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National Observer Home > No. 49 - Winter 2001 >Articles

The Cheka, G.P.U. and O.G.P.U.: Bolshevism's Early Secret Police

R. J. Stove

Less than a year after the Bolshevik Revolution had propelled Lenin from obscure exile to supreme rule of Russia, the first truly major figure in Soviet surveillance, Felix Edmondovich Dzerzhinsky, delivered himself of a statement remarkable for its frank-ness:1

"We stand for organised terror . . . Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution . . . The Cheka is obliged to defend the revolution and conquer the enemy even if its sword does by chance sometimes fall on the heads of the innocent."

Truly "the old order changeth, giving place to new". These accents following as they did Lenin's signing, on 7 December 1917, of the statute that brought the Cheka surveillance force into being announced something altogether novel even for the Russian mind. Nothing with half the Cheka's efficiency had existed under Tsarism. Yet Dzerzhinsky himself found total candour for Bolshevism's sake to be the most natural thing in the world. So dedicated that tradition credits him with a willingness to clean the Communist Party headquarters' lavatories a chore which other Bolsheviks, preferring a more abstract lustration of Augean stables, all shirked Dzerz- hinsky blended with terrorist expertise a fear-inducing single-mindedness. In describing Dzerzhinsky's nature, at once magnetic and forbidding, his contemporaries (after seeking vainly to compare him with any more recent historical figures) resorted time and again to invoking archetypes long since defunct. As guiding spirit, and eventual director, of the Cheka or, to give the department its full name, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Chrezvychai naia Komissiia po Borbe s Kontr-revolutsiei i Sabotazhem) Dzerzhinsky was usually likened to a mediæval monk, to Savonarola, or (most often) to Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor.

This last analogy is all the more surprising in view of Dzerzhinsky's origins: not Russian at all, or even Eastern Orthodox, but Polish and Catholic. Born on 30 August 1877 of aristocratic Polish parents in what is now Belarus, he seems from the start of his adult life to have been thoroughly indigestible. Intended at first for holy orders, he maintained his belief in Catholicism with a youthful fervour entirely unlike the backslapping mockery with which the young Stalin regarded his late-adolescent status as an Orthodox seminarian. It could be argued that, indeed, Dzerzhinsky never abandoned his religious zeal: that when forsaking Rome in favour of Moscow (as he did in 1895, upon joining the Social Democratic Movement),2 he merely transferred his ardour from the supernatural sphere to the mundane. Having inherited his father's tubercular condition, he put extra strains upon his physique by the regularity with which he received sentences of banishment to Siberia: banishment to which (between 1897 and 1908) he was condemned five times, and from which five times he made spectacular escapes.

In September 1912 Polish policemen almost always more professional than their counterparts in Tsarist Russia proper tracked Dzerzhinsky down to a café, where they arrested him. Accustomed to dealing with recognisably human troublemakers, they had never met anyone like Dzerzhinsky before. A brief and hopeless love affair's violent ending had robbed him of what little mental balance he possessed. (Dzerzhinsky's grand passion, a Polish girl named Zosia Kaszprzak, bore him a son. Some years afterwards in one of several episodes from his biography which read like the synopsis of a bad Russian novel he tracked his adored Zosia down to a brothel in Tomsk. There she admitted to having drowned the boy because she could not hope to feed him. Dzerzhinsky responded to this confession by beating her to death in the brothel with a flat-iron.3) Immured in Warsaw's Mokotovski Prison for almost a year and a half before sentence was passed, he repeatedly "shook the bars . . . screamed imprecations, clambered up like an animal, bit at the iron till all his teeth were broken, dashed round his cell looking for something to throw".4 A judge in April 1914 condemned him to two years' hard labour "the dreary routine of the treadmill, hemp-picking, road-building and bricklaying"5 mainly because of his preceding breakouts. Thirteen months and countless hunger pangs later, the authorities transferred him to Moscow, where they announced that his term of confinement would be increased by a further six years. They proved unduly sanguine. The Tsar's downfall, so fatal to others' hopes of freedom, guaranteed Dzerzhinsky's own, as he joined other leading prisoners in carrying out a revolution in miniature against the "imperialist" prison governorship.

