3 The Colour of Blood

Strange though it may seem, Lenin only became a Russian household name and image in September 1918 — and then only because he had nearly died. During the first ten months of Bolshevik rule, he was rarely seen in public. Shots fired at his car on New Year's Day had left the leader of the world revolution fearful for his life; and after that he seldom ventured out of his closely guarded quarters in the Smolny or the Kremlin. 'Nobody even knew Lenin's face,' Krupskaya wrote of those early weeks. In the evening he would often stroll around the Smolny and nobody would ever recognize him, since there were still no portraits of him then.'*67

All that changed on 30 August. Lenin had gone to the Mikhelson Factory in the southern Moscow suburbs to deliver a standard harangue to the workers on the need to defend the revolution, as was the custom of the Bolshevik leaders on Friday afternoons. Earlier that day news had reached him that Uritsky, the Bolshevik chief of the Petrograd Cheka, had been killed by an SR assassin, Leonid Kanegiser. Lenin's family had pleaded with him to call off his visit; but Lenin this time chose to go ahead. As he left the factory, a woman named Fanny Kaplan approached him through the crowd and shot three times at him. Lenin fell to the ground, while his bodyguards pursued the assassin. By the time he was brought back to the Kremlin, he seemed on the point of death. One of the bullets had lodged in his neck and he was bleeding profusely. Blood had entered one of his lungs. (It did not stop him from making sure his doctors were Bolsheviks.) For the next few days his life hung in the balance. But then he began to recover and by 25 September was declared well enough to go with Krupskaya to convalesce at Gorki, a village outside Moscow, where an estate had been requisitioned for his private use.

Lenin's quick recovery was declared a miracle in the Bolshevik press. He was hailed as a Christ-like figure, blessed with supernatural powers, who was not afraid to sacrifice his own life for the good of the people. Bukharin, the editor of Pravda, claimed fantastically that Lenin had refused help after the shooting and, 'with his pierced lungs still spilling blood', had gone back to work immediately so as to make sure that the 'locomotive' of the revolution did not stop. Zinoviev, in a special pamphlet for mass distribution, extolled Lenin as the son of a peasant who had 'made the revolution': 'He is the chosen one of millions. He is the leader by the grace of God. Such a leader is born once in 500 years in the life of mankind.' Dozens of other eulogies appeared in the press during the weeks after the shooting. The workers were said to be concerned only for one thing: that 'their leader' should recover. Lenin's poster-portrait began to appear in the streets. He himself appeared for the first time in a documentary film, Vladimir Ilich's Kremlin Stroll, shown throughout Moscow that autumn to dispel the growing rumour that he had been killed. It was the start of the Lenin cult — a cult designed by the Bolsheviks, apparently against Lenin's will,* to promote their leader as the 'people's Tsar'.68

* The first official portrait of Lenin only appeared in January 1918.


The cult was reminiscent in some ways of the ancient cult of the divine Tsar. It went back to the medieval practice of canonizing princes who were prematurely killed whilst serving Russia. But the Lenin cult was new in the sense that it also fed into folklore myths of the popular leaders against the Tsar, such as Stenka Razin or Emelian Pugachev, blessed with magical and Christ-like powers. Here was the mixture of peasant Christianity and pagan myth that had long associated revolution with the hunt for truth and justice (pravda) in the popular consciousness. The orchestrators of the Lenin cult consciously played upon this theme. 'Lenin cannot be killed', declared one of his hagiographers on I September, 'because Lenin is the rising up of the oppressed. So long as the proletariat lives — Lenin lives.' Thus Lenin as the Workers' Christ. Another propagandist claimed that it had been the 'will of the proletariat' that had miraculously intervened, like some crucifix or a button on his chest, to deflect Kaplan's bullets from causing a fatal wound. Poems were published depicting Lenin as a martyr sent by God to suffer for the poor:

You came to us, to ease

Our excruciating torment,

You came to us a leader, to destroy

The enemies of the workers' movement.

We will not forget your suffering,

That you, our leader, endured for us.

You stood a martyr ...

A biography of Lenin for the workers was rushed out after the shooting. With the sort of title that one more readily associates with the cults of Stalin or Mao,

* According to Bonch-Bruevich, Lenin disapproved of the cult (Marxist ideology negated the significance of any individual in history) and put a brake on it when he recovered (Bonch-Bruevich, Vospominaniia o Lenine, 337—40).


The Great Leader of the Workers' Revolution, it depicted Lenin as supremely wise, a superhuman God-like figure, beloved by all the workers. A similar pamphlet for the peasants, The Leader of the Rural Poor, V.L Ul'ianov-Lenin, was printed in 100,000 copies. It read a bit like the Lives of the Saints, the favourite reading of the peasants. All sorts of myths about Lenin, the fighter for truth and justice, began to circulate among the peasantry. Photographs of him appeared for the first time in remote villages. These were often placed in the 'red corner', the 'holy spot' inside the peasant hut where icons and portraits of the Tsar had been traditionally placed.69

Lenin's failed assassin, Fanny Kaplan, was a young Jewish woman and former Anarchist turned SR, who told the Cheka that the plot to kill him had been all her own. She said that Lenin had betrayed the revolution, and that 'by living longer, he merely postpones the ideal of socialism for decades to come'. Kaplan was detained in the same Lubianka cell as the British diplomat, Bruce Lockhart, whom the Bolsheviks had also arrested on suspicion of involvement in the plot. He described her entering the cell:

She was dressed in black. Her hair was black, and her eyes, set in a fixed stare, had great black rings under them. Her face was colourless. Her features, strongly Jewish, were unattractive. She might have been any age between twenty and thirty-five. We guessed it was Kaplan. Doubtless the Bolsheviks hoped that she would give us some sign of recognition.

But she did not. Soon she was removed to the Kremlin, where she was almost certainly tortured before being shot (and her remains destroyed without trace) on 3 September. According to Angelica Balabanoff, soon to become the Secretary of the Comintern, Krupskaya wept at the thought that, in Kaplan, the first revolutionary had been killed by the revolutionary government.70 One wonders how much she wept for the thousands of other revolutionaries shortly to be killed in revenge for the wounding of her husband.

Although Kaplan had always denied it, she was at once accused of working for the SRs and the Western Powers.* It was yet another 'proof in the paranoiac theory that the regime was surrounded by a ring of enemies; and that, if it was to survive, a constant civil war had to be waged against them. The Bolshevik press called for mass reprisals. Having drummed up a rage of adulation for the Bolshevik leader, it did not take much to turn this passion into violent hatred for his enemies. The mass circulation Krasnaia gazeta set the tone on I September:

Without mercy, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky let there be floods of bourgeois blood — more blood, as much as possible.

* It later emerged at the SR Trial in 1922 that Kaplan had been recruited by the SR Combat Organization, an underground terrorist outfit not officially connected with the SR Central Committee (most of whom had moved to Samara by August 1918) but supported by some of its members (e.g. Gots) who remained in Moscow. The Combat Organization assassinated the Bolshevik Commissar Volodarsky on 20 June. It also tried to murder Trotsky on his way to the Eastern Front; but he foiled the plan by changing trains at the last moment.


