On Christmas Day 1991, the sinking juggernaut that was the Soviet Union finally disappeared beneath the waves of democratic capitalism. The ideological battle between the two superpowers was over and only one remained standing.
The sixty-nine years that the Soviet Union had existed were tumultuous to use a glorious understatement. This was a period of astonishing growth that created not only the largest single country ever seen, but an industrial goliath that was eventually able to throw back even the most determined German during World War II.
An estimated 27 million civilians died in the Soviet Union during World War II, a figure that far outstrips any other nation, with China being the next closest with estimated 14 million deaths. But despite the apocalyptic loss of life, the Soviet Union did finally prevail and laid the groundwork for the Cold War superpower nation that was to rise out of the ashes.
But our video today isn’t about the Soviet Union during World War II or the Cold War, but rather what happened before – well before – when the winds of dramatic social change tore Russia in two and the Soviet Union first emerged.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 may have been the spark that started it all, but it was the mass executions, mass incarcerations and bloody recriminations that were together known as the Red terror that followed that set the scene for the paranoid, bloodthirsty early decades of the Soviet Union. A time of murderous chaos where political ideas, disagreements, or just plain personal grievances could see your life ended in the blink of an eye – or at best, receive a one-way ticket to a distant gulag.
The Soviet Union barrelled through numerous periods of utter bleakness during its 69 years; war, famine, gulags, nuclear accidents and plenty of purges – but it all began in 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution when terror descended.
Imperial Russia was once one of the world’s great empires. At its peak, around the mid to late 19th Century, the Russian Empire stretched to a colossal 22,800,000 km2 (8,800,000 sq mi) and included everything from Alaska to Finland and plenty of the area that would eventually go on to be the Soviet Union.
But like many places in the world, Russia became a place of staggering inequality. The sumptuous palaces of Moscow and St Petersburg were in stark contrast to the bludgeoning hardship of everyday life that most people experienced.
In winter 1905, there was an air of change sweeping through the chilly streets of Russia. Peasants and workers demanded better working conditions, better hours, limits on the power of state officials and the introduction of a national parliament. On the 22nd of January, a large protest gathered near the Winter Palace in St Petersburg intending to deliver a petition to the Tsar – who wasn’t actually there at the time, but you get the symbolism.
Roughly 10,000 soldiers had been deployed in and around the Palace, with anywhere up to 50,000 protestors in attendance. The first shots rang out just past 10 am and throughout the day there were several instances of soldiers firing indiscriminately at the unarmed crowd. It’s not known exactly how many died that day, but moderate estimates place the dead at around 1,000.
What has come to be known as Bloody Sunday had several knock-on effects. Strikes were soon called that were met with bloody reprisal that sought to smash the movement before it could even get going. An estimated 15,000 peasants and workers were either hung or shot in 1905 and 1906, while a further 45,000 were sent into exile. While the Red Terror wouldn’t begin for another 12 years, the concept of clearing house of those who disagreed with you was already well established.
But there were also some quite seismic changes to Russia’s political and social make-up. The Russian Constitution of 1906 stated for the first time that the Tsar would share power with the parliament, while also protecting the basic civil rights of all Russians. Yet, considering what had already happened in the lead-up, this was like being savagely beaten then informed after that you were probably right all along.
Don’t get me wrong, the Russian Constitution was a huge step forward, but in reality, it made little difference to the lives of the everyday men and women of Russia – and any good feelings that may have emerged soon evaporated as Russia found itself embroiled in the bloodiest war ever seen.
The First World War was the catalyst that finally drove Russia apart. The nation’s frequent calamitous performances on the battlefield, coupled with the intense hardship felt back home, sparked unrest in 1917 that eventually led to a full-scale revolution. The Tsar was soon forced to abdicate with he and his family meeting a grisly end at the hands of a Bolshevik firing squad on 17th July 1918.
With the Tsar and his family now out of the way, Russia saw itself pulled in two separate directions. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladamir Lenin, campaigned for a socialist state under the guidance of Marxism and had the support of much of the working class, while the provisional government, initially led by Prince Georgy Lvov and later by Alexander Kerensky, roughly wanted to keep the status quo going, while keeping power away from the Bolsheviks.
A Provisional Government took power in 1917 but due to infighting and political factionalism, it quickly found itself at a gridlock – which played perfectly into the hands of the group demanding radical social change.
The October Revolution – the Russians admirably managed to squeeze two revolutions into a single year – delivered a shattering blow to the Provisional Government that saw armed groups storm the Winter Palace in Petrograd (modern St Petersburg) in protest of how the country was being run. This resulted in another government, formed primarily of Bolsheviks and Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, which took power on October 25th after the Congress adopted a decree transferring power to the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies.