Once at liberty, Dzerzhinsky laboured with all his strength in the Bolshevik cause. In April 1917 he declined membership of the Bolsheviks' Central Committee, citing ill-health as his reason; but his health proved robust enough to let him accept membership only four months later. During the Bolshevik Revolution itself he carried out the vitally important task of capturing Petrograd's telegraph offices, on behalf of his comrades' Military Revolutionary Committee. Yet he eschewed the chance of becoming the Cheka's first de jure boss.

That job went to a less formidable character than Dzerzhinsky: Moses Uritski, a comparative moderate by Bolshevik standards, who sometimes opposed the executions of "counter-revolutionaries" that Lenin demanded. Not (Uritski hastened to point out) that this opposition sprang from soft-heartedness; rather, he was old-fashioned enough in his thinking to assume that state terror on a grand scale would lead to reprisals from anti-Bolshevik elements. Lenin knew better; and when twenty-one non-Bolshevik Socialists were arrested in July 1918 for having plotted to blow up the Smolny Institute (Bolshevism's Petrograd headquarters at the time), he persuaded Uritski to sign their death-warrant. This document he ordered to be published in the newspapers, complete with Uritski's signature, just after the defendants had been put to death in August. One of the dead had a friend named L. A. Kanegisser; and this unstable youth exacted revenge by fatally shooting Uritski in Moscow on the morning of 30 August. That very afternoon, also in Moscow, Lenin himself was shot and wounded in a wholly separate incident by a Socialist Revolutionary, Fanny (usually, though wrongly, known as Dora) Kaplan. Arrested within minutes, Mlle Kaplan was over the following week flayed with knives and forced to drink molten wax before being shot in the head within the Kremlin walls: either by Kremlin Commissioner Pavel Maltov or, according to some accounts, by Dzerzhinsky himself.

Certainly nothing in Dzerzhinsky's post-1917 character precluded such "revolutionary justice" carried out with his own hands. Female suspects inspired him with particular disgust. From him, "all human feeling for women had gone: they could be the most insidious agents of the Class Enemy."6 It is worth noting that the Cheka's most vicious assassins included numerous women. It is also worth noting that whereas usually earlier surveillance chiefs a Francis Walsingham or a William Cecil in Elizabethan England, a Joseph Fouché in Napoleonic France no more wanted to carry out their own tortures than an architect normally wants to lay his own building's bricks, Dzerzhinsky was among his own best thugs. When sleep evaded him (and it often did; he worked an average of sixteen hours a day, seven days a week7), he would stride through the cells of the Lubianka which in 1920 had become the Cheka's chief prison and chief Moscow office, occupying the whole of what later became known as Dzerzhinsky Street and beat up inmates, male or female, himself.8

If in his callousness towards women Dzerzhinsky followed a long revolutionary tradition within Russia, another of his chief aversions was as un-Russian as possible: he could not abide drunkards. At one minor official charged by the central government with preventing alcohol abuse in his bailiwick, Dzerzhinsky barked: "I want you to breathe in my face!" The official's respiration showed that he had himself been boozing; Dzerzhinsky therefore ordered him taken away and killed.9 On at least one occasion, though New Year's Eve 1918 Dzerzhinsky himself over-indulged in drink. This led to a scene of orgiastic self-reproach in which he blubbered to Lenin: "I have spilt so much blood that I no longer have any right to live. You must shoot me now".10 Secret police work, Dzer-zhinsky whined, can be done by "only saints or scoundrels . . . but now the saints are running away from me and I am left with the scoundrels."11

Nor did Dzerzhinsky's squeamishness make him unique among Chekists. American journalist Eugene Lyons, visiting Russia in the 1930s, fell in with various former Chekist hoodlums who drank themselves stuporous to blot out the memories of their job. "Remember?" one of the hoodlums asked his companion in Lyons' presence: "I strangled them with these bare hands to save bullets! My fingers are like iron pincers."12 By the time of which Lyons wrote, individual Communist functionaries had had two decades in which to become blasé about the deaths they dealt out. In Lenin's day, Communist strategies remained enough of an innovation to inspire a certain shock even among those implementing them.

