When Terrorists Become State Leaders: Chilling parallels between Soviet red terror and Islamic terrorism. A Bolshevik lesson

Posted on February 12, 2011


Posted by Anna Geifman on Feb 11th, 2011 and filed under Daily Mailer, FrontPage.

[Editor’s note: The following is the first half of chapter 8 of Anna Geifman’s powerful new book, Death Orders, which exposes the chilling parallels between Soviet and Islamic terrorism. Unfortunately, as Professor Geifman explains, events unfolding today in Egypt are all too familiar, harkening back to the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917. Part II of chapter 8 will appear in our next issue.]

We must execute not only the guilty.  Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more.

–Bolshevik Commissar of Justice Nikolai Krylenko

Execute mercilessly.

–Lev Trotsky´s telegram to comrades in Astrakhan´, March 1919

The first time in history terrorists seized control of a state in 1917–in Russia, the birthplace of modern political extremism. There, adherents of a totalist ideology, men with extensive radical background and subversive experience, set out to rule by way of genocidal “Red Terror” against designated “class enemies.”1 A similar situation developed next in Afghanistan, where the Sunni Islamist Taliban held power from 1996 to 2001, relying on state-sponsored violence against “enemies of Islam´.  In recent years, Hamas has been using similar methods for consolidating Islamist rule in Gaza.  Radical Shiite Hezbollah has made major advances in controlling Lebanon.  Present-day dramatic events in Cairo are alarming indeed:  are Egypt´s own jihadists to imitate the terrorists-come-to-power scenario?  The concern is valid especially because Egyptian developments over the past two weeks seem to replicate—sometimes to astonishing detail—the initial events of the 1917 revolution in Russia.  Is Egypt to emulate a fateful twist of transitory politics in a far-away land hundred years ago, where following the collapse of the autocratic regime, the extremists usurped control via a coup that toppled the ineffectual provisional government?  Since then, the cardinal feature of the newly-established Soviet rule was its dependence terrorist mentality and on unremitting state-sponsored political violence.  Terror manifested itself immediately after the Bolshevik takeover and escalated into sanguinary years of the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921 and beyond.

* * *

Lenin and his associates relied on the pre-1917 terrorist mentality and practices while building their “Communist paradise.”  Aside from defending expropriations as legitimate methods of revolutionary fundraising, prior to the Bolshevik takeover, Lenin had urged his followers to establish armed combat detachments for the purpose of killing the gendarmes and Cossacks and blowing up their headquarters.  Since 1905, he also advocated the use of explosives, boiling water and acid against soldiers, the police, and supporters of the tsarist regime.2 Throughout the empire the Bolsheviks took part in terrorist activities, including those of major political significance, such as the 1907 murder of celebrated poet and social reformer Count Il’ia Chavchavadze, arguably the most popular national figure in turn-of-the-century Georgia.3

Having taken over the Russian administration, Lenin and Trotsky labeled opponents of violence “eunuchs and pharisees”4 and proceeded to implement government-sponsored machinery of state terror—projecting the conspiratorial and semicriminal nature of the Bolshevik fraction onto the new dictatorial regime.  The Bolsheviks endorsed a policy they called the “Red Terror”—an instrument of repression in the hands of the revolutionary government– as a precondition for success in a seemingly visionary endeavor by a handful of political extremists to establish control over Russia’s population.  For this purpose, the Bolsheviks must to “put an end once and for all of the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life,” Trotsky proclaimed.5

In their rhetoric, Lenin’s followers presented the Jacobin policies as a model for their own version of La Terreur, and themselves as descendents of the French radicals.  “Each Social Democrat must be a terrorist à la Robespierre, Plekhanov was heard saying, and for once Lenin was in full agreement with the Menshevik’s plan:  “We will not shoot at the tsar and his servants now as the Socialists-Revolutionaries do, but after the victory we will erect a guillotine in Kazanskii Square for them and many others.”6 In the Bolshevik view, terrorization from above was also an expedient tool in restructuring the traditional society in accordance with the Marxist doctrine.