 

Peters, the deputy head of the Cheka, denounced Kaplan's shot at Lenin as an attack on the working class and called on the workers to 'crush the hydra of counter-revolution' by applying mass terror. The Commissar for Internal Affairs ordered the Soviets to 'arrest all SRs at once' and take 'hostages' en masse from the 'bourgeoisie and officers': these were to be executed on 'the least opposition'.71 It was the signal for the start of the Red Terror.

* * The Red Terror did not come out of the blue. It was implicit in the regime from the start. As Kamenev and his supporters had warned the party in October, the resort to rule by terror was bound to follow from Lenin's violent seizure of power and his rejection of democracy. The Bolsheviks were forced to turn increasingly to terror to silence their political critics and subjugate a society they could not control by other means.

Lenin had always accepted the need to use terror in order to 'defend the revolution'. It was a weapon in the 'civil war'. Of course he was careful to distance himself in public from the institutions of the Terror — others put their signatures to its death warrants — and this helped to fuel the myth that Lenin was a good and gentle 'Tsar' who had nothing to do with the evil actions of his oprichniki. But behind the scenes Lenin was a stalwart champion of the Red Terror. On 26 October 1917 the Second Soviet Congress had passed a resolution proposed by Kamenev to abolish the death penalty. Lenin was absent from the session and, when told of it, flew into a rage:

Nonsense, how can you make a revolution without firing squads? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself? What other means of repression are there? Prisons? Who attaches significance to that during a civil war?

Lenin looked upon the use of terror as a means of class war against the 'bourgeoisie'. From the start, he had encouraged the mass terror of the lower classes against the rich and the privileged through the slogan 'Loot the Looters!' 'We must encourage the energy and the popular nature of the terror,' he wrote the following June.72 As we saw in Chapter II, this mass terror had given the Bolsheviks a strong base of emotional support among those elements of the poor who derived a certain satisfaction from seeing the rich and mighty fall regardless of whether it brought any improvement in their own lot. The early Cheka system was directly shaped by the local initiatives of this mass terror.

Since its establishment in November 1917, the Cheka had grown by leaps and bounds. When it moved into its first headquarters in Petrograd, the Cheka had a tiny staff. Dzerzhinsky, its chief, carried all its records in his briefcase. But by the end of March, when the government moved to Moscow and the Cheka occupied the infamous Lubianka building (formerly occupied by Lloyd's Insurance), it had a staff of more than 600, rising to 1,000 by June, not including the security troops. Provincial Chekas were slower to develop; but nearly all the provinces and most of the districts had a Cheka branch by September, when the order came down to unleash the Red Terror. 3

The Cheka was a state within a state. There was scarcely any aspect of Soviet life, from the struggle against counter-revolution to the issuing of dog licences, that it did not cover. From the start it worked outside the law. The Commissariat of Justice struggled in vain to subordinate it to the courts. The knock on the door in the middle of the night, interrogations and imprisonment without charge, torture and summary executions — these were the methods of the Cheka. In the words of one of its founders:

The Cheka is not an investigating commission, a court, or a tribunal. It is a fighting organ on the internal front of the civil war ... It does not judge, it strikes. It does not pardon, it destroys all who are caught on the other side of the barricade.74

During the early months of Bolshevik power the Cheka was not as murderous as it would later be. One source counted 884 executions listed in the press between December and July. The presence of the Left SRs — who joined the Cheka in January and remained in it even after they resigned from Sovnarkom in March — had a restraining influence. So too did public protests, especially from the workers, whose strike resolutions nearly always condemned the Terror. The time when the public lived in terror of the Cheka had still not arrived. Take, for example, the famous incident in the Moscow Circus. The humourless Chekists had taken exception to the anti-Soviet jokes of the clown BimBom and burst into the middle of his act in order to arrest him. At first the audience thought it was all part of the act; but Bim-Bom fled and the Chekists shot him in the back. People began to scream and panic ensued. News of the shooting spread, giving rise to public condemnations of the Cheka Terror.


Hundreds turned out for the clown's funeral, which became in effect a demonstration.75

During these early stages of the Terror arrests were often random. This stemmed from the chaotic nature of the newly emergent police state: virtually anyone could be arrested on denunciation by an enemy or on the whim of the local Cheka boss. All sorts of people filled the Cheka jails in these early months. Prince Lvov, who was arrested by the Cheka in Ekaterinburg, described his fellow prisoners in February as a 'very motley public', from princes and priests to ordinary peasants. Even Lenin's cousin, Viktor Ardashev, was arrested and shot by the Ekaterinburg Cheka in January 1918. The Bolshevik leader only found out some months later, when he ordered an official to convey his greetings to Ardashev and was told that he had been killed. It seems he was very fond of his cousin. But the affection was not returned. Ardashev was a prominent Kadet in Ekaterinburg and had organized a Civil Service strike against Lenin's government.76

* * * Two landmarks stand out in the progress of the Terror: the Left SR uprising and the murder of the imperial family.

The Left SR uprising was one of the most farcical episodes in the history of the revolution. It epitomized the naivete of the Left SRs. The remarkable thing is that at its crucial moment the Left SRs might have overthrown the Bolshevik regime: only, it appears, success was not part of their plan. This was not a coup d'etat but — not unlike the Bolsheviks' own July uprising of 1917 — a suicidal act of public protest to galvanize 'the masses' against the regime. At no point did the Left SRs ever really think of taking power. They were only 'playing' at revolution.

The ideals that had brought the Left SRs into Sovnarkom in December all seemed to them to be in jeopardy by the following June. The freedom of the Soviets had been stifled by the dictatorship. The interests of the peasantry had been trampled on by the grain monopoly and the kombeay. Civil liberties had gone down the drain, along with the Left SRs' foolish notion that, by joining the Bolsheviks in government, they might restrain their abuses of power. But the greatest of their disappointments was the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. Like the Left Communists, the Left SRs believed that the treaty had transformed Russia into a vassal of the German Empire, and that it had given up the only hope of spreading socialism to the West through a revolutionary war against the imperialists. On the signing of the peace, the Left SRs condemned the Bolsheviks as traitors to the revolution and resigned from Sovnarkom, although they remained in the Soviet Executive and ironically the Cheka. Count Mirbach, the German Ambassador, who arrived in the latter half of April to resume diplomatic relations between Berlin and Moscow,* became a target of terrorist threats from the Left SRs, who were out to disrupt the peace.