The strange conscientiousness resulting from this shock resulted in such statements as the following, by Latvian apparatchik Martin Latsis, one of Dzerzhinsky's chief lieutenants:13

"However honourable the [Chekist] man, and however crystal-pure his heart, [Cheka] work . . . conducted in conditions deeply affecting the nervous system, leaves its mark."

Cheka killers, admittedly, had the legal right to extra rations of vodka14 and by an unwritten, but rigorously enforced, law the right to uncontested ownership of their victims' gold teeth.15 Even these privileges could not always compensate Chekists for the unpleas- antnesses of their jobs. Bolshevik Central Committee member Nikolai Bukharin shared Latsis' concern, and agreed with both Latsis and Dzerzhinsky on the Cheka's need to recruit its manager corps from the cream of revolutionary society:16

"Do not let us forget how many of them [Chekists] . . . are nervous wrecks, and sometimes hopelessly ill. For their work was such torture, demanding such enormous concentration, it was so hellish, that it called for a truly iron character."

For Bukharin, the solution to this problem was not (heaven or, rather, Marx forbid!) to cut back the Cheka's terror campaign, but to provide adequate accommodation and rest for frazzled Chekists to take time out. (Individual Chekists sometimes required more than mere rest. Leading Chekist and People's Deputy Military Commissar M. S. Kedrov had to be confined to a madhouse after his atrocities during the Civil War; and the Odessa Cheka's boss, M. A. Deich, required not only admission to an asylum but treatment for cocaine addiction.17) To the end of his days Bukharin revered Dzerzhinsky for his "justified cruelty to enemies, which guarded the state against any kind of counter-revolution".18 Dzer- zhinsky, for his part, inspired among his subordinates not only respect but profound affection. Many of them called him Batushka "Daddy" and even the most improvident among his "children" could rely on his tolerance for most forms of financial irresponsibility. Sometimes he even "lent" sums to hard-up Chekists, knowing full well that he would never be repaid.19 Indifferent himself to what pleasures money could buy, Dzerzhinsky regarded extravagance as a weird but harmless quirk. Communist males imprisoned for non-political and non-erotic crimes also benefited from his lenience:20

"Belonging as they did to the salt of the earth, their lot was easier [than that of Dzerzhinsky's other captives]. Of course, Communists, like those less favoured by grace, could sin . . . But they were permitted to converse with their fellows, could roam freely [within their prisons], and at certain seasons organised lectures and concerts. Moreover, they were allowed, as far as possible, to carry out their Party duties . . . "

Not so the sexually immoral, who suffused Dzerzhinsky with white-hot loathing. On any bordello-keeper foolish enough to come to his attention, he would mete out special vengeance.21 Non-Cheka spies he inveigled into transferring to the strength that he alone could provide. Once Lenin hired a detective named Dmitrev to report on Dzerzhinsky's doings, only to be soon told that Dzerzhinsky had so charmed the detective his charm, when he wanted to exercise it, could be still more formidable than his anger as to have inducted him into the Cheka itself. Thereafter Lenin, who knew how to cut his losses, refrained from attempting to spy on his alarming comrade.22

That some outright lunatics should have slipped through the net of recruitment, despite Dzerzhinsky's care for the highest standards among his murderers, became inevitable in view of the Cheka's sheer size. As of January 1919, the Cheka had at least 37,000 members; by June 1921 this number had gone up to 261,000, though by the following December it had sunk to 143,000.23 Cheka administration consisted of five major departments: the Investigation Section; the Special Section (responsible for most of the Cheka's infiltration programmes); the Operation Section (the Cheka's military arm); the Commandant's Section (responsible for carrying out formal executions); and the Subsistence Section, which not only handled Chekists' salaries, but oversaw what was obscurely described as Chekists' "spiritual welfare".24