Now, I know we’re barreling through this slice of history at quite a speed, but to lay the foundation for the brutality that unfolded over the next few decades, it’s important to highlight the staggering distrust and hatred that existed between different groups in Russia.
Many absolutely loathed the idea of the Bolsheviks in power – mostly the rich, landowners and those with plenty to lose from a massive shakeup in society. Equally so, the Bolsheviks gazed with utter contempt at this group who they believed to be nothing more than the bourgeoisie who had long drained the lifeblood of the Russian working class. The stage was set for a Civil War that would drag on for five years and included soldiers from numerous foreign nations who didn’t like the idea of a massive socialist state who had just disposed of its royal family right on their doorstep. The Russian Civil War was fought with a viciousness that eventually cost the lives of between 7 and 12 million people across the nation.
But it also sparked the first period of murderous paranoia that would become common in the Soviet Union, known as the Red Terror. A four-year campaign that saw political and social repression on a staggering scale.
Up to this point, the Bolsheviks, though far from perfect, were still a far cry from what was to come during the darkest days of the Soviet Union. This was a group that had self-styled themselves as warriors of the people, who would unshackle the poor while giving opportunities to all and creating a more just and equal society. Of course, it didn’t quite work out like that, but it’s not difficult to see the appeal to those who had absolutely nothing and who looked on with envy at those who had accumulated astonishing fortunes. This would be class warfare in its most literal sense.
As the country splintered into civil war and suspicions erupted on both sides, the Bolsheviks unleashed a wave of terror aimed at cementing their power and legitimacy that eventually killed between 50,000 and 200,000 Russians – depending on your source. And for the sake of balance, while we’re focusing on the Red Terror today, the opposing side also unleashed their own murder repression campaign, known as the White Terror, which killed between 20,000 and 100,000 people.
The Red Terror began in August 1918 as the Bolsheviks sought to silence dissent, eliminate rivals and generally place a leash around everybody’s necks. What was loosely modelled on the Reign of Terror which had enveloped France after the French Revolution, the Red Terror was partly in response to several assassination attempts that occurred in August.
On 17th August, Moisei Uritsky, the Chief of the Cheka in the Petrograd Soviet – and don’t worry we will go into the Cheka more shortly – was gunned down in Petrograd by Leonid Kannegisser, a young military cadet of the Imperial Russian Army. His death sparked fury among the Bolsheviks but this was just the start. On 30th August 1918, Vladimir Lenin was shot three times by Fanny Kaplan, a Socialist-Revolutionary who vehemently disagreed with the path he was taking the country down. Though he survived, the dark clouds of paranoia and revenge quickly gathered.
On 3rd September, a stark warning was published in the Izvestia newspaper, titled “Appeal to the Working Class” – in which it called for workers to rise up and destroy the bourgeoisie and to “crush the hydra of counterrevolution with massive terror!” The article also made it perfectly clear that any rumour or word said against the Bolsheviks, would result in a speedy transit to a concentration camp. The Bolsheviks were calling upon their ideological base to support a societal cull that was coming but as we’ll get to shortly, the Red Terror ranged far wider than just traditional class enemies.
A few days later a formal decree was signed which signalled the official start of the Red Terror, with an aim “to secure the Soviet Republic from the class enemies by isolating them in concentration camps.”
However, while this is the easiest point to begin with, things had been building in Russia for months and a telegram sent by Lenin just a few weeks prior – now chillingly referred to as ‘Lenin’s Hanging Order’ – in which he ordered 100 Kulaks (peasants who owned over 8 acres) be hanged in response to an uprising, already showed the lengths that the Bolshevik leaders were willing to go to keep control of power.
Repression Sweeps the Nation
The speed at which the Red Terror swept through Bolshevik controlled lands was staggering. In the first month alone, it’s thought that between 10,000 and 15,000 people were executed, many of whom were already political prisoners or hostages and so provided the easiest first step.
The overwhelming majority of these executions were carried out by the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-revolution and Sabotage – more commonly known as the Cheka, the Soviet secret police that had been established near the end of 1917 and was now under the leadership of Felix Dzerzhinsky – one of the chief architects of the Red Terror, who once said: “The Red Terror involves the terrorization, arrests and extermination of enemies of the revolution on the basis of their class affiliation or of their pre-revolutionary roles.”
By the time the Red Terror began, the Cheka already had plenty of blood on their hands, but with official approval from above, they set about their work with extraordinary vigour. While their initial targets were typically those involved with the opposition, things rapidly expanded and you could find a murderous Cheka squad at your door if you had any affiliation to any group that wasn’t the Bolsheviks.
Lenin and other leaders tried to conveniently lump everybody together who they disagreed with – or who had ever said anything they disagreed with – and referred to them as the ‘whites’ – but in reality, these were a broad range of people whose political ideology or social standing could range from anarchists, tsarists, liberals, non-Bolshevik socialists, members of the clergy, ordinary criminals, counter-revolutionaries, other political dissidents, and those who you might loosely call early fascists.