Their campaign of noisy opposition reached its peak at the Fifth Soviet Congress, which opened in the Bolshoi Theatre on 4 July. Given the swing away from the Bolsheviks in the Soviets during the spring, the Left SRs had a large delegation, although not as many as they had expected, and it was suspected that the Bolsheviks had packed the congress with their own supporters. The Left SRs claimed to represent 'the masses' who had supported the 'Soviet revolution' but who felt betrayed by the Bolsheviks. Kamkov and Spiridonova, the party's two main leaders, denounced the Bolsheviks' policies. Top of their list was the 'shameful peace', which they said had sold out the workers and peasants of the Ukraine to the German imperialists. They vowed to resume a revolutionary war and waved their fists at the imperial loge, where, symbolically, Count Mirbach was in attendance.

Two days later he was assassinated. This act of terror was supposed to disrupt the peace by provoking Germany to attack Russia. Like the terrorists' bombs of the nineteenth century, it was also meant to spark a popular uprising against the regime. The decision to assassinate Mirbach had been taken by the Left SRs on the evening of the 4th, after the first session of the Congress, when it became clear that they could not win the majority they needed to bring about a change in the government's pro-German and anti-peasant policies. A Left SR motion of no-confidence in the Bolsheviks — designed to win the support of the Left Communists — had been defeated, and the Left SRs had walked out. Spiridonova — who despite her genteel appearance had never wanted for terrorist verve — masterminded Mirbach's murder. She recruited Yakov Bliumkin, a Left SR Chekist suitably placed in charge of counter-espionage against the Germans, and his photographer, Nikolai Andreev, to do the bloody deed. In the afternoon of the 6th they arranged a meeting with the Ambassador on the pretext of discussing the case of a Count Robert Mirbach, believed to be a relative of his, arrested on suspicion of spying. After a brief conversation, the Chekists pulled out revolvers and opened fire. Their shots missed and Mirbach began to escape. But Bliumkin threw a bomb after him, causing fatal injuries. The two men escaped through a window, Bliumkin taking a bullet in the leg, and fled in a waiting car to the Pokrovsky Barracks of the Cheka Combat Detachment, commanded by Dmitrii Popov, another prominent Left SR in the Cheka, which became the headquarters of the uprising. Lenin was at once summoned to the German Embassy to apologize for the murder. Never before in diplomatic history had a Russian head of state been humiliated in this way.

Later that afternoon Dzerzhinsky went to the Pokrovsky Barracks and demanded that Bliumkin and Andreev be turned over for arrest. But the Cheka Combat Detachment arrested him instead and declared its allegiance to the uprising. The insurgents then occupied the Cheka headquarters at the Lubianka, capturing Latsis, Dzerzhinsky's makeshift replacement. This was not a street uprising but a palace coup inside the Cheka: it owed everything to the uncharacteristic negligence of the Bolsheviks. The Left SRs had been allowed to fill seven of the twenty seats in the Cheka Collegium. Dzerzhinsky had appointed the Left SR Alexandrovich as his own deputy and allowed him to build up the Combat Detachment as an exclusively Left SR unit. On the evening of the 6th Alexandrovich — who according to Spiridonova had known nothing of the plot to murder Mirbach and had only joined the Left SR uprising on the 6th itself — took command of the insurgent troops.

* Soviet Russia set up its first foreign embassy in Berlin at this time.


At this point there was virtually nothing to prevent the Left SRs from seizing power. They had 2,000 well-armed troops in the capital compared to the 700 loyal to the regime. The bulk of the Latvian Rifles, the only crack troops in the capital upon which the Bolsheviks could rely, had been celebrating St John's Day at the Khodynka Field — scene of the disaster on the coronation of the last Tsar in 1896 — on the outskirts of the capital. The Latvians were unable to return to Moscow because of fog, torrential rain and thunderstorms. Lenin was in a state of utter panic: like Kerensky in October, he had no troops to defend his regime. Vatsetis, the Latvian commander placed in charge of the government's defence, recalls being summoned to the Kremlin after midnight, where 'the atmosphere was like the Front in the theatre of a war'. Lenin's first question to him was: 'Comrade, can we hold out till morning?'77

But the Left SRs showed no inclination to press home their military advantage. They were much less interested in seizing power themselves than they were in calling for a popular uprising to force the Bolsheviks to change their policies. The Left SRs had no idea where this uprising would end up: they were happy to leave that to the 'revolutionary creativity of the masses'. They were the 'poets of the revolution' and, like all poets, were anarchists at heart. At every stage of their relationship with the Bolsheviks, the Left SRs had been outsmarted by them; and even now, when they had them at their mercy, they soon lost the upper hand. Instead of marching on the Kremlin, the Left SR leaders went to the Bolshoi Theatre, where the Soviet Congress was in session. Spiridonova gave a long and characteristically hysterical speech denouncing the Bolshevik regime. Yet while she spoke the guards in charge of security at the congress surrounded the building and sealed off all the exits. The Bolshevik delegates were allowed to leave but all the others were arrested. The Left SRs had walked into a trap.

Later that night the Bolsheviks recaptured the Lubianka. Then, in the small hours of the morning, Vatsetis's forces overcame the Combat Detachment in the Pokrovsky Barracks. Vatsetis was rewarded by the grateful Bolsheviks with 10,000 roubles and the Command of the Eastern Front: in September he was given the command of the whole Red Army. And yet the Left SRs were defeated less by him than they were by themselves. As their own party comrade Steinberg put it, they were beaten 'not because their leaders were not brave enough, but because it was not at all their purpose to overthrow the government'.

Several hundred rebels were arrested. Alexandrovich and twelve other leaders of the Combat Detachment were summarily executed on the 7th. Most of the other Left SR leaders were imprisoned and placed on trial in November, when, given the climate at that time, they received extraordinarily lenient sentences (some of the Bolsheviks did not want to punish them at all) and indeed were later amnestied. Spiridonova was sentenced to a year's imprisonment, and then amnestied, only to be rearrested in February 1919, declared a lunatic and incarcerated in the Kremlin barracks. But she soon escaped, having won the sympathy of her guards. Bliumkin also managed to escape and later joined the Bolsheviks. As a party, the Left SRs were finished after the failed uprising of July. Its activists were forced out of the Soviets and driven underground. Hundreds were imprisoned or executed.78 Others — who had opposed the July uprising — broke away to form a new party called the Revolutionary Communists. With the removal of the Left SRs, who alone had acted as a brake on the lawlessness of the Cheka, a new wave of terror now began. Ironically, given their involvement in the Cheka, the Left SRs were its first victims.

* * * After his abdication in March 1917, Nikolai Romanov (as he was now called) had been kept under house (or rather palace) arrest along with his family and their retinue at Tsarskoe Selo. Apart from the limitations on their movement, they suffered few privations: the huge costs of feeding and dining all of them were kept from the press for fear of causing public outrage.79 Their lives in these months were not unlike a long Edwardian house party — only with the difference that the 'house guests' were confined to certain rooms and, instead of the normal hunting, had to limit their exercise to a short walk around the garden supervised by guards.

