On the 20th December 1917, the Russian Bolshevik secret police known as the Cheka was established. Led by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the organisation’s name was derived from the Russian initials for its original full name – The All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. Hundreds of Cheka committees were formed across Russia, who went on to arrest, torture or execute many thousands of dissidents, deserters and other enemies of the state before it was dissolved on February 6, 1922.
Established following a decree by Lenin on the 19th December, the Cheka’s focus was on defending the revolution by removing internal threats to the Soviet regime. Lenin’s decree was purposefully vague, and this enabled Dzerzhinsky to recruit and direct his Chekists – the Cheka agents – in whatever way he saw best. With virtually unlimited powers, the growing number of agents soon began rounding up anyone identified as an “enemy of the people”. Although often referred to as the Bolshevik ‘secret police’, in reality the Chekists were easily identifiable from their long leather coats and a number of their activities were reported in official Soviet newspaper Pravda and Izvestia.
Known as the Red Terror, Cheka’s campaign of mass killings, torture, and systematic oppression grew more fierce as the Russian Civil War progressed. Their activities included a number of atrocities using torture methods that respected historian Orlando Figes says were “matched only by the Spanish Inquisition.”
Official Soviet figures placed the number of Cheka victims at 12,733. However, in reality the figure is probably significantly higher. Some historians place the actual figure at 200,000 or more.