin played a part in the suppression
of the Russian sailors' mutiny at Kronstadt in March 1921. He
particularly distinguished himself in the course of the pursuit,
capture, and killing of captured sailors.
Repressions against peasants
The Internal Troops of Cheka and the Red Army practiced the terror
tactics of taking and executing numerous hostages, often in connection
with desertions of forcefully mobilized peasants. It is believed that
more than 3 million deserters escaped from the Red Army in 1919 and
1920. Around 500,000 deserters were arrested in 1919 and close to
800,000 in 1920 by Cheka troops and special divisions created to combat
desertions. Thousands of deserters were killed, and their families
were often taken hostage. According to Lenin's instructions,
"After the expiration of the seven-day deadline for deserters to turn
themselves in, punishment must be increased for these incorrigible
traitors to the cause of the people. Families and anyone found to be
assisting them in any way whatsoever are to be considered as hostages
and treated accordingly."
In September 1918, in only twelve provinces of Russia, 48,735 deserters
and 7,325 bandits were arrested, 1,826 were killed and 2,230 were
executed. A typical report from a Cheka department stated:
"Yaroslavl Province, 23 June 1919. The uprising of deserters in the
Petropavlovskaya volost has been put down. The families of the deserters
have been taken as hostages. When we started to shoot one person from
each family, the Greens began to come out of the woods and surrender.
Thirty-four deserters were shot as an example".
During the suppression of the Tambov Rebellion, estimates suggest that
around 100,000 peasant rebels and their families were imprisoned or
deported and perhaps 15,000 executed.
This campaign marked the beginning of the Gulag, and some scholars
have estimated that 70,000 were imprisoned by September, 1921.
Conditions in these camps led to high mortality rates, and there were
"repeated massacres." The Cheka at the Kholmogory camp adopted the
practice of drowning bound prisoners in the nearby Dvina river.
Occasionally, entire prisons were “emptied” of inmates via mass
shootings prior to abandoning a town to White forces.
Repressions against Russian industrial workers
On 16 March 1919, Cheka stormed the Putilov factory. More than 900
workers who went to a strike were arrested. More than 200 of them were
executed without trial during the next few days. Numerous strikes took
place in the spring of 1919 in cities of Tula, Orel, Tver, Ivanovo, and
Astrakhan. The starving workers sought to obtain food rations matching
those of Red Army soldiers. They also demanded the elimination of
privileges for Communists, freedom of press, and free elections. All
strikes were mercilessly suppressed by Cheka using arrests and
In the city of Astrakhan, the strikers and Red Army soldiers who
joined them were loaded onto barges and then thrown by the hundreds into
the Volga with stones around their necks. Between 2,000 and 4,000 were
shot or drowned from 12 to 14 of March 1919. In addition, the repression
also claimed the lives of some 600 to 1,000 bourgeoisie. Recently
published archival documents indicate this was the largest massacre of
workers by the Bolsheviks before the suppression of the Kronstadt
However, strikes continued. Lenin was concerned about the tense
situation regarding workers in the Ural region. On 29 January 1920, he
sent a telegram to Vladimir Smirnov stating "I am surprised that you are
taking the matter so lightly, and are not immediately executing large
numbers of strikers for the crime of sabotage." On 6 June 1920,
female workers in Tula who refused to work on Sunday were arrested and
sent to labor camps. The refusal to work during the weekend was claimed
to be a "counter-revolutionary conspiracy formented by Polish spies".
The strikes were eventually stopped after a series of arrests,
executions, and the taking of hostages.
Atrocities of the Red Terror
At these times, there were numerous reports that Cheka interrogators
employed tortures of "scarcely believable barbarity." At Odessa the Cheka tied White officers to planks and slowly fed them into furnaces or
tanks of boiling water; In Kharkov, scalpings and hand-flayings were
commonplace: the skin was peeled off victims' hands to produce "gloves";
The Voronezh Cheka rolled naked people around in barrels studded
internally with nails; victims were crucified or stoned to death at
Ekaterinoslav; the Cheka at Kremenchug impaled members of the clergy and
buried alive rebelling peasants; in Orel, water was poured on naked
prisoners bound in the winter streets until they became living ice
statues. "In Kiev, cages of rats were fixed to prisoners' bodies and
heated until the rats gnawed their way into the victims' intestines."
Executions took place in prison cellars or courtyards, or
occasionally on the outskirts of town, during the Red Terror and Russian
civil war. After the condemned were stripped of their clothing and other
belongings, which were shared among the Cheka executioners, they were
either machine-gunned in batches or dispatched individually with a
revolver. Those killed in prison were usually shot in the back of the
neck as they entered the execution cellar, which became littered with
corpses and soaked with blood. Victims killed outside the town were
conveyed by lorry, bound and gagged, to their place of execution, where
they sometimes were made to dig their own graves.
According to Edvard Radzinsky, "it became a common practice to take a
husband hostage and wait for his wife to come and purchase his life with
her body". The Pyatigorsk Cheka organized a "day of Red Terror" to
execute 300 people in one day. They ordered local Communist Party
organizations to draw up execution lists. According to one of the
chekists, "this rather unsatisfactory method led to a great deal of
private settling of old scores... In Kislovodsk, for lack of a better
idea, it was decided to kill people who were in the hospital".
Members of the clergy were subjected to particularly brutal abuse.
According to documents cited by the late Alexander Yakovlev, then head
of the Presidential Committee for the Rehabilitation of Victims of
Political Repression, priests, monks and nuns were crucified, thrown
into cauldrons of boiling tar, scalped, strangled, given Communion with
melted lead and drowned in holes in the ice. An estimated 3,000 were put
to death in 1918 alone.