Nicholas showed no real signs of missing power. Judging from his diaries, these were among the happiest days of his whole life. Liberated from the burdens of office, which he had always unhappily borne, he was free to pursue the private bourgeois lifestyle he had always hankered for. Kerensky, who visited the former Tsar on several occasions at Tsarskoe Selo (the Tsarina insisted on calling him Kedrinsky), later wrote that 'all those who watched him in his captivity were unanimous in saying that Nicholas II seemed generally to be very good-tempered and appeared to enjoy his new manner of life. It seemed as if a heavy burden had fallen from his shoulders and that he was greatly relieved.' Nicholas filled these quiet days with his family in games of dominoes, reading aloud The Count of Monte Cristo, gardening, rowing, tennis and prayers. Never before had he slept so well.80

This first stage of their captivity came to an end in the middle of August, when the imperial family was evacuated to the Siberian town of Tobolsk. Kerensky was concerned for their personal safety. There had always been the very real danger that an angry crowd might break into the palace and wreak a savage vengeance on the former Tsar: there had been one such attempt back in March by a group of soldiers from Petrograd. This danger seemed to be on the increase after the July Days. It had originally been intended to send the Tsar and his family to England, where George V, Nicholas's cousin, had invited him in March. But the Petrograd Soviet was adamantly opposed to the idea, insisting that the former Tsar should be imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Moreover, George V withdrew his invitation for fear of alienating the Labour Party, although this was for a long time covered up by the shamefaced Windsors.* So it was resolved to send them to Tobolsk instead, a provincial backwater far from the influence of the revolution, where they took up a relatively comfortable residence in the house of the former governor. In addition to the numerous ladies and gentlemen of their suite, the imperial family were accompanied by two valets, six chambermaids, ten footmen, three cooks, four assistant cooks, a butler, a wine steward, a nurse, a clerk, a barber and two pet spaniels.81

The situation of the former royals took a turn for the worse in the early months of 1918. They noticed it in the growing rudeness of their guards, increased restrictions on their movements and the disappearance of luxuries, such as butter and coffee, which up until now they had taken for granted. The changes were connected with developments in the nearby industrial city of Ekaterinburg. A Soviet Congress of the Urals Region held there in February had elected a Bolshevik presidium led by Fillip Goloshchekin, a veteran Bolshevik and friend of Sverdlov. The Ekaterinburg Bolsheviks were well known for their militancy. They were hostile to the relative comfort in which the Tsar had so far been held and were determined to get him transferred to their own control — some with a view to his imprisonment, others with a view to his execution.

Goloshchekin pleaded with Sverdlov to let him have the Tsar, claiming that in Tobolsk the danger was greater that he might escape. There were rumours of various monarchist plots — some of them real, some imagined, and some invented — to liberate the imperial family. Sverdlov did not say no — the Urals' Bolsheviks were not the sort to mess around — but in fact there was a secret plan, ordered by the Central Committee, to bring the Tsar back to Moscow, where Trotsky was planning a great show trial for him, in the manner of Louis XVI, with himself in the role of chief prosecutor. Trotsky proposed:

an open court that would unfold a picture of the entire reign (peasant policy, labour, nationalities, culture, the two wars, etc.). The proceedings would be broadcast to the nation by radio; in the villages accounts of the proceedings would be read and commented upon daily.82

* The refusal of the British royal family to visit Russia for the next seventy-five years because of the murder of the Romanovs may thus seem to many readers to contain a large dose of typical British hypocrisy.


 

With this aim in mind, in early April Sverdlov ordered the commissar, Vasilii Yakovlev, to bring Nicholas and, if possible, the rest of his family back to Moscow alive.* Yakovlev was told to travel via Ekaterinburg so as not to arouse the suspicions of the Bolsheviks there who, if they found out his real mission, would have kidnapped and executed the former Tsar. Indeed, in April the Soviet of the Urals Region passed a resolution to that effect; and Zaslavsky, one of the Ekaterinburg commissars, prepared an ambush to kidnap the Tsar. 'We should not be wasting our time on the Romanovs,' Zaslavsky said to Yakovlev on his arrival in Tobolsk, 'we should be finishing them off.'83

The journey from Tobolsk to Ekaterinburg was to be full of risks. The spring thaw was just beginning, flooding the roads; and the Tsarevich, whose haemophilia had recently returned, was too sick to be moved. Yakovlev was told by Moscow to leave the rest of the family behind and set off with the ex-Tsar alone. But Alexandra would not be parted from Nicholas,+ and in the end the two of them set off together, minus four of the children (who would follow later), in open carts towards Tiumen, the nearest railway junction, 170 miles away. On the way they passed through Pokrovskoe, Rasputin's native village. Alexandra noted in her diary: 'stood long before our friend's house, saw his family & friends looking out of the windows at us'.84

Once they had boarded the train at Tiumen, Yakovlev became suspicious of the local Bolsheviks. He had heard that a cavalry detachment was planning to attack the train on its way to Ekaterinburg and kidnap his royal charges — the 'cargo', as he referred to them in his coded messages to Moscow. So he went on a roundabout route via Omsk to the east. This strengthened the suspicions of the Ekaterinburg Bolsheviks that he was planning to save the Tsar, perhaps taking him to Japan. A battle of telegrams followed, with both Yakovlev and Goloshchekin urging Sverdlov in Moscow to give them sole control of the ex-Tsar. Sverdlov this time gave in to Goloshchekin, ordering Yakovlev to turn back and proceed to Ekaterinburg. It seems that Goloshchekin's assurance that the imperial couple would not be harmed was enough to persuade Sverdlov to let this powerful party leader finally have his way. 'Have come to an agreement with the Uralites,' Sverdlov cabled Yakovlev. 'They have taken measures and given guarantees.' Yakovlev agreed but warned prophetically that, if the ex-Tsar was taken to Ekaterinburg, he would probably never leave alive. Sverdlov made no reply.85

* Until recently the role of Yakovlev was something of a mystery. It was argued both that he was working for the Bolsheviks and that he was a White secret agent planning to rescue the imperial family. New evidence now puts his role as an agent of Moscow beyond dispute, although it is true that in July, whilst in command of the Second Red Army on the Eastern Front, he defected to the Whites (see Radzinsky, Last Tsar, ch. II).

+ The imperial couple were afraid that he would be taken to Moscow and forced to sign the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. The fact that they believed that the Bolsheviks should either need or want his signature for this is a telling sign of how far removed they had become from political reality (see Wilton, Last Days of the Romanovs, 206).


The imperial couple arrived in Ekaterinburg on 30 April (the rest of the family followed on 23 May). They were met at the station by an angry mob and imprisoned in a large white house commandeered the day before from Nikolai Ipatev, a retired businessman. The Bolsheviks called it the House of Special Designation — and it was there that the Romanovs would die. The regime in the house was strict and humiliating. A large fence was built around it to prevent communication with the outside world. Later the windows were painted over. The guards were hostile. They accompanied the Empress and her daughters to the lavatory; scrawled obscenities on the walls; and helped themselves to the prisoners' belongings, stored in the garden shed. Except for meals, the prisoners were confined to their rooms. To while away the hours, Nicholas, for the first time in his life, read War and Peace.