Building on the notion of “motiveless terror” of the 1905 era, the Bolsheviks launched their campaign of state-sponsored coercion against groups of individuals designated as “class enemies” of the proletarian dictatorship, with extermination now being “class based.”  In one of the first references to their new course, on 2 December 1917, Trotsky declared before a revolutionary gathering:  “There is nothing immoral in the proletariat finishing off the dying class.  This is its right.  You are indignant . . . at the petty terror which we direct against our class opponents.  But be put on notice that in one month at most this terror will assume more frightful forms, on the model of the great revolutionaries of France.”7

State terror as an ideological weapon the Bolsheviks justified as a rejoinder to a wide range of anti-Soviet activity allegedly perpetrated by a myriad of their internal and foreign enemies–Russian reactionaries, interventionists, and counterrevolutionaries of various leanings–all supposedly out to destroy the communist regime.  The “accusation of terrorism . . . falls not on us but on the bourgeoisie.  It forced terror on us,” Lenin claimed the exigency for killing in self-defense, echoing the paranoid defensiveness of the terrorists during the underground period.8 In reality, he had planned mass repressions a decade before he has had a chance to introduce them as a state policy, as early as 1908 dreaming of “real, nation-wide terror, which reinvigorates the country.”9

The Bolsheviks established their notorious political police, the Cheka (Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage), months before any organized opposition to the Soviets had had a chance to develop.10 The Cheka began its operations formally, if secretly, almost immediately after the Bolshevik takeover — on 7 December 1917, and would soon become a primary instrument of the Red Terror, in accordance with Lenin’s pronouncement in the following month:  “if we are guilty of anything, it is of having been too humane, too benevolent, towards the representatives of the bourgeois-imperialist order.”11 By the first half of 1918, after the Cheka had already had its debut in repression, “counterrevolutionary organizations . . . as such were not observed,” acknowledged its deputy director, Iakov Peters, known as “Peters, the Terrorist.” 12 At the same period, in June 1918, the first Cheka head, “Iron Feliks” Dzerzhinskii declared that terror was “an absolute necessity,” and that the repressive measures would go on in the name of the revolution, “even if its sword does by chance sometimes fall upon the heads of the innocent.”13

Originally, the Bolsheviks had envisaged the Cheka as an investigative, rather than repressive agency; its primary function was to gather intelligence and prevent offenses against the state.  Having no official judiciary powers, the Cheka was legally required to leave prosecution, indictment, and final sentencing of political offenders to the new Soviet courts, the so called revolutionary tribunals, introduced in late November 1917.14 But the tribunals’ tendency to linger on proprieties threatened the efficiency of Lenin’s envisaged rule “unrestricted by any laws.”  As a solution, the Bolshevik leadership extended the Cheka’s original mandate.  Whereas its central offices in Petrograd and Moscow temporarily abstained from executing political nonconformists, on 23 February 1918, Dzerzhinskii urged provincial and district cadres to set up local Cheka bureaus, arrest counterrevolutionaries, and “execute them wherever apprehended.”  Enemies of the revolution would be “mercilessly liquidated on the spot,” the authorities announce publicly.15

Accordingly, the Cheka bureaus in the periphery began to resort routinely to summary judiciary procedures.  Unlimited by even the most cursory legal norms, they meted out arbitrary, often impetuous and unwarranted punishments, including death sentences.16 Their primary focus at the moment was on combating economic felony, such as “speculation,” which “encompassed practically any independent commercial activity,” and “sabotage,” i.e. refusal of technical experts and professionals to offer their services to the Bolshevik-controlled economy.17In July 1918 the Bolsheviks massacred the Russian imperial family— a dramatic episode of primary psychological significance, which took place six weeks before Red Terror was inaugurated as an official policy.  The Soviets relegated responsibility for the decision to murder of the Romanov family in Ekaterinburg to local revolutionary activists.  In truth, the secret order to execute former tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their five children, a valet, cook, parlor maid, and family doctor was issued in the Bolshevik headquarters in Moscow and carried out by a special Cheka squad.  It was not for nothing that Lenin was a great admirer of Nechaev, the expert in bonding a subversive group with the accountability for a collective crime.  Lenin, too, understood that when his party was in danger of being abandoned by many vacillating supporters blood would “cement its deserting following.”  Trotsky supported Lenin’s decision as “not only expedient but necessary.  The severity of this punishment showed everyone that we would continue to fight on mercilessly, stopping at nothing.  The execution of the Tsar’s family was needed not only to frighten, horrify, and instill a sense of hopelessness in the enemy but also to shake up our own ranks, to show that there was no retreating, that ahead lay either total victory or total doom.”18 From then on, the extremists had to sustain slaughter; otherwise, in their own eyes, past bloodletting would be meaningless and deplorable.

