The Red Terror (Russian: красный террор, romanised: krasnyy terror) in Soviet Russia was a campaign of political repression and executions which was carried out by the Bolsheviks, chiefly through the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police.
It officially started in early September 1918 and lasted until 1922. Arising after assassination attempts on Vladimir Lenin and Petrograd Cheka leader Moisei Uritsky in alleged retaliation for Bolshevik atrocities, the latter of which was successful, the Red Terror was modelled on the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, and sought to eliminate political dissent, opposition, and any other threat to Bolshevik power. More broadly, the term is usually applied to Bolshevik political repression throughout the Civil War (1917-1923), as distinguished from the White Terror carried out by the White Army (Russian and non-Russian groups opposed to Bolshevik rule) against their political enemies, including the Bolsheviks.
Number of Deaths
There is no consensus among the Western historians on the number of deaths from the Red Terror. One source gives estimates of 28,000 executions per year from December 1917 to February 1922. Estimates for the number of people shot during the initial period of the Red Terror are at least 10,000. Estimates for the whole period go for a low of 50,000 to highs of 140,000 and 200,000 executed.
According to historian W. Bruce Lincoln (1989), the best estimations for the number of executions in total put the number at about 100,000. According to Vadim Erlikhman’s investigation, the number of the Red Terror’s victims is at least 1,200,000 people. According to Robert Conquest, a total of 140,000 people were shot in 1917-1923, but Jonathan D. Smele estimates they were considerably fewer, “perhaps less than half that many”. Candidate of Historical Sciences Nikolay Zayats states that the number of people shot by the Cheka in 1918-1922 is about 37,300 people, shot in 1918–1921 by the verdicts of the tribunals – 14,200, i.e. about 50,000-55,000 people in total, although executions and atrocities were not limited to the Cheka, having been organised by the Red Army as well. In 1924, an anti-Bolshevik Popular Socialist Sergei Melgunov (1879-1956) published a detailed account on the Red Terror in Russia, where he cited Professor Charles Saroléa’s estimates of 1,766,188 deaths from the Bolshevik policies. He questioned the accuracy of the figures, but endorsed Saroléa’s “characterisation of terror in Russia”, stating it matches reality. Modern historian Sergei Volkov, assessing the Red Terror as the entire repressive policy of the Bolsheviks during the years of the Civil War (1917-1923), estimates the direct death toll of the Red Terror at 2 million people. Volkov’s calculations, however, do not appear to have been confirmed by other major scholars.
Bolshevik Justification for Wartime Measures
The Red Terror in Soviet Russia was justified in Soviet historiography as a wartime campaign against counter-revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921, targeting those who sided with the Whites (White Army). Bolsheviks referred to any anti-Bolshevik factions as Whites, regardless of whether those factions actually supported the White movement cause. Leon Trotsky described the context in 1920:
The severity of the proletarian dictatorship in Russia, let us point out here, was conditioned by no less difficult circumstances [than the French Revolution]. There was one continuous front, on the north and south, in the east and west. Besides the Russian White Guard armies of Kolchak, Denikin and others, there are those attacking Soviet Russia, simultaneously or in turn: Germans, Austrians, Czecho-Slovaks, Serbs, Poles, Ukrainians, Roumanians, French, British, Americans, Japanese, Finns, Esthonians, Lithuanians … In a country throttled by a blockade and strangled by hunger, there are conspiracies, risings, terrorist acts, and destruction of roads and bridges. (Trotsky, 1920).
He then contrasted the terror with the revolution and provided the Bolshevik’s justification for it:
The first conquest of power by the Soviets at the beginning of November 1917 (new style) was actually accomplished with insignificant sacrifices. The Russian bourgeoisie found itself to such a degree estranged from the masses of the people, so internally helpless, so compromised by the course and the result of the war, so demoralized by the regime of Kerensky, that it scarcely dared show any resistance. … A revolutionary class which has conquered power with arms in its hands is bound to, and will, suppress, rifle in hand, all attempts to tear the power out of its hands. Where it has against it a hostile army, it will oppose to it its own army. Where it is confronted with armed conspiracy, attempt at murder, or rising, it will hurl at the heads of its enemies an unsparing penalty. (Trotsky, 1920).
