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The sword-and-shield emblem of the Cheka-KGB.

The Cheka (ЧК - чрезвыча́йная коми́ссия Chrezvychaynaya Komissiya, Extraordinary Commission ) was the first of a succession of Sovietmarker state security organizations. It was created by a decree issued on December 20, 1917, by Vladimir Lenin and subsequently led by aristocrat turned communist Felix Dzerzhinsky. After 1922, the Cheka underwent a series of reorganization.

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.


The name of the agency was originally The Whole-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage( ; Vserossijskaya Chrezvychajnaya Komissiya po-Bor'bye s Kontr-revolyutsiye i Sabotazhem), but was often shortened to Cheka or VCheka. In 1918 its name was changed, becoming All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Profiteering and Corruption.

A member of Cheka was called a chekist. Chekists of the years after the October Revolution wore leather jackets creating a fashion followed by Western communist ; they are pictured in several films in this apparel. Despite changes over time, Soviet secret policemen were often referred to as "Chekists" throughout the Soviet period. In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn recalls that zeks in the labor camps used "old Chekist" as "a mark of special esteem" for particularly experienced camp administrators. The term is still found in use in Russiamarker today (for example, President Vladimir Putin has been referred to in the Russian media as a "chekist" due to his career in the KGBmarker ).


The Cheka was created in December 1917, over a month after the October Revolution and the formation of the Bolshevik government. Its immediate precursor was the Extraordinary Commission to Fight Counter-revolution, established on , by the Milrevkom (the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet) on the proposal of Dzerzhinsky. Its members were the Bolsheviks Mykola Skrypnyk, Flerovski, Galkin, Valentin Trifonov and presided by George Blagonravov.

The Cheka was established on , 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 tribunal, 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 VCheka 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 , gave the address of VCheka'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 organization The Left SRs were expelled or arrested later in 1918 following an attempted assassination against Lenin.

In 1922, the Cheka was transformed into the State Political Administration or GPU, a section of the NKVD of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR).


Suppression of political opposition

At the direction of Lenin, the Cheka performed mass arrests, imprisonments, and executions of "enemies of the people". In this, the Cheka said that they targeted "class enemies" such as the bourgeoisie, and members of the clergy; the first organized mass repression began against the libertarian Socialists of Petrograd in April 1918. Over the next few months 800 were arrested and shot without trial.

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:

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:

The Cheka was also used against the armed anarchist Black Army of Nestor Makhno in 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. In May 1919, two Cheka agents sent to assassinate Makhno were caught and executed.

Many victims of Cheka repression were 'bourgeois hostages' rounded up and held in readiness for summary execution in reprisal for any alleged counter-revolutionary act. Lenin's dictum that it is better to arrest 100 innocent people than to risk one enemy going free ensured that wholesale, indiscriminate arrests became an integral part of the system.

It was during the Red Terror that the Cheka, hoping to avoid the bloody aftermath of having half-dead victims writhing on the floor, developed a technique for execution known as the Nackenschuss, a shot to the nape of the neck, which caused minimal blood loss and instant death. The victim's head was bent forward and the executioner fired slightly downward at point blank range. This had become the standard method used later by the NKVD to liquidate Stalin's purge victims and others.

Persecution of deserters

It is believed that more than 3 million deserters escaped from Red Army in 1919 and 1920. Around 500,000 deserters were arrested in 1919 and close to 800,000 in 1920 by troops of the dreaded 'Special Punitive Department' of the Cheka created to punish desertions. This force was used to forcefully repatriate deserters back into the Red Army, taking and shooting hostages to force compliance or to set an example. Throughout the course of the civil war, several thousand deserters were shot - a number comparable to that of belligerents during World War I.

In September 1918, according to The Black Book of Communism 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.

The Cheka later played a major role in the putting down the Kronstadt Rebellion by Soviet sailors in 1921.

Number of victims

Estimates on Cheka executions vary widely. The lowest figures are provided by Dzerzhinsky’s lieutenant Martyn Latsis, limited to RSFSR over the period 1918–1920:

  • For the period 1918-July 1919, covering only twenty provinces of central Russia:
:1918: 6,300; 1919 (up to July): 2,089; Total: 8,389

  • For the whole period 1918-19:
:1918: 6,185; 1919: 3,456; Total: 9,641

  • For the whole period 1918-20:
:January-June 1918: 22; July-December 1918: more than 6,000; 1918-20: 12,733

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 12 January 1920, while addressing trade union leaders, he said:

"We did not hesitate to shoot thousands of people, and we shall not hesitate, and we shall save the country."

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]."


The Cheka is reported to have practiced torture. Victims were reportedly skinned alive, scalped, "crowned" with barbed wire, impaled, crucified, hanged, stoned to death, tied to planks and pushed slowly into furnaces or tanks of boiling water, and rolled around naked in internally nail-studded barrels. Chekists reportedly poured water on naked prisoners in the winter-bound streets until they became living ice statues. Others reportedly beheaded their victims by twisting their necks until their heads could be torn off. The Chinese Cheka detachments stationed in Kievmarker reportedly would attach an iron tube to the torso of a bound victim and insert a rat into the other end which was then closed off with wire netting. The tube was then held over a flame until the rat began gnawing through the victim's guts in an effort to escape. Anton Denikin's investigation discovered corpses whose lungs, throats, and mouths had been packed with earth.

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.

As a result of this relentless violence more than a few Chekists ended up with psychopathic disorders, which Nikolai Bukharin said were "an occupational hazard of the Chekist profession." Many hardened themselves to the executions by heavy drinking and drug use. Some developed a gangster-like slang for the verb to kill in an attempt to distance themselves from the killings, such as 'shooting partridges', of 'sealing' a victim, or giving him a natsokal (onomatopoeia of the trigger action).

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