On August 30, 1918, Moisei Uritskii was assassinated as the head of the Cheka in Petrograd.  As a questionable coincidence, on the same day government sources issued an announcement about an attempt on Lenin’s life in Moscow.  The Bolsheviks interpreted these attacks as a coordinated action of a large-scale conspiracy—an unfounded assumption that elicited their instantaneous and inundating fear.  Panic-stricken, Lenin’s followers mitigated their apprehension by unleashing a mass campaign of violence.  The Red Terror did not begin but dramatically magnified at this time, encompassing retaliation and revenge, marked by infinite cruelty–against real, alleged, and potential adversary:  “Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies by the scores of hundreds, let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood.  For the blood of Lenin and Uritskii . . . let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie–more blood, as much as possible.”19

Under such pretext, after 30 August 1918 the Bolsheviks no longer bothered to conceal brutality.  The Cheka arrested civilians randomly and executed them arbitrarily in a sweeping effort to liquidate class enemies—a loosely-defined category that the Bolsheviks continuously expanded.  A prominent Cheka officer Martyn Latsis made a newspaper declaration: “Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words. Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession.  These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror.”20 Soon, the Soviets developed a favorite “counter-counterrevolutionary measure”–hostage-taking.

The radicals’ attitude toward the use of hostages shifted from People’s Will’s explicit denial of any intention to punish their enemies by kidnapping their family members, to lonely voices advocating as early as 1903 the capturing of government officials and representatives of the bourgeoisie for the purpose of using them as bargaining chips in later negotiations with the authorities.21 After 1905, revolutionaries in the Baltics did seize civilian hostages,22 and prominent Bolshevik Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich proposed to St. Petersburg Committee to grab “a couple of so grand dukes” to blackmail the authorities.23 The extremists would occasionally turn against and hurt family members to threaten their enemies; in a notable incident, the terrorists murdered the father of a police informer to use his funeral as an opportunity to assassinate the son, their real target.24

In September 1918, as an initial step of the intensifying Red Terror, the Bolsheviks shot “in reprisal” 512 hostages, most of them “high notables” of the old regime.  Simultaneously, the government decreed:  in order to intimidate and punish the opposition, class enemies and their relatives would be sent to concentration camps.25 By 1919 their number increased dramatically, prison camps serving as trial models for the Gulag

The practice of hostage-taking became routine.  Used as slave labor, imprisoned families of counterrevolutionary suspects were also potential “execution material.”  The Cheka firing squads shot these civilians regularly as a collective punishment,26 occasionally “emptying” entire prisons of inmates.27 Sometimes the Chekists did not even bother to waste the bullets, as in the Kholmogory camp, where bound prisoners were drowned in the nearby river.28 In June 1918 the public was notified that in case of a single shot at the Bolshevik supporters in Astrakhan’ “bourgeois hostages” will be executed “in 24 minutes.”29

Faced with a wave of starving workers’ strikes and peasant uprisings, the government directed its wrath against the very groups whose alleged, if more than questionable, backing had served as an argument for the Bolsheviks´ political legitimacy. In two months of terror, between 10,000 and 15,000 summary executions took place, marking “a radical break with the practices of the Tsarist regime.”  In almost 100 years, between 1825 and 1917, the imperial courts issued 6,321 politics-related death sentences, not all of which were carried out.30 As we have seen, before the revolution, the terrorists came to be responsible for exactly as many casualties among state officials in a single decade, invalidating a claim that “violence, alas, was reciprocal.”31

Alienation and anxiety, so prominent in the clandestine milieu, seem to have been even more pronounced when the extremists usurped power in Russia.  Escalating brutality of the extremist clique that came to exercise tenuous control over the enormous country bore a concomitant–and mounting–dread of criminals before imminent retribution.  Few, if any among the Bolshevik leadership believed that their regime would outlast the two-month revolutionary experience of the Paris Commune; yet, all were determined to hold on to power at any cost—for as long as possible, until they would surely be overthrown and again forced into a position of haunted runaways.32 Psychologically, they had not changed from the underground days when, perceiving themselves as the persecuted, liable for annihilation, the radicals propelled onto the enemy their fear and belligerence.  In fact, as their “power increased, so did the Bolshevik sense of danger,” perception of a looming catastrophe, and urgency to harm.  “We have never made a secret of the fact that our revolution is only the beginning, that its victorious end will only come when we have lit up the whole world with these same flames,” said Trotsky, anticipating the millennial cataclysm–from Hungary to India.  Having declared ruthless war on the international bourgeoisie, Lenin avowed that the wounded “wild beast” is bursting with “fierce hate . . . and ready to throw itself at Soviet Russia any minute to strangle it.”33 And if in the 1905 era the extremists did not shun from victimizing people they were allegedly liberating; as government, they did so with redoubled intensity.

