The Cheka was used by Vladimir Lenin to consolidate his power after the November 1917 Revolution. The Cheka was the first of numerous Soviet government apparatuses created to control the people – others being later organisations such as the OGPU and the KGB. Because of the very long formal titles that these organisations had, many had nicknames by which they have eventually become known. Formally the Cheka was the ‘All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage’.
The Russian Civil War had made it clear that not everyone in what was to become the USSR favoured Lenin and the Bolsheviks being in power. The main task of the Cheka was to hunt out what became known as “enemies of the state” and to deal with them. This led to what became known as the “Red Terror”. While in theory the Cheka had to operate by the letter of the law, this was not the case and such was its power that no one could do anything about it if they were arrested for being an ‘enemy of the state’. The Cheka became judge, jury and invariably executioner. In 1929 a former member of the Cheka stated that he believed that it had executed 50,000 people.
The Cheka was created by emergency decree on December 20th 1917 and its first leader was Felix Dzerzhinsky and its headquarters were in Petrograd / St. Petersburg. Within a year, Cheka operatives could be found throughout Russia and their purpose was simple: to hunt out ‘enemies of the state’. In 1921, there were at least 200,000 Cheka members. Most of them were Bolsheviks but in 1918 a few Socialist Revolutionaries were allowed to join though they were all arrested in 1918 as a result of an attempted murder of Lenin. Their remit covered just about every aspect of life in Russia, including hunting for thousands of army deserters and people who hoarded food while others starved. Eventually Cheka units were also given control of border security. The organisation of the Cheka also constantly evolved to reflect the complicated day-to-day life in post-revolution Russia.
In its first days the Cheka was given a code of conduct to work by from the All-Russian Central Committee; suspected counter-revolutionaries could be initially interrogated but had to be handed over to the revolutionary tribunals. Cheka members could only participate in a “preliminary investigation”. However, these were never enforced and the Cheka usually dealt with suspects in their own manner and failed to hand them over to any other authority such was the perceived threat of counter-revolutionaries in Russia and also the belief that any other method wasted time which could be better spent hunting out even more ‘enemies of the state’.
Such was the importance of railways to Russia that the Cheka was also ordered to look after these to ensure that counter-revolutionaries were not undermining this aspect of Russian society.
The Cheka hierarchy had given itself a list of those it should suspect as being ‘enemies of the state’. Clearly anyone who had fought for the Whites during the civil war was high on their list as were former officers in the Imperial Army. Also anyone who owned property valued at 10,000 roubles or more was on the list. They also had the full support of Lenin himself who wanted the swift round-up of ‘enemies of the people’. This support meant that there was little to stop the Cheka becoming an immensely powerful organisation that answered to few people. If anyone from on high questioned what they were doing, the answer they got was simple: ‘we did it for the people’. Such an approach continued to bring support from Lenin and with this any reproach was minimal. For example, 800 people were arrested in the Spring of 1918 in Petrograd and shot without having been put on trial – the Cheka being judge, jury and executioner. Lenin was told that the arrested were class enemies and with Lenin on their side, no one was willing to question what the Cheka did. In fact some of the 800 had been arrested and shot simply because of their religious beliefs. On September 5th 1918, the Cheka started what became known as the ‘Red Terror’. The rationale for this was yet another failed attempt on Lenin’s life. No one is sure how many were killed by the Cheka during the ‘Red Terror’ and the figures vary widely from 3,000 to 8,000.
On February 6th 1922 the Cheka was formally renamed by the Soviet government and became the GPU, part of the NKVD. Though its name may have changed it still had the same chief, Dzerzhinsky. He remained in power until his death in 1926.