On 6 February 1922 Lenin ordered the Cheka to be renamed the G.P.U. (short for Gosurdarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie, "State Political Administration"), and in July 1923 the G.P.U. became the O.G.P.U. Almost all G.P.U. and O.G.P.U. staff had worked as Cheka staff; but in accordance with its bland new name, the G.P.U. like the O.G.P.U. afterwards showed itself to be an altogether more sanctimonious organisation than the Cheka had been. Cheka prisons were always called Cheka prisons; the later organisations renamed them "houses of correction", "houses of isolation", and "houses of supervision". Even before the title change, the surveillance system after 1921 exhibited occasional mercy that before 1921 would have been unimaginable. One General Popov, when hauled into Dzerzhinsky's presence after a Cheka tip-off, berated his captor with making the Cheka an indiscriminate agent of hangings and shootings. The enraged Dzerzhinsky retorted: "That sort of thing doesn't happen here!";25 but Popov lived to tell the tale of his encounter, as most other suspects did not, and as he himself would never have done in the Cheka's earlier days. Altogether more typical, though, of Dzerzhinsky's later years was the arrest and execution (August 1921) of sixty-one "conspirators" in Petrograd, among whom only one enjoyed wide contemporary fame: Nikolai Gumilev, first husband of Anna Akhmatova, and himself a poet of consequence. To pleas by the literary community for Gumilev's life, Dzerzhinsky answered, with a genuine bewilderment that the more cynical and publicity-hungry Stalin never allowed himself: "Are we entitled to make an exception of a poet and still shoot the others?"26


In his final years Dzerzhinsky combined his Cheka-G.P.U.-O.G.P.U. leadership with less exciting but almost equally demanding functions. He served as Trade Commissar; he directed the national railway system; he chaired the Friends of the Soviet Cinema; and he headed the Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle Against Snowdrifts.27 As unconcerned with popularity in these more humdrum spheres as in his best-known post, he quickly mastered the smallest official detail, and felt contempt for those among his fellow Bolsheviks the majority who preferred theoretical blathering to administrative competence. Besides, a new generation of Party bosses was by this time emerging: men such as the aforementioned Bukharin, but also Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Genrikh Ya- goda, Nikolai Yezhov and Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov. Several of these younger figures were, in terms of Bolshevik tradition, arrivistes. None had endured anything like the physical suffering in Communism's name that Dzerzhinsky had undergone. Many of them fancied themselves as intellectuals, and thus as members of a caste that the autodidact Dzerzhinsky had never cared for. Most were Jews, and whilst Dzerzhinsky himself had ostentatiously cultivated Jews' society in his youth, he never forgot his original Polish Catholic upbringing. All had been born to comfortable, if not downright rich, bourgeois families liable to irk anyone of Dzerzhinsky's noble blood (Molotov's real name had been Scriabin, the eponymous composer being his cousin). They represented a future force that Dzerzhinsky, on the whole, hated and feared.

On 20 July 1926 Dzerzhinsky, increasingly troubled by angina pectoris and more enslaved than ever to a mood of après moi le déluge addressed the yearly Plenum of the Communist Party in terms calculated to scandalise his hearers. The noisier the protests in the auditorium, the firmer Dzerzhinsky's rebukes grew:28

"You all know that whatever strength I have consists in the fact that I have never spared myself. You respect and believe me because I never mince matters, and if I see anything amiss attack it relentlessly . . . It has never ceased to astonish me how persons in the posts occupied by the People's Commissars, their deputies and responsible subordinates should reveal so abysmal an ignorance of those very matters in which they claim to be expert . . . You have slandered me and those who have worked with me. Look in your hearts. You will be forced to admit that the reproaches with which you have loaded us have no basis in fact but are designed to injure us and the protective, constructive benefit we have consistently and willingly rendered the State. This is a senseless, negative tactic unworthy of anyone who would call himself a Communist. It is most injurious to the best interests of the proletariat. I must say here that the well-being of the workers is to me what a child is to its mother, the one thing I hold supremely dear . . . [Shouts of "Order!"] I can see that what I have said has gone home. No doubt such candour is unpalatable; but it is not within the power of anyone here to gag me. And if anyone thinks he can disown any of the fudamental principles of Bolshevism while I am here, let him take warning! For if he attempts any such iniquity I shall have him and his destroyed!"

Pandemonium among his hearers ended only when Stalin, according to unconfirmed but intrinsically plausible accounts, told Dzerzhinsky to "f . . . off". Overcome with emotion at this public chastisement by one whom he had always viewed as a supporter, Dzerzhinsky staggered away from the building, went to the office which served as his bedroom, and locked himself in. A few hours later, to the amazement of those who had been peeking through the keyhole of his door, he fell dead of a heart attack.