Martin Latsis, chief of the Ukrainian Cheka, stated in the newspaper Krasny Terror (Red Terror):
We are not waging war against individual persons. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. During the investigation, do not look for evidence that the accused acted in deed or word against Soviet power. The first questions that you ought to put are: To what class does he belong? What is his origin? What is his education or profession? And it is these questions that ought to determine the fate of the accused. In this lies the significance and essence of the Red Terror. (Martin Latsis, Red Terror, no 1, Kazan, 01 November 1918, p.2).
Lenin in response mildly criticised Latsis’ determination:
Political distrust means we must not put non-Soviet people in politically responsible posts. It means the Cheka must keep a sharp eye on members of classes, sections or groups that have leanings towards the white guards. (Though, incidentally, one need not go to the same absurd lengths as Comrade Latsis, one of our finest, tried and tested Communists, did in his Kazan magazine, Krasny Terror. He wanted to say that Red terror meant the forcible suppression of exploiters who attempted to restore their rule, but instead, he put it this way [on page 2 of the first issue of his magazine]: “Don’t search [!!?] the records for evidence of whether his revolt against the Soviet was an armed or only a verbal one”) … Political distrust of the members of a bourgeois apparatus is legitimate and essential. But to refuse to use them in administration and construction would be the height of folly, fraught with untold harm to communism. (Lenin, A Little Picture in Illustration of Big Problems (1918–1919)).
The bitter struggle was described succinctly from the Bolshevik point of view by Grigory Zinoviev in mid-September 1918:
To overcome 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. (Grigory Zinoviev, 1918).
A completely different point of view from those of the Bolsheviks was expressed in November 1918 by the Left Socialist Revolutionary leader Maria Spiridonova, at the time in prison awaiting trial. In her Open Letter to the Central Executive of the Bolshevik party, she wrote:
Never in the most corrupt of Parliaments, never in the most venal papers of capitalist society has hatred of opponents reached such heights of cynicism as your hatred.
[…] These nightly murders of fettered, unarmed, helpless people, these secret shootings in the back, the unceremonious burial on the spot of bodies, robbed to the very shirt, not always quite dead, often still groaning, in a mass grave—what sort of Terrorism is this? This cannot be called Terrorism. In the course of Russian revolutionary history, the word Terrorism did not merely connote revenge and intimidation (which were the very last things in its mind). No, the foremost aims of Terrorism were to protest against tyranny, to awake a sense of value in the souls of the oppressed, to rouse the conscience of those who kept silence in the face of this submission. Moreover, the Terrorist nearly always accompanied his deed by a voluntary sacrifice of his own liberty or life. Only in this way, it seems to me, could the Terrorist acts of the revolutionaries be justified. But where are these elements to be found in the cowardly Cheka, in the unbelievable moral poverty of its leaders? … So far the working classes have brought about the Revolution under the unblemished red flag, which was red with their own blood. Their moral authority and sanction lay in their sufferings for the highest ideal of humanity. Belief in Socialism is at the same time a belief in a nobler future for humanity—a belief in goodness, truth, and beauty, in the abolition of the use of all kinds of force, in the brotherhood of the world. And now you have damaged this belief, which had inflamed the souls of the people as never before, at its very roots. (Maria Spiridonova Open Letter to the Central Executive of the Bolshevik Party, November 1918).
Conversely, General William S. Graves disputed widespread assumptions of the Red Terror (1918):
“There were horrible murders committed, but they were not committed by the Bolsheviks as the world believes. I am well on the side of safety when I say that the anti-Bolsheviks killed one hundred people in Eastern Siberia, to every one killed by the Bolsheviks.”
In December 1917, Felix Dzerzhinsky was appointed to the duty of rooting out counterrevolutionary threats to the Soviet government. He was the director of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission (aka Cheka), a predecessor of the KGB that served as the secret police for the Soviets.
