The Cheka (ЧК - чрезвычайная комиссия Chrezvychaynaya Komissiya, ) was the first of a succession of Soviet state security organizations. It was created by a decree issued on December 20, 1917, by Vladimir Lenin and subsequently led by an aristocrat turned communist Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky. After 1922, the Cheka underwent a series of reorganizations.
From its founding, the Cheka was an important military and security arm of the Bolshevik communist government. In 1921 the Troops for the Internal Defense of the Republic (a branch of the Cheka) numbered 200,000. These troops policed labor camps, ran the Gulag system, conducted requisitions of food, liquidated political opponents (on both the right and the left), put down peasant rebellions, riots by workers, and mutinies in the Red Army, which was plagued by desertions
A member of Cheka was called a chekist. Chekists of the post-October Revolution years wore leather jackets creating a fashion followed by Western communists; they are pictured in several films in this apparel. Despite name and organisational changes over time, Soviet secret policemen were commonly referred to as "Chekists" throughout the entire Soviet period and the term is still found in use in Russia today (for example, President Vladimir Putin has been referred to in the Russian media as a "chekist" due to his career in the KGB).
The Cheka was established on December 20, 1917, by a decision of the Sovnarkom. It was subordinated to the Sovnarkom and its functions were, "to liquidate counter-revolution and sabotage, to hand over counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs to the revolutionary tribunals, and to apply such measures of repression as 'confiscation, deprivation of ration cards, publication of lists of enemies of the people etc.'. The original members of the Vecheka were Peters, Ksenofontov, Averin, Ordzhonikidze, Peterson, Evseev, and Trifonov, but the next day Averin, Ordzhonikidze, and Trifonov were replaced by Fomin, Shchukin, Ilyin, and Chernov. A circular published on December 28, 1917, gave the address of Vecheka's first headquarters as "Petrograd, Gorokhovaya 2, 4th floor".
Originally, the members of the Cheka were exclusively Bolshevik; however, in January 1918, left SRs also joined the organisation The Left SRs were expelled or arrested later in 1918 following an attempted assassination against Lenin.
However, within a month the Cheka had extended its repression to all political opponents of the communist government, including anarchists and others on the left. On May 1, 1918, a pitched battle took place in Moscow between the anarchists and the police. (P.Avrich. G Maximoff) In response, the Cheka orchestrated a massive retaliatory campaign of repression, executions, and arrests against all opponents of the Bolshevik government that came to be known as Red Terror. The Red Terror, implemented by Dzerzhinsky on September 5, 1918, was vividly described by the Red Army journal Krasnaya Gazeta:
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 … let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie – more blood, as much as possible…
In an attack on twenty-six anarchist political centres, forty anarchists were killed by Cheka forces, and 500 arrested and jailed. At the direction of Lenin and Trotsky, the Cheka and Red Army state security forces (later renamed the OGPU), shot, arrested, imprisoned, and executed thousands of persons, regardless of whether or not they had actually planned rebellion against the communist government. Most of the survivors were later deported to Siberian labor camps.
An early Bolshevik Victor Serge described in his book "Memoirs of a Revolutionary"
Since the first massacres of Red prisoners by the Whites, the murders of Volodarsky and Uritsky and the attempt against Lenin (in the summer of 1918), the custom of arresting and, often, executing hostages had become generalized and legal. Already the Cheka, which made mass arrests of suspects, was tending to settle their fate independently, under formal control of the Party, but in reality without anybody's knowledge.
The Party endeavoured to head it with incorruptible men like the former convict Dzerzhinsky, a sincere idealist, ruthless but chivalrous, with the emaciated profile of an Inquisitor: tall forehead, bony nose, untidy goatee, and an expression of weariness and austerity. But the Party had few men of this stamp and many Chekas.
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?"
The Cheka was also used against the armed anarchist Black Army of Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine. After the Black Army had served its purpose in aiding the Red Army to stop the Whites under Denikin, the Soviet communist government decided it must eliminate the anarchist forces, which threatened to arouse rural peasant support against the dictatorship of the proletariat. In May 1919, two Cheka agents sent to assassinate Makhno were caught and executed.
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. The exact identity of these individuals is confused by the fact that the Soviet Bolshevik government used the term 'bandit' to cover ordinary criminals as well as armed and unarmed political opponents, such as the anarchists. 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.
The Cheka later played a major role in the putting down the Kronstadt Rebellion by Soviet sailors in 1921.
Experts generally agree these semi-official figures are vastly understated. W. H. Chamberlin, for example, claims “it is simply impossible to believe that the Cheka only put to death 12,733 people in all of Russia up to the end of the civil war.” He provides the "reasonable and probably moderate" estimate of 50,000, while others provide estimates ranging up to 500,000. Several scholars put the number of executions at about 250,000. One difficulty is that the Cheka sometimes recorded the deaths of executed anarchists and other political dissidents as criminals, 'armed bandits', or 'armed gangsters'. Some believe it is possible more people were murdered by the Cheka than died in battle. Lenin himself seemed unfazed by the killings. On 14 May 1921, the Politburo, chaired by Lenin, passed a motion "broadening the rights of the [Cheka] in relation to the use of the [death penalty]."
Women and children were also victims of Cheka terror. Women would sometimes be tortured and raped before being shot. Children between the ages of 8 and 16 were imprisoned and occasionally executed.