Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


Chapter 9. The Extraordinary Commission

THE FIRST CHEKA (Extraordinary Commission) was intended just to guard the revolution’s headquarters in Petrograd. But on December 20, 1917, image persuaded Lenin to expand the Cheka to the Extraordinary Committee to Combat Counterrevolution and Sabotage. Not all Lenin’s associates applauded image’s idea. Leonid Krasin, a factory director who became one of Lenin’s most persuasive diplomats and ruthless requisitioners, recorded:

Lenin has become quite insane and if anyone has influence over him it is only “Comrade Feliks” image, an even greater fanatic and, in essence, a cunning piece of work who scares Lenin with counterrevolution and the idea that this will sweep us all away, him first. And Lenin, I am finally convinced, is very much a coward, trembling for his own skin. And image plays on that.

Lenin’s concern for his own skin was not without justification. Sailors who had never forgiven their officers the vicious reprisals for the mutinies of 1905; soldiers who had been sent to die at the front with no boots or rifles while their officers stayed in the rear; factory workers whose wages no longer bought bread and vodka—the urban population would rob, assault, or murder anyone they perceived as an exploiter. Kerensky’s provisional government had released thousands of convicted criminals and psychopaths who provided the catalyst in an explosive mixture, and the dissolving Tsarist army not only set loose thousands of men habituated to killing, but more criminals who had been released from penal servitude to serve at the front. Many of these convicts were to become killers on behalf of the new authorities. The Bolsheviks had been swept to power on the wave of violence that swept first Petrograd then Moscow, including the murder of two government ministers in their hospital beds by sailors. The vengeance of the populace was now to be channeled into a judicial and extrajudicial system for hunting down, detaining, and disabling the class enemy. The Cheka was this channel.

The cheapest and surest method of waging this internal war was by shooting. The Bolsheviks had loudly protested when Kerensky’s government reintroduced the death penalty for army deserters, but in February 1918, after just two months in power, the Bolsheviks gave the Cheka the formal right to shoot its victims without anyone else’s sanction, even without charge or trial. Power of life and death invigorated the Cheka; it spawned offspring with lightning speed. By June 1918 every province and district under a Soviet council of workers and soldiers was setting up its own Cheka. The remit was broad and vague: counterespionage, controlling the bourgeoisie, enforcing Soviet decrees; their character depended on local personalities and feelings. Only gradually, as the White armies withdrew from the center of Russia, were these local groups—frequently barbarous and unpredictable in their behavior but also sometimes controlled by more moderate Marxists and Social Revolutionaries—brought under image’s control in Moscow.

Those, like Adolf Joffe, who were attempting to represent the Soviet government abroad as a civilized body, were embarrassed by the Cheka’s autonomy and violence. On April 13, 1918, Joffe asked the Petrograd Buro to abolish the Cheka: “Uritsky’s and image’s commissions do more harm than good and apply completely impermissible, clearly provocational methods. . . .” Even pro-Bolshevik lawyers were horrified. On July 12 V. A. Zhdanov, who had defended the assassin of Grand Duke Sergei in 1903, protested to Professor Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, who had access to Lenin:

The absence of control, the right to decide cases, the absence of defense, publicity, or the right to appeal, the use of provocation is inevitably leading the Cheka, and will result in it being a place where a nest of people will be made who under the cover of secrecy and crazy, uncontrolled power will do their personal and party deeds. I maintain that the activity of the Cheka will inevitably be the strongest element discrediting Soviet power.

Shortly before they died, two grand old men of Russian thought and letters, the writer Vladimir Korolenko and the anarchist Prince Piotr Kropotkin, wrote eloquent protests against the death penalty. In vain: image retained his power of life and death.

As the Cheka became centralized, it divided by fission, evolving into a complex organism that spread over the whole country. It took over counterespionage and control of the armed forces; it oversaw Russia’s railways; it intercepted letters and telegrams; it neutralized political opponents including members of other left-wing parties; it fought “sabotage”; it conducted espionage abroad. The handful of party workers, soldiers, and sailors in Petrograd expanded in two years to an organization of 20,000 armed men and women of very varied backgrounds united by the conviction of their rightness, or at least their impunity. When they were not fired by enthusiasm, they were motivated by panic. In Petrograd, under Grigori Zinoviev’s hysterical rule, the chiefs of the Cheka were replaced every few weeks, each one more ruthless than the last. Chekisty were overworked: each interrogator had a hundred cases to process.

Equipping the Cheka was easy. The First World War had left for both Cheka and Trotsky’s Red Army enough small arms, machine guns, and ammunition for three years of civil war and red terror. A consignment of leather coats, sent from western Europe for Russia’s air force pilots, was appropriated by image to clothe his men hygienically: the typhus louse that killed so many soldiers preferred woolen greatcoats. Recruiting men who were not disobedient psychopaths was harder. image sought men with “a burning heart, a cool head, and clean hands”; Lenin’s remark that for every decent man nine bastards had to be employed was nearer the mark.

At first the Cheka recruited not just Bolsheviks, but left Social Revolutionaries and even a few anarchists. Piotr Aleksandrovich, the leader of the Social Revolutionaries in the Cheka, was a nuisance: he insisted on making the Cheka accountable to local soviets, in which his party still had a say. In summer 1918 the Social Revolutionaries among the Cheka were tricked into mounting a revolt and were crushed. The Cheka then became the unquestioning agent of Lenin’s party. Accountability disappeared in March 1919: image was made commissar of internal affairs as well as chairman of the Cheka, thus becoming answerable to himself.

image was not at that time a member of the Politburo, the inner cabinet where seven Bolshevik leaders—Lenin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Trotsky, Stalin, Rykov, Mikhail Tomsky—and three nonvoting “candidate” members—Bukharin, Molotov, Kalinin—took all major decisions. Lenin dismissed image as a mere organizer.11 image himself confessed to Trotsky that he “was not a statesman.” But voting for the Central Committee of the party shows how respected image was by the party rank and file: in March 1919, Lenin received the maximum number of votes, 262, while image got 241, fewer than Bukharin or Stalin (258) but more than Trotsky (219) or Kalinin (158). Not until 1924 was image made even a nonvoting candidate member.

image therefore needed a close relationship with a Politburo member to influence policy in the Cheka’s favor. He edged toward Stalin.