From early 1918, the Bolsheviks started physical elimination of opposition and other socialist and revolutionary fractions, anarchists among the first:
Of all the revolutionary elements in Russia it is the Anarchists who now suffer the most ruthless and systematic persecution. Their suppression by the Bolsheviki began already in 1918, when — in the month of April of that year — the Communist Government attacked, without provocation or warning, the Anarchist Club of Moscow and by the use of machine guns and artillery “liquidated” the whole organisation. It was the beginning of Anarchist hounding, but it was sporadic in character, breaking out now and then, quite planless, and frequently self-contradictory. ( Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, “Bolsheviks Shooting Anarchists”).
On 11 August 1918, prior to the events that would officially catalyse the Terror, Vladimir Lenin had sent telegrams “to introduce mass terror” in Nizhny Novgorod in response to a suspected civilian uprising there, and to “crush” landowners in Penza who resisted, sometimes violently, the requisitioning of their grain by military detachments:
Comrades! The kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed without pity … 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 yesterday’s telegram.
Do all this so that for miles (versts) around people see it all, understand it, tremble, and tell themselves that we are killing the bloodthirsty kulaks and that we will continue to do so …
P.S. Find tougher people.
Lenin’s Hanging Order
In a mid-August 1920 letter, having received information that in Estonia and Latvia, with which Soviet Russia had concluded peace treaties, volunteers were being enrolled in anti-Bolshevik detachments, Lenin wrote to E. M. Sklyansky, deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic:
Great plan! Finish it with Dzerzhinsky. While pretending to be the “greens” (we will blame them later), we will advance by 10–20 miles (versts) and hang kulaks, priests, landowners. Prize: 100.000 rubles for each hanged man.
Leonid Kannegisser, a young military cadet of the Imperial Russian Army, assassinated Moisey Uritsky on August 17, 1918, outside the Petrograd Cheka headquarters in retaliation for the execution of his friend and other officers.
On 30 August, Socialist Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Vladimir Lenin.
During interrogation by the Cheka, she made the following statement:
“My name is Fanya Kaplan. Today I shot Lenin. I did it on my own. I will not say from whom I obtained my revolver. I will give no details. I had resolved to kill Lenin long ago. I consider him a traitor to the Revolution. I was exiled to Akatui for participating in an assassination attempt against a Tsarist official in Kiev [now Kyiv]. I spent 11 years at hard labour. After the Revolution, I was freed. I favoured the Constituent Assembly and am still for it”.
Kaplan referenced the Bolsheviks’ growing authoritarianism, citing their forcible shutdown of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, the elections to which they had lost. When it became clear that Kaplan would not implicate any accomplices, she was executed in Alexander Garden. The order was carried out by the commander of the Kremlin, the former Baltic sailor P.D. Malkov and a group of Latvian Bolsheviks on 03 September 1918, with a bullet to the back of the head. Her corpse was bundled into a barrel and set alight. The order came from Yakov Sverdlov, who only six weeks earlier had ordered the murder of the Tsar and his family.
These events persuaded the government to heed Dzerzhinsky’s lobbying for greater terror against opposition. The campaign of mass repressions would officially begin thereafter. The Red Terror is considered to have officially begun between 17 and 30 August 1918.
Events and Consequences
While recovering from his wounds, Lenin instructed: “It is necessary – secretly and urgently to prepare the terror.” In immediate response to the two attacks, Chekists killed approximately 1,300 “bourgeois hostages” held in Petrograd and Kronstadt prisons.
Bolshevik newspapers were especially integral to instigating an escalation in state violence: on 31 August, the state-controlled media launched the repressive campaign through incitement of violence. One article appearing in Pravda exclaimed: “the time has come for us to crush the bourgeoisie or be crushed by it…. The anthem of the working class will be a song of hatred and revenge!” The next day, the newspaper Krasnaia Gazeta stated that “only rivers of blood can atone for the blood of Lenin and Uritsky.”
The first official announcement of a Red Terror was published in Izvestia on 03 September, titled “Appeal to the Working Class”: it had been drafted by Dzerzhinsky and his assistant Jēkabs Peterss and called for the workers to “crush the hydra of counter-revolution with massive terror!”; it would also make clear that “anyone who dares to spread the slightest rumor against the Soviet regime will be arrested immediately and sent to a concentration camp”. Izvestia also reported that, in the 4 days since the attempt on Lenin, over 500 hostages had been executed in Petrograd alone.