It was in the first week of July that the decision was taken to execute all the captive Romanovs. Right up until its final collapse, the Soviet regime always insisted that the murder was carried out on the sole initiative of the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg. But the evidence that has since emerged from the archives shows conclusively that the order came from the party leadership in Moscow. This in fact had been known in the West from an entry in Trotsky's diary of 1935 in which he recalled a conversation with Sverdlov shortly after the murder:

Speaking with Sverdlov, I asked in passing, 'Oh yes, and where is the Tsar?' 'Finished,' he replied. 'He has been shot.' And where is the family?' 'The family along with him.' All?' I asked, apparently with a trace of surprise. All,' Sverdlov replied. 'Why?' He awaited my reaction. I made no reply. And who decided the matter?' I enquired. 'We decided it here. Ilich [Lenin] thought that we should not leave the Whites a live banner, especially under the present difficult circumstances ...' I asked no more questions and considered the matter closed.86

The new archival evidence merely fills in the details. Goloshchekin arrived in Moscow at the end of June for the Fifth Soviet Congress. His view that the Romanovs should be killed was well known. Consultations with Lenin took place and this idea was accepted in principle without a firm date being set. On 16 July Goloshchekin, having returned to Ekaterinburg, sent a coded telegram to Sverdlov and Lenin via Zinoviev informing them that the execution had to be carried out without further delay 'due to military circumstances'.87 The Czech Legion had surrounded the city and, with only a few hundred Red Guards at their disposal, the local Bolsheviks saw little chance of safely evacuating the imperial family. Later the same day, Moscow confirmed via Perm that the execution was to go ahead immediately. The confirmation may well have come directly from Lenin himself.88

Why did the Bolsheviks change their mind and go ahead with the murder, reversing their earlier decision to put Nicholas on trial in Moscow? The military considerations were certainly real enough, contrary to what many historians have said. The Czechs captured Ekaterinburg on 25 July, eight days after the murder; but they might easily have done so several days before, since the city was surrounded and they had many more troops than the Reds. But it is doubtful that either they, or any of the Whites, would have wanted to make such a sad and discredited figure as Nicholas their 'live banner'. A martyred Tsar was more useful to them than a live one who was politically dead. Both Denikin and Kolchak were intelligent enough to realize that a monarchist restoration was out of the question after 1917, although both had monarchists among their advisers. Perhaps the Bolsheviks did not understand this. Perhaps they were victims of their own propaganda that the Whites were monarchists to a man.

But even so, there is no doubt that the murder was also carried out for other reasons. The party leaders were by this stage having second thoughts about the wisdom of a trial. Not that there was any real prospect of finding the ex-Tsar innocent. Trotsky was a master of the political trial, as his own in 1906 had shown, and he would no doubt show with brilliant logic how, as an autocrat who claimed the right to rule in person, Nicholas was himself to blame for the crimes of his regime. Nor was there any prospect of the ex-Tsar being allowed the legal nicety of able lawyers to defend him: the Russian equivalents of Malesherbes and de Seze — Louis XVI's lawyers at his trial — were all in prison or exile by this stage. It was rather the more fundamental problem — one raised by Saint-Just against Louis's trial — that putting the deposed monarch in the dock at all was to presuppose the possibility of his innocence. And in that case the moral legitimacy of the revolution would itself be open to question. To put Nicholas on trial would also be to put the Bolsheviks on trial. The recognition of this was the point where they passed from the realm of law into the realm of terror. In the end it was not a question of proving the ex-Tsar's guilt — after all, as Saint-Just had put it, 'one cannot reign innocently' — but a question of eliminating him as a rival source of legitimacy. Nicholas had to die so that Soviet power could live.

On 4 July the local Cheka had taken over the responsibility of guarding the Romanovs at the Ipatev House. Yakov Yurovsky, the local Cheka boss who led the execution squad, was one of Lenin's most trusted lieutenants — ruthless, honest, intelligent and cruel. His brother said he 'enjoyed oppressing people'.89 The Tsar's murderer was also a Jew — a fact for which the Jews would pay in future. On the night of the murder, 16—17 July, at about 1.30 a.m., Yurovsky awoke the Tsar's physician and ordered him to rouse the rest of the prisoners. At 2 a.m. all eleven of them were led down the stairs to the basement. Nicholas carried the Tsarevich, followed by the Empress and her daughters, the Tsar's physician and the rest of the retinue. Anastasia carried the King Charles spaniel Joy. On their request, two chairs were brought in for the Empress and Alexis, who was still recovering from his recent attack of bleeding. None of them seemed aware of what was about to happen: they had been told that there had been shooting in the town and it was safer for them in the basement. After a few minutes, Yurovsky entered the room with the execution squad — six Hungarians, usually described as 'Latvians', and five Russians. Each had been assigned to shoot a particular victim, but when they entered the room it turned out that they were not facing the right person and the room was too small, with murderers and victims practically standing on each other's toes, for the necessary changes to be made: it was this that partly caused the confusion that followed. Yurovsky read out the order to shoot the Romanovs. Nicholas asked him to repeat it: his last words were 'What? What?' Then the firing began. Yurovsky shot Nicholas point blank with a Colt. The Empress also died instantly. Bullets ricocheted around the room, which filled up with smoke. When the firing finished, after several minutes, Alexis lay alive in a pool of blood: Yurovsky finished him off with two shots in the head. Anastasia, who also showed signs of life, was stabbed several times with a bayonet.90

Given all the evidence that has come to light, it is inconceivable that any of the Romanovs survived this ordeal.* After the murder the bodies were driven off in a lorry and dumped in a series of nearby mineshafts. These turned out to be too shallow to conceal the bodies and the next day they were removed. But on the way to some deeper mines the lorry got stuck in the mud and it was decided to bury the corpses in the ground. Sulphuric acid was poured on their faces to hide the identity of the corpses should they be discovered. This proved unnecessary — and ineffective. The graves were not discovered until after the collapse of the Soviet regime. But by this time, DNA analysis of the bones, brought back to Britain in 1992, was enough to establish beyond doubt that they belonged to the Romanovs.91

* The only certain survivor was the spaniel Joy.


