Shortly after becoming Prime Minister in 1999,
Putin told Russian television
"there is no such thing as an ex-Chekist".
Cheka (later Vecheka)
All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for
Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage
(Vserossiiskaia chrezvychainaia komissiia po
bor'be s kontrrevoliutsiei i sabotazhem — VChK)
The Bolshevik regime created a police system that proved to be far more effective than the tsarist version. It swept away the tsarist police, so despised by Russians of all political persuasions, along with other tsarist institutions, and replaced it with a political police of considerably greater dimensions, both in the scope of its authority and in the severity of its methods. However lofty their initial goals were, the Bolsheviks forcibly imposed their rule on the people. They constituted a dictatorship of a minority that had to establish a powerful political police apparatus to preserve its domination.
The first Soviet political police, created in December 1917, was the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage (Vserossiiskaia chrezvychainaia komissiia po bor'be s kontrrevoliutsiei i sabotazhem—VChK; also known as the Cheka or the Cheka). The Cheka was very much an ad hoc organization whose powers gradually grew in response to various emergencies and threats to Soviet rule.
No formal legislation establishing the Cheka was ever enacted. It was to serve as an organ of preliminary investigation, but the crimes it was to uncover were not defined, and the procedures for handling cases were not set forth. This situation was the result of the extralegal character of the Cheka, which was conceived not as a permanent state institution but as a temporary organ for waging war against "class enemies."
The new government, which represented rule by a small minority, could not assert itself and establish order without recourse to violence and oppression. A new police system was set up, the so-called Cheka (later Vecheka), which, after several reorganizations and changes of name, and having come to be a constant element of the Soviet government, latter existed under the title "Committee for State Security."
At the session of the Central Executive Committee on 14 December 1917, only a few weeks after the November upheaval, Leon Trotsky warned the opponents of the dictatorship that "... in not more than a month's time terror will assume very violent forms, after the example of the great French Revolution. The guillotine and not merely the jail will be ready for our enemies."
December 1917 marked the beginnings of the new secret police in Russia which rapidly grew to assume great powers. The Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage (usually known from its Russian initials as the Cheka) was established by a decision of the Council of People's Commissars on December 20, 1917, six weeks after the October [November] Revolution. Given its militant role and supralegal status, it is not surprising that the Cheka acquired powers of summary justice as the threat of counterrevolution and foreign intervention grew.
No formal legislation establishing the Cheka was published during its existence. It was not, in fact, until 1924 that a document was published which has sometimes been regarded as a founding decree. This document defined the functions of the Cheka as follows : " ( 1 ) To hunt out and liquidate all counterrevolutionary [and] sabotage attempts and actions throughout Russia, no matter what their origin; (2) to hand over all saboteurs and counterrevolutionaries to the Revolutionary Tribunal and prepare measures for combating them. . . ."
The secret police at this initial phase was assigned to make only "preliminary investigation," and it could not mete out punishment. Somewhat later the jurisdiction of the Cheka was widened, yet penalties to be imposed by the Cheka in the fulfillment of its tasks were confiscation, deprivation of ration cards, publication of lists of enemies of the people, etc.
The actual functions and powers of the Cheka became clear only in the course of time, by practice rather than by statute. The most important function did not find expression in the draft decree, although it may have been clear to Lenin and Dzerzhinski : the Cheka's main task was to act as the investigative and punitive arm of the dictatorship, answerable only to the top leadership of the Party and government. Experience was to demonstrate that whatever actions the Cheka considered necessary to defend the dictatorship, including arrest, imprisonment and execution, would be approved by the Party leadership, notwithstanding any formal or legal limitations on its power.
During the first half-year of its existence the Cheka established a centralized administrative network, headed by the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission (known from its Russian initials as the VCheka, VChK or Vecheka). At first located in Petrograd, the VCheka moved to Moscow in March 1918, following the transfer there of the Soviet Government. A strong and nearly autonomous Cheka remained in Petrograd, however, directed by M. S. Uritski. It soon acquired particular notoriety for the severity of its repressive measures.
In all provinces, on the initiative of the local Bolshevik leadership, and certainly on instructions from Petrograd and Moscow, provincial and city Chekas emerged which arrogated to themselves the same powers as those held by the Cheka in the capital. Despite the absence of any legislation authorizing it to make arrests, the Cheka soon assumed this power.
The Cheka soon added to its powers the right to carry out summary executions, although it was clear to leading Cheka officials that such actions had no justification in law. In February 1918 the VCheka announced that it saw "no other way to combat counterrevolutionaries, spies, speculators, burglars, hooligans, saboteurs and other parasites than their merciless annihilation at the scene of the crime," and warned that its organs would cany out summary executions of all such persons. A companion proclamation called on the local Soviets to shoot "enemy agents, counter-revolutionary agitators, speculators, organizers of uprisings" and other opponents of the Soviet dictatorship, and to organize local Chekas.
The initial, in a way a preparatory, stage in the history of the Cheka ended after 6 or 7 months, in the summer 1918. The start of the civil war meant a huge increase in terrorism and a widening of the Cheka's jurisdiction.
The remark made by F.E.Dzerzhinsky concerning A.V.Lunacharsky's proposal, which had been submitted to the [Soviet] government, is typical. In his proposal Lunacharsky suggested that the Ministry of Education would deal more actively with the church and, in particular, it would reinforce its dialogue with the ideologue of the Russian Renewal [obnovlencheskoii] Church, Metropolitan Vvedensky. The Dzerzhinsky response was such : " Leave the Church to the VChK. Because only the ChK with its means can break down the priests."
The change from sporadic acts of terrorism and violence to a deliberate and openly acknowledged policy of mass terrorism took place in the summer of 1918. The immediate cause of the change was a series of actions directed against the Bolshevik regime, beginning in June with the assassination of [M. M.] Volodarski, a Bolshevik leader, and continuing during July and August with uprisings in Moscow, Yaroslavl' and elsewhere.
The Left Socialist-Revolutionaries soon devised a plan for an armed uprising coupled with terrorist acts against Gennan diplomatic representatives in Russia. On July 6, 1918, [Yakov] Blumkin, a Left Socialist Revolutionary, who was armed with credentials of the Cheka, assassinated Count Mirbach, the German Ambassador in Moscow. The revolt was suppressed by harsh measures. Expecting a belligerent reaction on the part of Germany to the assassination of the German ambassador, Lenin instructed Stalin, in Tsaritsyn, to act "ruthlessly"; Stalin answered: "You may rest assured, our hand will not flinch." About the same time (early in July), another revolt, this one led by the (Right) Socialist-Revolutionaries, broke out in Yaroslavl. The revolt was put down and the insurgents were summarily executed.
After an abortive uprising in Penza in August, Lenin telegraphed instructions to "put into effect a merciless mass terror against the kulaks, priests and White Guards" and to put suspects into concentration camps outside the city. A month later the chairman of the Penza soviet reported that 152 Whites had been executed in reprisal for one Communist, and promised that "in the future firmer measures will be taken in regard to the Whites."
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