Subsequently, on September 5, the Council of People’s Commissars issued a decree “On Red Terror”, prescribing “mass shooting” to be “inflicted without hesitation;” the decree ordered the Cheka “to secure the Soviet Republic from the class enemies by isolating them in concentration camps”, as well as stating that counter-revolutionaries “must be executed by shooting [and] that the names of the executed and the reasons of the execution must be made public.”
The government executed 500 “representatives of overthrown classes” (kulaks) immediately after the assassination of Uritsky. Soviet commissar Grigory Petrovsky called for an expansion of the Terror and an “immediate end of looseness and tenderness.”
In October 1918, Cheka commander Martin Latsis likened the Red Terror to a class war, explaining that “we are destroying the bourgeoisie as a class.”
On 15 October, the leading Chekist Gleb Bokii, 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. A declaration About the Red Terror by the Sovnarkom on 05 September 1918 stated:
…that for empowering the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission in the fight with the counter-revolution, profiteering and corruption and making it more methodical, it is necessary to direct there possibly bigger number of the responsible party comrades, that it is necessary to secure the Soviet Republic from the class enemies by way of isolating them in concentration camps, that all people are to be executed by fire squad who are connected with the White Guard organizations, conspiracies and mutinies, that it is necessary to publicize the names of the executed as well as the reasons of applying to them that measure. (Signed by People’s Commissar of Justice D. Kursky, People’s Commissar of Interior G. Petrovsky, Director in Affairs of the Council of People’s Commissars V. Bonch-Bruyevich, SU, #19, department 1, art.710, 04.09.1918).
As the Russian Civil War progressed, significant numbers of prisoners, suspects and hostages were executed because they belonged to the “possessing classes”. Numbers are recorded for cities occupied by the Bolsheviks:
In Kharkov 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 Kiev, 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 Crimea, Béla Kun and Rosalia Zemlyachka, with Vladimir Lenin’s approval, had 50,000 White prisoners of war and civilians summarily executed by shooting or hanging after the defeat of general Pyotr Wrangel at the end of 1920. They had been promised amnesty if they would surrender. This is 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 Defence of the Republic (a branch of the Cheka), which numbered at least 200,000 in 1921. These troops policed labour camps, ran the Gulag system, conducted prodrazvyorstka (requisitions of food from peasants), and put down peasant rebellions, riots by workers, and mutinies in the Red Army (which was plagued by desertions).
One of the main organisers of the Red Terror for the Bolshevik government was 2nd-Grade Army Commissar Yan Karlovich Berzin (1889-1938), whose real name was Pēteris Ķuzis. He took part in the October Revolution of 1917 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”. As chief of a special department of the Latvian Red Army (later the Russian 15th Army), Berzin played a part in the suppression of the Red sailors’ uprising at Kronstadt in March 1921. He particularly distinguished himself in the course of the pursuit, capture, and killing of captured sailors.
Among the victims of the Red Terror were tsarists, liberals, non-Bolshevik socialists, anarchists, members of the clergy, ordinary criminals, counter-revolutionaries, and other political dissidents. Later, industrial workers who failed to meet production quotas were also targeted.
The first victims of the Terror were the Socialist Revolutionaries (SR). Over the months of the campaign, over 800 SR members were executed, while thousands more were driven into exile or detained in labour camps. In a matter of weeks, executions carried out by the Cheka doubled or tripled the number of death sentences pronounced by the Russian Empire over the 92-year period from 1825 to 1917. While the Socialist Revolutionaries were initially the primary targets of the terror, most of its direct victims were associated with the preceding regimes.
The Internal Troops of the Cheka and the Red Army practiced the terror tactics of taking and executing numerous hostages, often in connection with desertions of forcefully mobilised peasants. According to Orlando Figes, more than 1 million people deserted from the Red Army in 1918, around 2 million people deserted in 1919, and almost 4 million deserters escaped from the Red Army in 1921. 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 just twelve provinces of Russia, 48,735 deserters and 7,325 brigands were arrested: 1,826 were executed and 2,230 were deported. 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.