Psychologist Karen Horney described the tendency to dominate “disguised in humanistic forms,” as well as the quest for power as a protection.  It is “born out of anxiety” associated with feelings of inferiority, weakness, and helplessness–glaring among the extremists.  It has an additional benefit “as a channel through which repressed hostility can be discharged”34 Finally, it “strengthens group identity, since the hated other can be collectively shared and collectively destroyed.”  The group then “comes to see itself as exclusive, possessing a boundary the hated other may never pass or threaten . . . the border separates the pure from the impure . . . the polluted from the good,” the saints from the villains.35 The dualistic, black-and-while formula that all goodness is within, and all badness is outside inevitably had to translate into violence, in accordance with Lenin’s challenge:  “each man must choose between joining our side or the other side”36 Like other variants of totalism, Bolshevism presumed the impossibility of a “third path” or neutrality:37 “One who does not sing along with us today is against us,” first official Soviet poet Vladimir Maiakovskii, eulogized Lenin’s reprisals.

Repressions against other political parties began as early as 28 November 1917 with the ban of the Kadets.  Still supporting a parliamentary democracy, and still not realizing that the dream was over, they were the first among the liberal public intellectuals to pay for their collaboration with the extremists, who now declared them enemies of the people.  From then on, Kadet publications were closed and supporters arrested.  Lenin’s excuse—which he offered to simulate at least a minimal legitimacy—was that the Constitutional Democrats were not socialists.

In June 1918 the Bolshevik barred the SRs and the Mensheviks from the political process for alleged counterrevolutionary activities, and by late summer Lenin was already applying terror against former socialist comrades, many of whom were apprehended and incarcerated.   Of course they were not counterrevolutionaries, Lenin frankly admitted to Swiss socialist Fritz Platten, “But that’s exactly why they are dangerous–just because they are honest revolutionists.”38 Long before the Soviets legalized the on-going practice in their Penal Code, persecution extended from renowned figures of the socialist opposition to members of their families, including children.  The youngest daughter of Chernov, leader of the now-outlawed SRs, was eleven years old when she spent weeks of semi-starvation in an icy cell of the infamous Lubianka prison.39

In the first months after the Bolshevik takeover, Lenin had no choice but to put aside his dream of a single-party regime and grudgingly acknowledged the necessity to allot fractional authority to radical dissenters from the PSR–Left Socialists-Revolutionaries (Left SRs).  The Bolsheviks invited them to join the coalition government, in which the Left SR received four Commissar positions.  They also held high posts within the Soviet repressive organs, including the Cheka, where a Left SR representative served as its deputy director.  In their effort to eradicate “counterrevolution,” the Left SR were no less extreme than their comrades, the Bolsheviks.

On July 6, 1918, two Cheka functionaries, Left SRs Iakov Blumkin and Nikolai Andreev, assassinated the German Ambassador in Moscow, Count Wilhelm von Mirbach.  Lenin immediately proclaimed the terrorist act to be not only an attempt to drag the Soviet Republic into a new war with Germany, but also a motion for a full-fledged “counterrevolutionary uprising.”  He proceeded to arrest approximately 450 members of the Left SR faction on charges of conspiracy and treacherous violation of the two-party alliance.  Most likely, the Left SR leadership, although yielding none to the Bolsheviks in extremism, had no intention of rebelling against the coalition, but Mirbach’s assassination did give Lenin an opportunity to provoke the exchange of fire between former partners and to fulfill his underlying purpose of establishing the Bolshevik dictatorship.40

At the other end of the world nearly a century later, the extremists are following similar patterns of eliminating political rivals.  On 25 July 2008, an explosive device detonated in Gaza outside the Hilal Café, frequented by leading Hamas activists.  The explosion occurred next to a vehicle belonging to the militants´ commander Nihad Masbah.  Along with him, the blast killed four of his comrades and a 4-year-old girl; over twenty others were wounded.  Against all expectations, the Hamas leadership did not blame Israel and instead assigned responsibility for the attack to Muhammad Dahlan, former PA Authority National Security Advisor under the Fatah Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.  Following the explosion, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah vowed to “seek justice” and punish all guilty.  Abbas repeatedly denied the allegation that Fatah was behind the terrorist act in Gaza and proposed to initiate an independent inquiry to investigate the bombing—offer Hamas promptly rejected.

