One distinctive feature of totalitarian regimes is the use of political police and ruthless methods of repression, including extensive use of both physical and psychological torture. In the modern era, the Bolshevik regime under Lenin, predating practices of the Nazi and fascist regimes, implemented extremely cruel tools of repression well before Stalin’s rise to power. The repressive tools used to suppress enemies of the revolution were far more severe than those used by the Tsarist secret police, highlighting the extent to which ideological fanaticism can reach.
It’s important to remember that similar systems of repression were also adopted by military dictatorships in Latin America, in countries such as Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. This demonstrates that regardless of political orientation, whether right or left, totalitarian and dictatorial regimes that have developed over the century have shared similar repressive approaches.
Similarly, similar structures of repression were also used in the past in Europe, against religious dissent as well as against the indigenous populations of Latin America and Africa. This underscores how, in different eras and contexts, repression and violence have been recurring tools to maintain control and suppress any form of opposition or dissent.
The publication of various articles in newspapers between 1917 and 1918 highlighted the increasing authority and crimes committed by the Cheka against those suspected of being counter-revolutionaries. Lenin not only did not attempt to stop the barbaric actions of the political police but rather considered them a fundamental means for the revolution, accepting their use as a tool of social intimidation.
The increasing terror led the counter-revolutionaries to attack Bolshevik leaders. On August 17th, military officer Leonid Kanegisser killed Moisei Uritskii, head of the Cheka in Petrograd, responsible for the execution of twenty-one officers involved in a conspiracy, one of whom was a friend of Kanegisser. That same evening, Fanny Kaplan, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, shot Lenin, seriously wounding him, as she considered him a “traitor to the revolution.” These two independent attacks shook the regime, which feared a broader counter-revolutionary plot against the Bolsheviks. The Soviet government used these events to declare the two attacks as part of a unified conspiracy, calling for reprisal and revolutionary justice. In early September, the main Soviet newspapers incited workers to exercise “relentless mass terror” against all enemies of the regime.
On September 5th, the Sovnarkom issued the “Decree on Red Terror,” proclaiming the importance of protecting the Soviet Republic from its class enemies, isolating them in concentration camps, and executing all those involved in organizations of the White Guard, conspiracies, or insurrections. Cheka agents acted swiftly, with over 500 executions carried out by the Petrograd Soviet on September 3rd. Other Soviet publications from that time reveal similarly high numbers of summary executions. According to a “semi-official” statistic published by Chekist lieutenant Martyn Latsis, between 1918 and 1920, 12,733 people were executed, a figure considered significantly underestimated by many historians. Robert Conquest, in a study for the United States Congress, estimated about 200,000 deaths during this period.
The Bolshevik regime accused the Tsarist government of being bloody and repressive, but the level of terror exerted under the Bolsheviks was unprecedented. According to Conquest, Tsarist Russia had carried out only forty-eight executions between 1866 and 1900, a period that included thirty-nine political murders. Between 1900 and 1914, revolutionary terror caused the death of over 10,000 state employees. Conquest estimated that in the last five decades of the Tsarist government, executions did not exceed 14,000.
Other repressive measures of the “Red Terror” included hostage-taking and torture. The Cheka terrorized the Russian population with the seizure and detention of many innocents. The practice of “taking hostages” was established by decree by Lenin in August 1918. On September 4th, Grigorii Petrovskij, Interior Commissioner, ordered the taking of numerous hostages from among the bourgeoisie and officials. During the “Red Terror,” the Cheka took hostage over 13,000 people, many of whom died during mass executions.
During the “Red Terror,” the Cheka was authorized to detain suspects for unlimited periods, subjecting them to long and repeated interrogations, in which psychophysical violence was common practice. Cheka officers resorted to threats, beatings, and torture, with methods of brutality comparable to those of the Spanish Inquisition. Torture techniques included scalping, live burial, immersion of limbs in boiling water, sawing bones, and other horrific practices. By the end of 1919, the Cheka exercised the right to extrajudicially imprison individuals in their own prisons without trial. In addition to the People’s Courts and Revolutionary Tribunals, the Soviet secret police established their own courts, where the Cheka leadership met in secret, without witnesses or defense , and pronounced verdicts in the absence of the accused. Unlike the Ochrana, the Cheka had no judicial power and did not manage prison camps, nor did it frequently use torture, which was not authorized by the State.
During the “Red Terror,” there was a dramatic increase in the prison population. There were three types of prisons: regular prisons managed by the Justice Commissariat, with about 60,000 prisoners in 1920, a third of whom were condemned by the Cheka; labor camps under the responsibility of the Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD); and special detention camps managed by the Cheka, considered the nation’s first concentration camps.
The prison conditions under the communist government were much harsher than those of the preceding regime: overcrowding, cold, scarce rations, and lack of clean water were the norm. The Cheka used prisons and concentration camps as tools of prevention and terror, unlike the Tsarist judicial system, which sentenced for punitive purposes.
The Cheka was also known for its brutality and inhumanity in interrogations, often aimed at extracting confessions to justify pre-determined convictions. Unlike the Ochrana, which developed a more empathetic and “psychological” approach to interrogation, the Cheka was obsessed with identifying the regime’s enemies and was not concerned about public opinion criticisms of its methods. This obsession led to a brutal and indiscriminate approach in their actions. Initially, their focus was on members of the pre-revolutionary elite, such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers, and later extended to qualified technical personnel in the industrial and railway sectors. The practice of taking hostages was also used by the Red Army, capturing family members to force former Tsarist officers to fight against the Whites.
The ingenuity of the Cheka’s torture methods has been documented by various historians. For example, in Kharkiv, torture involved the use of boiling water on victims’ hands; in Tsaritsyn, bones were sawed; in Voronezh, victims were rolled in barrels filled with nails; in Armavir, skulls were crushed; in Kyiv, cages with rats were attached to the victims’ torsos; and in Odessa, victims were slowly pushed into ovens or vats of boiling water. These tortures, among others, demonstrate the excessive brutality of the Cheka.
The conditions in the special detention camps, which were the nation’s first concentration camps, were appalling. Many of these camps were set up in confiscated old monasteries, and inside them, about 8,000 detainees were held not awaiting a judicial sentence, but considered potentially dangerous by the regime.
Finally, the dramatic increase in the prison population during the “Red Terror” highlights the intensity and scope of the repression under the Bolshevik regime. The inhumane conditions in prisons and camps, combined with the indiscriminate use of torture and executions, reflect the harsh reality of that historical period, marked by a regime of unprecedented terror and repression.