"We have executed some twenty or thirty thousand persons, perhaps fifty thousand. They were all spies, traitors, enemies within our ranks, a very small number in proportion to the persons of this kind then in Russia. We instituted the Red Terror at a time of war, when the enemy was marching upon us from without and the enemy within was preparing to help him. Scotland Yard executed spies and traitors also in war time".
- Unnamed Cheka official quoted by an English journalist in 1929.
The Soviet Secret Police, known as the Cheka (Chesvychaika), existed between 1917 until its formal abolition in 1922. Formally named the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage, the Cheka was created in December 1917, shortly after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. The Bolsheviks did not implement the institution of secret policing, as it had been a tool of the Tsars, starting with Ivan the Terrible's Oprichniki in 1565. The Oprichnina Horsemen where Tsarist enforcers, dressed in black riding black horses, brandishing their symbols: The dog, which sought out treason, and the broom, which swept it away. All challenges to the Tsar's power where dealt with by the brutal Oprichniki, up until the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II.
After the February 1917 revolution and the abdication of the Tsar, a provisional government was set up, the Oprichniki was abolished, replaced by People's Militias across Russia. The absence of this controlling institution did not last long. In State and Revolution, written by Vladimir Lenin during the October revolution, the new role of the police and Army where outlined. This new doctrine called for a dictatorship of the proletariat, which needed to be ruthlessly protected from treachery. In December, Lenin appoints Felix Dzerzhinsky as Commissar for Internal Affairs and head of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage. The Cheka was born.
Tasked by the Sovnarkom with the same mission as the Oprichniki Horsemen before him, Dzerzhinsky carefully divided his organization into departments which dealt with specific matters. Vladimir Lenin, arguably paranoid, demanded that the Cheka investigate all counter-revolutionary, and more specifically, counter-Bolshevik activity, "no matter from whom they may come, throughout Russia". The Cheka was also given free reign to "liquidate" these threats. No political, military or civilian position was beyond the power of the Cheka. This did not sit well with other security services, notably the People's Commisariat for Interior Affairs (Narodnij Kommisariat Vnutrennih Del or NKVD), which saw its responsibility for the "rights and duties of the Soviets" under attack. An uneasy truce was brokered, allowing this NKVD to maintain control over militias, but not agents of the Cheka. This agency would later assume the Cheka's role in 1934, when it assumed state security functions from the OGPU.
A centralized power structure that saw local Chekas subordinate to central ones maintained the Bolsheviks tight control on the organization. Starting off with a modest 23 personnel in 1917, it grew to over 10,000 by the middle of 1918, as activities increased.
In line with the open mandate to liquidate threats, the Cheka set up the infamous troikas, three-man courts that operated outside the judicial system. The troikas usurped the power to investigate, arrest, interrogate, prosecute, try trials, and proclaim verdicts from the courts and put it squarely in the hands of the Communist party. The death penalty was also taken from the state, and placed in the Cheka's hands. It was used extensively during the mass executions performed during the Red Terror.
Another tool of Soviet oppression, the gulag, was created by the Cheka, to deal with "class enemies", like the bourgeoisie. This political prison system grew rapidly, and by 1923, 315 slave labor camps from which few ever returned were spotted the Siberian wilderness.
1918 saw Russia plunge headfirst into open civil war. Dzerzhinsky, seeking to bolster the Bolshevik cause, instigated an intensive witch-hunt against those who opposed communist rule. The Red Terror, as it came to be called, was likely triggered by Dora Kaplan's attempted assassination of Lenin. Among the first victims of the Red Terror where the sailors arrested during the Kronstadt Uprising. Over 500 sailors were executed for their part in the rebellion. The Cheka was thus established as a powerful tool through which the Soviet government, the Communist party and the Third International, maintained its dictatorial power. The Cheka grew more and more wide-ranging and ruthless as the war ground on. The assassination of the German ambassador to Russia and the murder of the head of the Petrograd Cheka by a member of another socialist faction drove them to execute more and more "traitors" to the Soviet cause. In reprisal for the assassination of the German ambassador, 350 social revolutionaries were shot. The system of mass execution spread to include those who beliefs and class origins differed too greatly from the Bolsheviks. Between 100,000 and 500,000 people were executed by the Cheka during the Red Terror. The victims were usually non-Bolshevik radicals, especially Socialists, Mensheviks, the tsarist nobility and the wealthy "bourgeoisie".
The Cheka was also instrumental in enforcing the bizarre agricultural centralization policies created by the Bolsheviks, which lead to the starvation of millions of Russian peasants. Lenin demanded strict adherence to a law that allowed the state to confiscate all surplus grain harvests at very low prices. Runaway inflation further eroded these prices, and surpluses were being actively sold on a black market. Cheka teams where sent in to enforce the will of the party, and they executed anyone caught selling grain. This increased black market prices, so the Cheka was ordered to seize the grain from those who would not sell to the government. Being found with excess grain was a death sentence, and the Bread War saw brutal reprisals meted out, like the execution of entire villages. The Cheka became equated with death, and they were universality reviled. By the end of the war, even Lenin recognized he needed to rein the Cheka in. He removed its authority over ordinary crimes and limited its jurisdiction to only the prosecution of state offences. It was largely a ceremonial restriction, as the Cheka remained a powerful political tool.
Dzerzhinsky's Cheka was officially abolished on February 6, 1922 when moved to his new position as People's Commissar for Transport, which he had been appointed to in 1921. The Cheka was immediately replaced by the GPU (Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie), the Government Political Militia. Slowly, the GPU regained the Cheka's old mandate, and by 1924, when it was renamed the OGPU, the Unified State Political Administration, Dzerzhinsky had his old mandate and powers back. Name changes did little to hamper the activities of newly reformed Cheka, which remained an instrument of militant communism. It eventually lead to the formation of the KGB, a name famous in the West. The fear it so carefully cultivated in the hearts of the Russian people kept the Soviet Union humming along for the next 70 years.