News of the execution reached Lenin the next day during a session of Sovnarkom. The people's commissars were engaged in a detailed discussion of a draft decree for health protection when Sverdlov came in with the news. The brief announcement of the Tsar's death was met with general silence. Then Lenin said: 'We shall now proceed to read the draft decree article by article.'92

The official announcement appeared in Izvestiia on 19 July. It mentioned only the death of the ex-Tsar, claiming that the 'wife and son of Nicholas Romanov have been sent to a safe place'. The Bolsheviks, it seems, were afraid to acknowledge that they had murdered the children and servants — all of them, after all, innocent people — lest it should lose them public sympathy. But in fact public reaction was remarkably subdued. 'The population of Moscow received the news with amazing indifference,' noted Lockhart. Rumours that the rest of the family had been killed elicited few emotions. Only the monarchists were moved. Brusilov, a monarchist of the heart and a Republican only of the mind, refused to believe that the rumours were true and prayed every night for the 'missing Romanovs'. The lie was kept going until 1926, when the publication of Sokolov's book in Paris, The Murder of the Imperial Family, based on the findings of a commission set up by Kolchak, made this no longer tenable. But in the meantime the legend had been born that perhaps not all the Romanovs had died. It is a legend that still lives today, despite the huge weight of evidence against it. All of which merely goes to show that there is more currency — and more profit — in fiction than in history.93

Why has the murder of the Romanovs assumed such significance in the history of the revolution? It could be said that they were only a few individuals, whereas revolutions are about the millions. This is the argument of Marxist historians, who have tended to treat this episode as a minor side-show to the main event. E. H. Carr, for example, gave it no more than a single sentence in his three-volume history of the revolution. But this is to miss the deeper significance of the murder. It was a declaration of the Terror. It was a statement that from now on individuals would count for nothing in the civil war. Trotsky had once said: 'We must put an end once and for all to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life.' And that is what the Cheka did. Shortly after the murder Dzerzhinsky told the press:

The Cheka is the defence of the revolution as the Red Army is; as in the civil war the Red Army cannot stop to ask whether it may harm particular individuals, but must take into account only one thing, the victory of the revolution over the bourgeoisie, so the Cheka must defend the revolution and conquer the enemy even if its sword falls occasionally on the heads of the innocent.94

The Bolsheviks murdered other Romanovs after the execution of the former Tsar.* Six members of the old dynasty were murdered on the following night at Alapaevsk in the northern Urals. But in a sense their deaths were now just one small part of the Red Terror.

* * * One of the most terrifying aspects of the Terror was its random nature. The knock on the door at midnight could come to almost anyone. The Bolsheviks justified the Terror as a civil war against the counter-revolution. But they never made clear who those 'counter-revolutionaries' were. Indeed, in so far as the Terror was driven by the regime's own paranoiac fear that it was surrounded by hostile enemies working together to overthrow it — in this view the Kaplan plot was all part and parcel of the SR and Menshevik opposition, the White Guard reaction, the Allied intervention, Savinkov's uprising in Yaroslavl'.+ the peasant uprisings and workers' strikes — virtually anyone could qualify as a 'counter-revolutionary'. In this sense the Terror was a war by the regime against the whole of society — a means of terrorizing it into submission. 'Terror', Engels wrote, 'is needless cruelties perpetrated by terrified men.'

A tour of the Cheka jails would reveal a vast array of different people. One former inmate of the Butyrka jail in Moscow recalls seeing politicians, ex-judges, merchants, traders, officers, prostitutes, children,++ priests, professors, students, poets, dissident workers and peasants — in short a cross-section of society. The Petrograd poetess Gippius wrote that 'there was literally not a single family that had not had someone seized, taken away, or disappear completely' as a result of the Red Terror, and for the circles in which she moved this is almost certainly true.93

* The Grand Duke Mikhail, Nicholas's brother, had been killed in June.

+ Boris Savinkov, Kerensky's Deputy War Minister during the Kornilov episode, led an uprising of army officers in the town of Yaroslavl', to the north of Moscow, on 6 July. It gained the support of the local workers and peasants and spread briefly to the neighbouring towns of Murom and Rybinsk. Soviet troops regained Yaroslavl' on 21 July. They shot 350 officers and civilians in reprisal for the revolt, which was said to be the joint work of the SRs, the White Guards, the Czechs and the Allies. Savinkov's underground organization, the Union for the Defence of the Fatherland and Freedom, was linked with the National Centre in Moscow, which supported the Volunteer Army. It also received money from the Czechs and the Allies — who were both under the illusion that Savinkov's sole purpose was to raise a new Russian army to resume the war against the Central Powers. There is no evidence linking the Allies with Savinkov's plot to overthrow the Bolsheviks.

++ A government inspection of Moscow jails in March 1920 found that children under the age of seventeen comprised 5 per cent of the prison population (Izvestiia gosuiarstvenmnogo kontrolia, 4, 1920: 7-10).


Many of the Cheka's victims were 'bourgeois hostages' rounded up without charge and held in readiness for summary execution in reprisal for some alleged counter-revolutionary act. Of course most of them were not 'bourgeois' at all. The round-ups were much too crude for that, sometimes consisting of no more than the random arrest of people on a stretch of street blocked off at each end by Cheka guards. People were arrested merely for being near the scene of a 'bourgeois provocation (e.g. a shooting or a crime); or as the relatives and known acquaintances of 'bourgeois' suspects. One old man was arrested because during a general raid the Cheka found on his person a photograph of a man in court uniform: it was the picture of a deceased relative taken in the 1870s. Many people were arrested because someone (and one was enough) had denounced them as 'bourgeois counter-revolutionaries'. Such denunciations often arose from petty squabbles and vendettas. Yakov Khoelson, a military inspector, was arrested in November, for example, when two people jumped ahead of him in the queue for the Moscow Opera. They shouted 'provocation!' and complained to the doorman that Khoelson and two others had jumped the queue. The Cheka was called and Khoelson was arrested. Nikolai Kochargin, a petty official, was arrested in the same month after a dispute with a friend at work who had repaid him a loan in forged coupons. Kochargin went to the Cheka to complain — only to find himself arrested the next day when his debtor denounced him as a trader in forged coupons.96

Arbitrary arrests were particularly common in the provinces, where the local Cheka bosses were very much their 'own men' pursuing their own civil wars of terror. But the principle urged by Lenin — that it was better to arrest a hundred innocent people than to run the risk of letting one enemy of the regime go free — ensured that wholesale and indiscriminate arrests became a general part of the system. Peshekhonov, Kerensky's Minister of Food, who was imprisoned in the Lubianka jail, recalls a conversation with a fellow prisoner, a trade unionist from Vladimir, who could not work out why he had been arrested. All he had done was to come to Moscow and check into a hotel. 'What is your name?' another prisoner asked. 'Smirnov', he replied, one of the most common Russian names:

'The name, then, was the cause of your arrest,' said a man coming towards us. 'Let me introduce myself. My name too is Smirnov, and I am from Kaluga. At the Taganka there were seven of us Smirnovs, and they say there are many more at the Butyrka... At the Taganka they somehow managed to find out that a certain Smirnov, a Bolshevik from Kazan, had disappeared with a large sum of money. Moscow was notified and orders were issued to the militia to arrest all Smirnovs arriving in Moscow and send them to the Cheka. They are trying to catch the Smirnov from Kazan.'