Many of the early executions were carried out in the cellars or basements of prisons or other buildings, but it wasn’t uncommon for victims to be driven out into the countryside and executed there, with mass graves dating from this period still being unearthed to this day. There were no trials, there were no lawyers – there was no hope of any kind of defence. If your name appeared on one of the many death lists, only fleeing could possibly save you.
The Net Widens
But as I said, it didn’t take long for the net of repression to be cast much wider than simply political and military enemies. As time passed, peasants and workers, some of whom had greeted the arrival of the Bolsheviks like liberating heroes, began to realise that their lives were not about to improve despite the huge social upheaval. If you were a poor worker struggling to feed your family under the Tsar in 1910, then chances were you would still be a poor worker struggling to feed your family under the Bolsheviks in 1919.
Support from the working class began to sag, with strikes and uprisings soon appearing. With their legitimacy being questioned, and their supposed enemies now coming from two sides, the Bolsheviks reacted with crushing repression. Peasants who had been involved in uprisings – or even those who were suspected to have maybe been involved – were targeted and either executed or sent to one of the concentration camps.
Millions deserted from the Red Army and fled back home, but the relentless chase of the Cheka saw around 500,000 deserters arrested in 1919 and close to 800,000 in 1920. Their tactics for apprehending deserters and putting down peasant rebellions were shocking and it was common for them to take family members hostage and even execute them unless those targeted came forward. By 1920, the Cheka had grown from a group of around fifty men when it was first established, to a massive murderous machine numbering roughly 200,000 men.
Even the workers themselves, who you might have thought would have been the cornerstone of the Bolshevik movement were heavily targeted. In early 1919, numerous strikes in factories began as workers demanded better food rations, the elimination of privileges for Bolsheviks, freedom of the press, and free elections. All were savagely put down by the Cheka who executed thousands of workers to send a grim message to anybody daring to cross the Bolsheviks.
What occurred during the Red Terror was not simply your run of the mill executions. The tactics used by the Cheka were often sickening to the extreme. Some of this was no doubt done to try to gain information, but you can’t escape the feeling that much of the cruelty was encouraged to leave a lasting mark on the population long after the deaths had occurred.
There were reports of ‘White’ officers being fed into furnaces or tanks of boiling water, scalpings, hand-flayings and the skin being peeled off victims’ hands to produce “gloves”. In the city of Voronezh, the Cheka was said to roll naked people around in barrels studded internally with nails, while in Dnipropetrovsk victims were sometimes crucified or stoned to death.
In Kremenchuk members of the clergy were impaled, while rebelling peasants were buried alive. In Oryol, water was poured on naked prisoners bound in the winter streets until they became living ice statues. And in Kiev, where a Chinese Cheka detachment was said to be based, they put 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 to escape. As I said, sickening to the extreme.
Just a quick point on the Chinese Cheka before we move on because this is quite interesting. We don’t know too much about the Chinese involvement during this period, but there are numerous reports of Chinese soldiers being used in both the Cheka and as bodyguards for high-ranking Bolsheviks. These men weren’t sent from China itself but were rather factory workers and labourers who had moved to the area before the Russian Revolution. We don’t really know how many in terms of numbers, but it’s clear from the numerous reports that their involvement was fairly widespread.
The Terror Subsides
It’s difficult to say when exactly the Red Terror ended, as some argue that it simply continued on but in a rather less frantic manner. By 1920, the Civil War that had been on a knife-edge in the early stages had swung firmly in the favour of the Bolsheviks. The White Army had been gradually pushed east and had effectively become a non-entity, though there were sporadic upsurges until 1923 when the majority of Russia settled under Bolshevik rule.
With control of the nation now firmly in their grasp, there was a notable decrease in executions and deportations as the bloody Civil War drew to a close. Though if you know your Soviet history you’ll know full well that this was just the start. The Red Terror would soon be followed by the horror of the Holodomor, also known as the Great Famine, that killed between 5 and 10 million people, most of them in what is present-day Ukraine and of course Stalin’s numerous purges most of which occurred between 1937 and 1938 and killed just over a million people and sent many more millions to the distant gulags. And that’s before we even get to the destruction of World War II.
The Red Terror represents a chilling period of repression that saw the Bolsheviks rampage through early Soviet society with utter impunity and absolute savagery. If the Bolsheviks had sought to browbeat the population into submission through their terror tactics, it certainly worked. By eliminating their rivals, purging society of what they considered the bourgeoisie elite and setting a bloody example of what happens to those who crossed the line, the Soviet Union closed ranks with a ferocious intensity. And those ranks wouldn’t be fully broken for nearly seven decades.