Instead, the Hamas combatants immediately began to make arrests throughout the city, apprehending 160 people aligned with al Fatah.  The arrests set off a wave of fighting between Hamas and Fatah factions.  Over the next two days, Hamas continued its repressive operations in Gaza, arresting in total almost 200 Fatah activists.  Fatah retaliated:  The Jerusalem Post reported that its forces rounded up dozens of pro-Hamas politicians and sympathizers across the West Bank, including 54 people in Nablus.  On 28 July Hamas banned the distribution of three Fatah-affiliated newspapers and arrested some journalists.

It was not the first or the only time Hamas combatants set out against the Fatah membership.  On 17 June 2009, Fatah TV marked the second anniversary of the Hamas military takeover of Gaza by issuing a graphic video, featuring  a screaming Fatah activist, drugged along on the ground and beaten by Hamas fighters with a bone-crushing bat, incited by their comrades with screams “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is Great).41 It would be fair to state—which the video did not—that in the areas controlled by Fatah, its militants have treated the Hamas rivals in similar ways. 42 For the Fatah leaders “nemeses were neither the Jews nor their Zionist benefactors” but “brother Palestinians,” men who repudiated allegiance to the faction that claimed the right to Arafat’s political legacy.43

None of this is new:  in 1905, Russian extremist groups, helped by thugs, protected Bolsheviks from Mensheviks and the SRs, and vice versa,44 their major concern being the control over party treasures.  After 1917, terrorists in power finally got a chance to settle old scores.  With Israel as common enemy, extremists contest political control in the not-yet-established Palestinian state and fight for its meager economic resources.  To suggest that in July 2008 the situation in Gaza is similar to that in Moscow in July 1918 is to emphasize the point:  the terrorists in the PA demonstrate the relentless determination to establish a dictatorship, for which had previously aspired the Bolsheviks–with great success.

By the fall and winter of 1918-19, Bolshevik terror achieved “a level of indiscriminate slaughter never before seen.”45 Persecutions aimed at virtually anyone representing the old regime’s upper classes, the bourgeoisie, and the intelligentsia.  A vicious atheistic campaign to obliterate the Russian Orthodox church and religion in general brought about unremitting aggression vis-à-vis the clergy and the devout adherents of all persuasions.46 Instigated by their perpetual dread of military conspiracies, the Bolsheviks made special effort to locate and apprehend former imperial army and navy officers; thousands them were executed without a trial.47 With a revealing ballpark figure of victims ranging between 50,000 and 140,000, violence “served the Bolsheviks…as a surrogate for the popular support which eluded them.  The more their popularity eroded, the more they resorted to terror.”48

Among perpetrators of state-sponsored terrorism, fanatics relied on “revolutionary conscience” to justify their urge to annihilate “class enemies,” but side by side with the visionaries operated the extremists of a new type–a wide variety of hooligans, criminals and the “scum of the society.”  The “revolutionary riffraff” readily joined the developing Soviet nomeklatura and the Cheka, to render a genuine new “social prototype.”49 Among them were individuals who in the post-1905 period had “entered the realm of political dissent after a squabble with the authorities, a boss, or a commanding officer.  Still others turned their quixotic ideals of ‘revolutionary’ justice into sheer criminal acts.  Finally, there were those for whom the Revolution meant money in their pockets, a lucrative business venture.”  Having served sentences for various crimes, these “thieves and ordinary swindlers” walked out of prison posing as political convicts in 1917, and “reintegrated into post-revolutionary Russian society quite swiftly thanks to their bogus revolutionary credentials”—reaping benefits under the auspices of the Bolshevik environment.50 Soviet authorities were well aware that the very nature of repressive activities attracted “corrupt and outright criminal elements,” and Dzerzhinskii bluntly complained: “only saints and scoundrels” offer their services to the Cheka, but “the saints are running away from me, and I am left with the scoundrels.”51

