This colourful European word in initials stood for ‘The Extraordinary Commission for combatting Counter-Revolution, Sabotage and Speculation’ and we will not attempt to put that in Russian. It was the fearsome Soviet secret police.
It was founded in December 1917, because Lenin (q.v.) was opposed by the middle classes, peasant/serfs and even some socialist parties in his attempts to set up a one-party state. Faced otherwise with famine and civil war, Lenin saw the Cheka as essential for the survival of the Soviet regime he was so anxious to establish.
It was not difficult to find volunteers to join the Cheka. Hundreds of starving ex-soldiers littered the streets and villages of war-torn Russia. They might have been ill-disciplined and cruel, but they knew how to maintain and fire weapons. Lenin made his secret organisation outside the Law, and unaccountable to any other authority.
Very soon the Cheka grew to have even greater power than the official Tsarist secret police, called the Ohkrana, arresting suspects without accusation or evidence of ‘wrong-doing’, staging ‘trials’ and fixing sentences, which included the death penalty. If execution by shooting were required, there were plenty of volunteers to join the firing squad, and one of Lenin’s axioms had always been that Russia’s population was too big to handle properly anyway.
Polish Communist Felix Dzerzhinsky became Head of the Cheka in 1917, and quickly made his presence felt by stating: ‘We stand for organised terror – this should be frankly stated.’ Then an attempt was made on Lenin’s life: as a result the ‘Red Terror’ was proclaimed in September, 1918, under which anything went, and anything was done which certain groups thought should be done. Finishing your life without a bullet in your neck ceased to be a viable alternative.
The Leader of the Cheka of the Eastern Front explained: ‘We do not wage war against individual persons. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class.’ Individual members of the doomed class who objected vocally or in writing to this policy vanished quickly; if money was available they headed for Paris, Vienna or London, even crossing the Atlantic and setting up life again in the land of the free.
Mass terror was first used in the summer of 1918, when peasant risings were suppressed after the grain they had grown was requisitioned by the organisers of War Communism. Hundreds of thousands of the class Communism had arisen to protect against evil Tsars were liquidated.
In July of 1918 the Cheka (under direct orders from Lenin) killed Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and their teenage children including a thirteen year old sick boy in a cellar at Ekaterinburg. As news of the murder left Russia the world declared itself shocked but did precisely nothing, except that Britain sent a battleship to rescue the Tsar’s mother and a few lucky nobles, including a young prince who had just murdered Rasputin (q.v.).
The Cheka now outdid itself in cruelty by setting up forced labour camps entirely under its control. Official figures have of course disappeared, but a conservative estimate states that between 1917 and 1923 at least 200,000 ‘dissidents’ were shot by the Cheka in labour camps, while another 300,000 died in the suppression of working-class movements, strikes and mutinies. The Cheka became, alongside the Red Army, the main instrument of Bolshevik dictatorship. Ordinary people suffered even worse than they ever had done under the Tsarist regimes, but this is the natural result of all revolutions supposedly founded to make the lot of working people better. There has been, and is, no exception to this rule, but people are strangely forgetful.
In 1922 the Cheka became the GPU and a year later the OGPU. In 1934 it was called the NKVD. Hitler and certain companions admired the NKVD and copied it in the creation of the Gestapo. Mr. V. Putin, who worked for the KGB (ex-NKVD) from 1975 to 1991, and who now takes it in turn to be President or Prime Minister of Russia first won a presidential election in the year 2000, and was re-elected in 2004.