Those who had followed him in order to scoff remained, if not to do anything so counter-revolutionary as pray, at least to mourn one whose personal dedication could never be denied. Newspapers surrounded their front pages with black borders. At Dzerzhinsky's funeral the pallbearers included two future Soviet Presidents (Anastas Mikoyan and Marshal Kliment Voroshilov), a future Prime Minister (Molotov), and a Party Secretary (Stalin). "In Dzerzhinsky", Stalin proclaimed as part of his graveside encomium, "the old guard of Lenin has lost yet another of his best directors and warriors." Less predictable was a de-lirious tribute from assorted masochists at the other end of the penal system:29

"We, the occupants of the Odessa Isolation House, met together in the club to hear the heart-rending news of the death of Felix Edmondovich Dzerzhinsky. We therefore passed a resolution asking the administration to convey our profound regrets for this irreparable loss . . . in the firm faith that this terrible loss is only physical and that the great Cause to which Felix Edmondovich gave his life will continue to grow and spread until that happy day when the universe is converted to Socialism."

As to Dzerzhinsky's true achievements, the official figure for the Cheka's victims was given by the Soviet régime itself, with suspicious fussiness, as 12,733. But this number fails to take into account the approximately 100,000 anti-Bolshevik captives during the Civil War, whom Cheka squads shot and sometimes (perhaps in deliberate homage to the French Revolution) drowned in barges, or a further 29,000 Ukrainians killed by the local Cheka after 1920. Robert Conquest has estimated, on these and other indications, the total deaths at Cheka, G.P.U. or O.G.P.U. hands to have been 200,000 between 1917 and 1923.30 By contrast, the total deaths at Tsarist officials' hands during the last third of the nineteenth century amounted to only ninety-four.

1. Ronald Hingley, "The Russian Secret Service: Muscovite, Imperial Russian and Soviet Political Security Operations, 1565-1970" (Hutchinson, London, 1970), page 122.

2. This was the Marxist league that, at its second congress in 1903, split into two irreconcilable factions: the Bolsheviks (who, despite their electoral fraud, took their name from the Russian word meaning "majority"), and the Mensheviks ("minority"). Mensheviks favoured intermittent co-operation with "bourgeois" organisations: arguing that Russia's historical circumstances necessitated this softly-softly approach.

3. Bernard Bromage, "Man of Terror: Dzerzhinsky" (Peter Owen Publishers, London, 1956), page 152.

4. Bromage, op. cit., page 114.

5. Bromage, op. cit., page 117.

6. Bromage, op. cit., page 153.

7. George Leggett, "The Cheka: Lenin's Political Police" (Oxford University Press, New York City, 1981), page 253.

8. Bromage, op. cit., page 153.

9. Bromage, op. cit., pages 146-147.

10. Leggett, op. cit., page 251; Albert S. Lindemann, "Esau's Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews" (Cambridge University Press, New York City, 1997), page 442.

11. Leggett, op. cit., page 266.

12. Eugene Lyons, "Assignment In Utopia" (Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York City, 1937), pages 470-473.

13. Leggett, op. cit., page 162.

14. Leggett, op. cit., page 201.

15. Bromage, op. cit., page 156.

16. Leggett, op. cit., page 201.

17. Leggett, op. cit., page 201.

19. Bromage, op. cit., page 162.

20. Bromage, op. cit., page 160.

21. Bromage, op. cit., pages 202-203.

22. Bromage, op. cit., page 154.

23. Leggett, pages 232-233.

24. Bromage, op. cit., page 156.

25. Bromage, op. cit., page 186.

26. Mikhail Hellar and Aleksandr Neckrich, "Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present", trans. P. B. Carlos (Hutchinson, London, 1985), page 140.

27. Hellar and Neckrich, op. cit., page 204.

28. Bromage, op. cit., pages 204-206.

29. Bromage, op. cit., page 207.

30. Leggett, op. cit., page 467.


National Observer No. 49 - Winter 2001