'But I have never been to Kazan,' protested the Vladimir Smirnov. 'Neither have I,' replied the one from Kaluga. 'I am not even a Bolshevik, nor do I intend to become one. But here I am.'97

Reading the letters of the victims' families to Dzerzhinsky, one gets a better sense of the human tragedy that lay behind each arrest. Elena Moshkina wrote on 5 November. Her husband, Volodya, aged twenty-seven, an engineer in the Moscow Soviet, had been imprisoned as a 'bourgeois hostage' in the Butyrka because it was alleged he belonged to the Union of Houseowners. Moshkin had joined the union on behalf of his mother; but her house had been sold in 1911 and he had since resigned. Elena pleaded to take his place in jail, since they had two small children to support and only Volodya's salary to live on. They could not pay the 5,000 roubles demanded as a ransom by the local Cheka boss, who had admitted that they had no evidence against her husband and that he was merely 'a hostage of the rich'. Moshkina's letter came to nothing: it was marked in red pencil 'into the archive'.98

Liubov Kuropatkina wrote to Dzerzhinsky on 18 November. Her husband, Pavel, had been imprisoned 'as a bourgeois hostage' in Pskov. The soldiers of his regiment had twice elected him as their officer, once after February and once after October, despite his tsarist rank as a corporal and his senior age (sixty-eight). He had led the regiment on the Pulkovo Heights against Kerensky's troops after the Bolshevik seizure of power. For this, the soldiers had allowed him to keep his savings, 50,000 roubles, which he then donated to the Soviet at Krasnoe Selo. In April 1918 Kuropatkin fell ill with malaria and the couple retired to a village near Pskov to farm a small allotment. He had been arrested before the first harvest, and his wife was now left on her own to feed seven small children and her very old father. She had two grown-up sons in the Red Army, and another who had disappeared as a prisoner of war in Hungary. 'My own health has always been poor, I cannot do physical work, and the constant worry for the safety of my husband has broken me. I cannot travel the sixty versty to the jail in Kholm to visit him.' Her letter was also marked 'into the archive'.99

Nadezhda Brusilova was another letter writer to Dzerzhinsky. Brusilov had been arrested shortly after midnight on 13 August and imprisoned in the Lubianka. His apartment must have been under surveillance because earlier that evening he had been approached by two agents of the Komuch who had offered him a large sum of money to go with them to Samara and help to lead the fledgling People's Army. Brusilov had refused; but this did not prevent him from being arrested (nor the Komuch agents from being shot). During the raid the Chekists confiscated all Brusilov's medals: it must have been a torment for him to lose these final fragments of his broken past. Brusilov was never charged. Nadezhda was told that he had not even been arrested, but had merely been 'taken prisoner' to prevent him falling into the hands of the regime's opponents. 'His name is too popular,' one Chekist told her. Dzerzhinsky himself explained to Brusilov that he had been detained because they had 'evidence' that Lockhart was planning to stage a coup in Moscow and pronounce the general a 'dictator'. Brusilov replied that he had never met the British agent, whereupon Dzerzhinsky candidly acknowledged: 'All the same, we cannot take the risk, people would rally behind your name.'* When Brusilov asked what he could do to speed up his release, the Cheka leader was just as frank again: 'Write your memoirs on the former army and abuse the old regime.' The old general was finally released in October and placed under house arrest. It is a measure of the suffering he must have gone through, without any medicine for his injured leg, that even this great patriot should beg his captors to let him and his family emigrate from Russia and settle in 'some neutral country'.100

Conditions in the Cheka prisons were generally much worse than in any tsarist jail. A government inspection of the Moscow Taganka jail in October 1918, for example, found overcrowded cells, no water, grossly inadequate rations and heating, and sewage dumped in the courtyard. Nearly half the 1,500 inmates were chronically sick, 10 per cent of them with typhus. Corpses were found in the cells. The Peter and Paul Fortress, that great symbol of the tsarist prison state, was now an even more forbidding place. The Menshevik Dan, who had been imprisoned there in 1896, found himself once again behind its bars in the spring of 1921. Whereas before there had been one man to a cell, there were now two or three; and women were imprisoned there for the first time. Dan was held with hundreds of other prisoners in the basement, where the food stores had been previously kept. Four men shared each tiny cell. The walls 'dripped with damp', there was no light and the prisoners, fed only once a day, were never allowed out for exercise.101 Compared to this the old prison regime in the fortress had been like a holiday camp. Most of its inmates before 1917 had been allowed to receive food and cigarettes, clothing, books and letters from their relatives.

Many of the Cheka's most notorious techniques had been borrowed from the tsarist police. The use of provocateurs, stool-pigeons and methods of torture to extract confessions and denunciations came straight out of the Okhrana's book.* This was hardly surprising — and not just because, in Flaubert's words, 'in every revolutionary there is hidden a gendarme'. The Bolsheviks had sat in tsarist jails for years. Literally they had learned the system from the inside. And they now applied it with a vengeance. Dzerzhinsky had spent half his adult life in tsarist prisons and labour camps before he became head of the Cheka. It was not surprising if he set out to inflict on his victims the same cruelty he had suffered in those years. Hatred and indifference to human suffering were to varying degrees ingrained in the minds of all the Bolshevik leaders — and this was no doubt in part a legacy of their prison years.

* Brusilov's brother, Boris, was also arrested at this time, along with three other members of his family. They were 'hostages' and were ordered to be executed if Brusilov joined the anti-Bolsheviks. Boris was ill with influenza and had been literally taken from his sick-bed. He died in prison a few days after his arrest. Whilst in jail he received no medical treatment.


The ingenuity of the Cheka's torture methods was matched only by the Spanish Inquisition. Each local Cheka had its own speciality. In Kharkov they went in for the 'glove trick' — burning the victim's hands in boiling water until the blistered skin could be peeled off: this left the victims with raw and bleeding hands and their torturers with 'human gloves'. The Tsaritsyn Cheka sawed its victims' bones in half. In Voronezh they rolled their naked victims in nail-studded barrels. In Armavir they crushed their skulls by tightening a leather strap with an iron bolt around their head. In Kiev they affixed a cage with rats to the victim's torso and heated it so that the enraged rats ate their way through the victim's guts in an effort to escape. In Odessa they chained their victims to planks and pushed them slowly into a furnace or a tank of boiling water. A favourite winter torture was to pour water on the naked victims until they became living ice statues. Many Chekas preferred psychological forms of torture. One had the victims led off to what they thought was their execution, only to find that a blank was fired at them. Another had the victims buried alive, or kept in a coffin with a corpse. Some Chekas forced their victims to watch their loved ones being tortured, raped or killed.

Needless to say, there were many sadists in the Chekas. They treated the tortures as sport, vying with each other to perform the most extreme violence. Some victims recall the Chekists standing about and laughing at their torture. There were even 'human hunts'. Most of the sadists were young men in their teens brutalized by war and revolution. Many were out to prove their 'hardness'. There is also evidence to suggest that many of them may have been non-Russians — Poles, Latvians, Armenians and Jews — in so far as they made up a high proportion of the Cheka. Lenin certainly favoured their employment in the Cheka, claiming that the Russians were 'too soft' to carry out the 'harsh measures' of the Terror. Yet many of the Cheka's torture methods were reminiscent of the brutal forms of killing employed by the Russian peasantry.

* During the 1980s the KGB still trained its recruits with Okhrana manuals (see Kalugin, Vid Lubitwki, 35).