Interpretations by historians
Some historians believe that Red Terror was necessary for Bolsheviks to
stay in power because they had no popular support. Bolsheviks received
less than one quarter of the vote in elections for the Constituent
Assembly held soon after the October Revolution. Massive strikes by
Russian workers were "mercilessly" suppressed during the Red Terror.
Robert Conquest concluded that "unprecedented terror must seem
necessary to ideologically motivated attempts to transform society
massively and speedily, against its natural possibilities."
Richard Pipes said that despotism and violence were the intrinsic
properties of every Communist regime in the world. He also argued that
Communist terror follows from Marxism teaching that considers human
lives as expendable material for construction of the brighter future
society. He cited Marx who once wrote that "The present generation
resembles the Jews whom Moses led through the wilderness. It must not
only conquer a new world, it must also perish in order to make a room
for the people who are fit for a new world".
Orlando Figes states that the Red Terror was implicit in the regime
from the beginning. He notes that Kamenev and his supporters warned that
the Bolsheviks would have no other recourse than to rule by terror after
the seizure of power in October and Lenin's rejection of democracy. The
Bolsheviks had to increasingly turn to terror to silence opposition and
subjugate a society they could not control through other means.
Edvard Radzinsky noted that Joseph Stalin himself wrote a nota bene
"Terror is the quickest way to new society" beside the following passage
in a book by Marx: "There is only one way to shorten and ease the
convulsions of the old society and the bloody birth pangs of the new -
Marxist Karl Kautsky recognized that the Red Terror
represented a variety of terrorism, because it was indiscriminate,
intended to frighten the civilian population, and included taking and
executing hostages. He said:
"Among the phenomena for which Bolshevism has been responsible,
Terrorism, which begins with the abolition of every form of freedom of
the Press, and ends in a system of wholesale execution, is certainly the
most striking and the most repellent of all".
Historical significance of the Red Terror
Red Terror was significant as the first of numerous Communist terror
campaigns which followed in Russia and many other countries. It
also unleashed Russian Civil War according to historian Richard Pipes
. Menshevik Julius Martov wrote about Red Terror:
"The beast has licked hot human blood. The
man-killing machine is brought into motion... But blood breeds blood...
We witness the growth of the bitterness of the civil war, the growing
bestiality of men engaged in it."
The term Red Terror came to refer to other campaigns of violence carried
out by communist or communist-affiliated groups. Often, such acts were
carried out in response to (and/or followed by) similar measures taken
by the anti-communist side in the conflict.
Examples of the usage of the term "Red Terrors"
Red Terror (Hungary) The executions of 590 people accused of
involvement in the counterrevolutionary coup against the Hungarian
Soviet Republic on June 24, 1919.
The Red Terror in Hungary (Hungarian: vörösterror) was a
series of atrocities aimed at crushing political rivals during the
four-month regime of Hungarian Soviet Republic. It was so named because
of its similarity to the Red Terror in Soviet Russia in both purpose and
effect. It was soon to be followed by the so-called "White Terror"
In March 1919, a clique of Communists, in collusion with Social
Democrats, took control of the Hungarian government, after president
Mihály Károlyi stepped aside. Soon after, the communists, led by
Kun, staged a coup and seized absolute power, proclaiming the
establishment of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.
Committed ideologues within the party, such as Georg Lukács and Tibor Szamuely, argued for the necessity of "revolutionary terror."
With their support, József Cserny organized a detachment of some 200
agents known as "Lenin Boys" (Lenin-fiúk), who sought out and crushed
"counter-revolutionary" activities in the Hungarian countryside. Similar
groups operated within Budapest.
Within two months of taking power, the Communist leadership tried to
restore Hungary to its pre-World War I boundaries, first by recapture
parts of present-day Slovakia, and when that invasion dissolved, turning
their troops against the offensive Romanian army to recapture
Transylvania. These unsuccessful recapture adventures, as well as a
string of failed domestic reforms, dampened popular support for the
Communists, and on June 24 the Social Democrats attempted to regain
control of the government. This attempted coup failed, and in its wake
the Communist leadership carried out a string of terror reprisals to
quash opposition and eliminate the strongest opponents to their regime.
"Requisition patrols" looted homes. The paramilitary groups arrested
putative or real enemies. Numerous atrocities, executions and crimes
have been recorded.
The tribunals carried out 590 executions, some of which for "crimes
against the revolution", but the numbers includes also common criminals
and regular offenders; other sources have placed the number of dead
between 370 and 587.
The Hungarian Soviet Republic fell in the first week of August 1919,
when Romanian forces deployed to fend off the Hungarian invasion pushed
all the way into Budapest. Kun escaped into Russia; Szamuely fled to
Austria but was caught and killed there. József Cserny was arrested and
tried in November 1919; the Hungarian Bar Association refused to defend
him at trial, so a lawyer was appointed by the court. He was executed
As was common in the political unrest of the 20th century, the Red
Terror was answered by a wave of counter-reprisals once the Communist
leadership fled. These attacks on leftists, remaining revolutionaries
and Jews are known as the "White Terror."
Red Terror (Spain) during the Spanish Civil War.
Red Terror (Ethiopia) during Mengistu Haile Mariam's rule.
In China, Mao Zedong wrote:
"Red terror ought to be our reply to these
counter-revolutionaries. We must, especially in the war zones and in the
border areas, deal immediately, swiftly with every kind of
The Nandigram violence in Nandigram, West Bengal in November 2007 was
called "Red Terror" by critics of the actions by the local
administration alluding at the Communist Party of India ruling in West
Bengal. The situation was described as one of "Red Terror" by media.