Estimates suggest that during the suppression of the Tambov Rebellion of 1920-1921, around 100,000 peasant rebels and their families were imprisoned or deported and perhaps 15,000 executed. During the rebellion, Mikhail Tukhachevsky (chief Red Army commander in the area) authorized Bolshevik military forces to use chemical weapons against villages with civilian population and rebels. Publications in local Communist newspapers openly glorified liquidations of “bandits” with the poison gas.
This campaign marked the beginning of the Gulag, and some scholars have estimated that 70,000 were imprisoned by September 1921 (this number excludes those in several camps in regions that were in revolt, such as Tambov). Conditions in these camps led to high mortality rates, and “repeated massacres” took place. 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.
On 16 March 1919, Cheka stormed the Putilov factory. More than 900 workers who went to a strike were arrested, of whom more than 200 were executed without trial during the next few days. Numerous strikes took place in the spring of 1919 in cities of Tula, Oryol, Tver, Ivanovo and Astrakhan. Starving workers sought to obtain food rations matching those of Red Army soldiers. They also demanded the elimination of privileges for Bolsheviks, freedom of the press, and free elections. The Cheka mercilessly suppressed all strikes, using arrests and executions.
In the city of Astrakhan, a revolt led by the White Guard forces broke out. In preparing this revolt, the Whites managed to smuggle more than 3000 rifles and machine guns into the city. The leaders of the plot decided to act on the night 09-10 March 1919. The rebels were joined by wealthy peasants from the villages, which suppressed the Committees of the Poor, and committed massacres against rural activists. Eyewitnesses reported atrocities in villages such as Ivanchug, Chagan, Karalat. In response, Soviet forces led by Kirov undertook to suppress this revolt in the villages, and together with the Committees of the Poor restored Soviet power. The revolt in Astrakhan was brought under control by 10 March, and completely defeated by the 12th. More than 184 were sentenced to death, including monarchists, and representatives of the Kadets, Left-Socialist Revolutionaries, repeat offenders, and persons shown to have links with British and American intelligence services. The opposition media with political opponents like Chernov, and Melgunov, and others would later say that between 2,000 and 4,000 were shot or drowned from 12 to 14 March 1919.
However, strikes continued. Lenin had concerns 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 putting up with this and do not punish sabotage with shooting; also the delay over the transfer here of locomotives is likewise manifest sabotage; please take the most resolute measures.”
At these times, there were numerous reports that Cheka interrogators used torture. At Odessa, the Cheka tied White officers to planks and slowly fed them into furnaces or tanks of boiling water; in Kharkiv, 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 Yekaterinoslav; the Cheka at Kremenchuk impaled members of the clergy and buried alive rebelling peasants; in Oryol, water was poured on naked prisoners bound in the winter streets until they became living ice statues; in Kiev, Chinese Cheka detachments placed rats in iron tubes sealed at one end with wire netting and the other placed against the body of a prisoner, with the tubes being heated until the rats gnawed through the victim’s body in an effort to escape.
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 moved by truck, 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”. During decossackization, there were massacres, according to historian Robert Gellately, “on an unheard of scale”. The Pyatigorsk Cheka organized a “day of Red Terror” to execute 300 people in one day, and took quotas from each part of town. According to the Chekist Karl Lander, the Cheka in Kislovodsk, “for lack of a better idea”, killed all the patients in the hospital. In October 1920 alone more than 6,000 people were executed. Gellately adds that Communist leaders “sought to justify their ethnic-based massacres by incorporating them into the rubric of the ‘class struggle'”.
Clergy and Religious
Members of the clergy were subjected to particularly brutal abuse. According to documents cited by 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
Historians such as Stéphane Courtois and Richard Pipes have argued that the Bolsheviks needed to use terror to stay in power because they lacked popular support. Although the Bolsheviks dominated among workers, soldiers and in their revolutionary soviets, they won less than a quarter of the popular vote in elections for the Constituent Assembly held soon after the October Revolution, since they commanded much less support among the peasantry. The Constituent Assembly elections predated the split between the Right SRs, who had opposed the Bolsheviks, and the Left SRs, who were their coalition partners, consequentially many peasant votes intended for the latter went to the SRs. Massive strikes by Russian workers were “mercilessly” suppressed during the Red Terror.