Women were also not exempt from the perpetration of sadistic violence. Vera Grebennikova, for example, was alleged to have killed over 700 people, many of them with her bare hands, during two months in Odessa. Rebecca Platinina-Maisel in Arkhangelsk killed over a hundred, including the whole family of her ex-husband whom she crucified in an act of savage revenge.

Such was the brutalizing effect of this relentless violence that not a few Chekists ended up insane. Bukharin said that psychopathic disorders were an occupational hazard of the Chekist profession. Many Chekists hardened themselves to the killings by heavy drinking or drug abuse. For example, the notorious sadist Saenko, the Kharkov master of the 'glove trick', was a cocaine addict. To distance themselves from the violence the Chekists also developed a gangsterlike slang for the verb to kill: they talked of 'shooting partridges', of 'sealing' a victim, or giving him the natsokal (an onomatopoeia of the trigger action).102

Executions were the final product of this machinery of terror. Tens of thousands of summary executions were carried out in courtyards and cellars, or in deserted fields on the edge of towns, during the years of the civil war. Whole prisons would be 'emptied' by the Cheka before a town was abandoned to the Whites. At night the cities tried to sleep to the sound of people being shot. The Bolsheviks themselves, however, did not lose much sleep. In 1919, during a session of Sovnarkom, Lenin wrote a note and passed it to Dzerzhinsky. 'How many dangerous counter-revolutionaries do we have in prison?' Dzerzhinsky scribbled, About 1,500' and returned the note. Lenin looked at it, placed the sign of a cross by the figure, and gave it back to the Cheka boss. That night, 1,500 Moscow prisoners were shot on Dzerzhinsky's orders. This turned out to be a dreadful mistake. Lenin had not ordered the execution at all: he always placed a cross by anything he had read to signify that he had done so and taken it into account. As a result of Dzerzhinsky s simple error 1,500 people lost their lives.103

* * * The Red Terror evoked protests from all quarters of society. Patriarch Tikhon condemned the violence and climate of fear created by the Bolsheviks, citing the prophecy of St Matthew: All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.' The opposition parties denounced the Terror in their underground newspapers. The famous Anarchist philosopher, Prince Kropotkin, whose daughter had been arrested in August 1918,* denounced the Terror in a long and bitter letter to the Bolshevik leader, who was still recovering from Kaplan's bullets, on 17 September: 'To throw the country into a red terror, even more so to arrest hostages, in order to protect the lives of its leaders is not worthy of a Party calling itself socialist and disgraceful for its leaders.' Workers also condemned the bloody terror perpetrated in their name. 'Enough blood! Down with Terror!' proclaimed the All-Ukrainian Trade Union Council in September. 'Red is the colour of truth and justice,' declared the railway workers of Kozlov. 'But under the Bolsheviks it has become the colour of blood.'104

* She had been on her way to England, where she had good contacts with the Trade Union movement, in order to campaign for food aid to the hungry children of Russia, when she was arrested in Yamburg (GARF, f. 4390, op. 14, d. 57, 1. 7).


As the 'conscience of the Revolution', Gorky was by far the most outspoken critic of the Terror. Hundreds of people, from poets to peasants, wrote to him pleading for his help to save their loved ones. Gorky felt a strong moral obligation to do what he could for all of them. 'I am their only hope,' he told Ekaterina. This was the point when the humanist in him got the better of the revolutionary: he was more concerned for the individual than any abstract cause. He bombarded the Bolshevik leaders with countless letters demanding the release of innocent individuals from the Cheka jails. Their tone became increasingly irate. 'In my view,' he wrote to Zinoviev in March 1919 protesting against the arrest of an academic, 'such arrests cannot be justified by any political means . . . The disgusting crimes you have perpetrated in Petersburg during the past few weeks have brought shame to the regime and aroused universal hatred and contempt for its cowardice.' The following October he wrote to Dzerzhinsky appealing for the release of Professor Tonkov, President of the Military-Medical Academy: 'All these arrests I see as an act of barbarism, as the deliberate destruction of the best brains of the country and I declare that by such actions the Soviet regime has made an enemy out of me.'105

Some of Gorky's protests went straight to Lenin. The Bolshevik leader took an indulgent view of his favourite writer's efforts to save human souls from the furnace of the revolution. He even intervened on some of their behalfs. The writer Ivan Volnyi, for example, gained his release from the Cheka jail in Orel through the combined efforts of Gorky and Lenin.106 But Lenin would have none of Gorky's general criticisms of the Terror. Responding to the question of Tonkov's arrest, for example, Lenin confessed in a letter to Gorky 'that there have been mistakes'. But he went on to justify the general policy of arresting people like Tonkov, who were suspected of 'being close to the {Cadets', in a preventive way. In his letter Lenin spelled out the difference between himself and Gorky. It was also the basic difference — one of means and ends — between the Bolsheviks and the democratic socialists:

Reading your frank opinion on this matter, I recall a remark of yours [from the past]: 'We artists are irresponsible people.' Exactly! You utter incredibly angry words — about what? About a few dozen (or perhaps even a few hundred) Kadet and near-Kadet gentry spending a few days in jail in order to prevent plots . .. which threaten the lives of tens of thousands of workers and peasants. A calamity indeed! What injustice. A few days, or even weeks, in jail for intellectuals in order to prevent the massacre of tens of thousands of workers and peasants! Artists are irresponsible people.'107

Within the party there were also critics — not so much of the Terror itself but of its excesses. Kamenev, Bukharin and Olminsky led the attack on the abuse of Cheka power. Essentially, they were carrying on where the Left SRs in the Commissariat of Justice had left off in July in trying to subordinate the Cheka to the state. Their campaign culminated in November with the demand for the Cheka's abolition and its replacement by a new terror organ directly under the control of the Soviet Executive. But the 'hard men' in the party — Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky — stood firmly behind the Cheka. Later efforts to moderate the Cheka, such as the Statute of February 1919, came to little. Although it was subordinated to the Commissariat of Justice, the Cheka continued to function as before — as a state within a state — circumventing its control. The Bolshevik Central Committee, and from 1919 the Politburo, exercised the only real control over the Cheka. Lenin himself took an intimate interest in its activities and protected it from criticism and reform.

Under Lenin's regime — not Stalin's — the Cheka was to become a vast police state. It had its own leviathan infrastructure, from the house committees to the concentration camps, employing more than a quarter of a million people. These were the Bolshevik oprichniki, the detested police of Ivan the Terrible. During the civil war it was they who would secure the regime's survival on the so-called 'internal front'. Terror became an integral element of the Bolshevik system in the civil war. Nobody will ever know the exact number of people repressed and killed by the Cheka in these years. But it was certainly several hundred thousand, if one includes all those in its camps and prisons as well as those who were executed or killed by the Cheka's troops in the suppression of strikes and revolts. Although no one knew the precise figures, it is possible that more people were murdered by the Cheka than died in the battles of the civil war.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!