According to Richard Pipes, terror was inevitably justified by Lenin’s belief that human lives were expendable in the cause of building the new order of communism. Pipes has quoted Marx’s observation of the class struggles in 19th-century France: “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 room for the people who are fit for a new world”, but noted that neither Karl Marx nor Friedrich Engels encouraged mass murder. Robert Conquest was convinced that “unprecedented terror must seem necessary to ideologically motivated attempts to transform society massively and speedily, against its natural possibilities.”
Orlando Figes’ view was that Red Terror was implicit, not so much in Marxism itself, but in the tumultuous violence of the Russian Revolution. He noted that there were a number of Bolsheviks, led by Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin, and Mikhail Olminsky, who criticised the actions and warned that thanks to “Lenin’s violent seizure of power and his rejection of democracy,” the Bolsheviks would be “forced to turn increasingly to terror to silence their political critics and subjugate a society they could not control by other means.” Figes also asserts that the Red Terror “erupted from below. It was an integral element of the social revolution from the start. The Bolsheviks encouraged but did not create this mass terror. The main institutions of the Terror were all shaped, at least in part, in response to these pressures from below.”
The German Marxist Karl Kautsky pleaded with Lenin against using violence as a form of terrorism because it was indiscriminate, intended to frighten the civilian population and included the taking and executing hostages: “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.”
In The Black Book of Communism, Nicolas Werth contrasts the Red and White Terrors, noting the former was the official policy of the Bolshevik government:
The Bolshevik policy of terror was more systematic, better organized, and targeted at whole social classes. Moreover, it had been thought out and put into practice before the outbreak of the civil war. The White Terror was never systematized in such a fashion. It was almost invariably the work of detachments that were out of control, and taking measures not officially authorized by the military command that was attempting, without much success, to act as a government. If one discounts the pogroms, which Denikin himself condemned, the White Terror most often was a series of reprisals by the police acting as a sort of military counterespionage force. The Cheka and the Troops for the Internal Defense of the Republic were a structured and powerful instrument of repression of a completely different order, which had support at the highest level from the Bolshevik regime.
James Ryan claims that Lenin never advocated for the physical extermination of the entire bourgeoisie as a class, just the execution of those who were actively involved in opposing and undermining Bolshevik rule. He did intend to bring about “the overthrow and complete abolition of the bourgeoisie” through non-violent political and economic means, but he also noted that in reality the period of transition from capitalism to communism ‘is a period of un unprecedentedly violent class struggle in unprecedentedly acute forms, and, consequently, during this period the state must inevitably be a state that is democratic in a new way (for the proletariat and propertyless in general) and dictatorial in a new way (against the bourgeoise)’.
Leszek Kołakowski noted that while Bolsheviks (especially Lenin) were very much focused on the Marxian concept of “violent revolution” and dictatorship of the proletariat long before the October Revolution, implementation of the dictatorship was clearly defined by Lenin as early as in 1906, when he argued it must involve “unlimited power based on force and not on law,” power that is “absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever and based directly on violence.” In The State and Revolution of 1917, Lenin once again reiterated the arguments raised by Marx and Engels calling for use of terror. Voices such as Kautsky calling for moderate use of violence met “furious reply” from Lenin in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918). Another theoretical and systematic argument in favour of organised terror in response to Kautsky’s reservations was written by Trotsky in The Defence of Terrorism (1921). Trotsky argued that in the light of historical materialism, it is sufficient that the violence is successful for it to justify its rightness. Trotsky also introduced and provided ideological justification for many of the future features characterising the Bolshevik system such as ‘militarisation of labour’ and concentration camps.
The Red Terror was significant because it was the first of numerous Communist terror campaigns which were waged in Soviet Russia and many other countries. It also triggered the Russian Civil War according to historian Richard Pipes. Menshevik Julius Martov wrote about the 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‘ was later used in reference to other campaigns of violence which were waged by communist or communist-affiliated groups.
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