As in 1905, recruiters provided the lofty slogans of freedom fighters to justify felonious acts now carried out in the interest of the state.52 It was especially difficult to differentiate between revolutionary and criminal practices in the periphery, where mass murder, robbery, blackmail, rape, beatings, torture, and startling sadism assumed astounding proportions—the “Red banditry,” accompanied by incessant drinking and drug use by members of the Cheka and the tribunals.53 Few regional or district Cheka officials were held accountable for their actions, and the only criteria for appointment to the revolutionary tribunals were undivided loyalty to the new regime and the ability to read and write.  Consequently, sixty percent of the “proletarian judges” were individuals with incomplete secondary schooling; many used their positions “to pursue personal vendettas” and to extort bribes from families of the accused.  People were executed “by accident:” a person would be shot because his family name was confused with a similar one.  In some cases namesakes were killed together purposely; the Chekists did not wish to waste time on lengthy investigation.54 What “now goes on in the provinces is not Red Terror at all, but crime, from beginning to end,” a prominent Bolshevik Mikhail Olminskii protested in 1919.55

We obviously cannot reduce mass ideologically-justified violence to psychopathology of individual participants; yet, it would also be erroneous to ignore rampant, irrational, and frequently uncontrolled brutality that permeated the Bolshevik Terror.  The behavior of its numerous practitioners suggests of a psychological instability a possible catalyst for viciousness.  In prevailing circumstances of a political crisis, mental aberrancy and perversions, including sadism,  assumed revolutionary form—as they had had a decade earlier.  As then, emotionally damaged individuals gravitated towards extremism and confirmed a strong connection between psychological imbalance and aggressive impulses, of which medical professionals had been aware for decades.

Psychosis might have been as exceptional among the extremists as it was outside the revolutionary milieu, but terrorists of the pre-revolutionary epoch suffered from a variety of other mental illnesses, including acute paranoia, severe depression and recurrent manic episodes.  Some, like Dora Brilliant, exhibited a tendency towards hysteria and experienced emotional breakdowns.56 Others would not miss a chance for an aggressive act.57 Quite a number of combatants periodically found themselves in psychiatric hospitals.  Particularly widespread was serious pathological behavior among teenage terrorists, some of whom received treatment for psychiatric disorders.58

“Unbalanced,” “turbulent, “completely abnormal,” “mentally deranged,” and “crazy” called the revolutionaries their psychologically deviant comrades; one referred to them as “cannibals.”59 Sometimes precisely due to their evident aberrancy and proclivity for aggression, recruiters were eager to enlist them for terrorist acts.  Thus, Lenin treasured Kamo:  recognizing that his loyal “Caucasian bandit” suffered from a mental illness and required clinical treatment; the Bolsheviks counted on his wild temperament to provide constant inflow of expropriated cash.60 Not entirely original would then seem the idea to employ for terrorist purposes two Iraqi women with the Down syndrome:  the “crazy ladies” were strapped with remote-control explosives and dispatched to detonate them in crowded Baghdad markets on the morning of 8 February 2008, killing at least 99.61

Relatively few qualified as mentally deranged, let alone insane, but their attitude towards brutality did blur the boundaries between normalcy and pathology. Tat’iana Leont’eva, daughter of the vice-governor of Iakutsk and terrorist-fanatic of more than questionable emotional stability, murdered an elderly man, in her confused mental state mistaking him for Minister of the Interior Durnovo.  Having been informed of her error, she expressed regrets but added: “In these difficult times it does not matter if there is one person more or less in the world.”62

Dzerzhinskii, who personified the Bolshevik Red Terror, before the revolution had been diagnosed with and reportedly treated for a mental illness then referred to as “circular psychosis” (Bipolar Affective Disorder).63 Several of his chief lieutenants after 1918, including the notoriously vicious investigator Romanovskii, were drug addicts and unquestionable sadists.64 The inmates in the “Death Boat,” as they called the central Cheka prison in Moscow, found themselves in the hands of a former criminal-turned-Bolshevik hero, a raging “terror of the jail,” nicknamed the “Commissar of Death.”65

“Only a truly ill patient in a state of madness behaves this way,” confirmed medical experts in Germany after a thorough evaluation of Kamo following his imprisonment in 1907.  He “easily loses mental equilibrium and then enters a state of obvious insanity.  . . . .We are dealing with a type of mental disorder that most accurately is attributable to a form of hysteria,” was the doctors’ verdict.66 In the prerevolutionary years, Kamo was obsessed with a scheme of testing the loyalty of rank-and-file combatants by fear and torture–until he finally had a chance to put it into practice amid the anarchy of the Russian Civil war.  During a training exercise in 1919, the Red fighters under his leadership were attacked and captured by “the Whites”—in reality Kamo’s lieutenants wearing enemy epaulets.  The make-belief captors flogged their prisoners and staged mock hangings.  Some Bolsheviks broke under torture, and Kamo was ecstatic:  his method of separating the “real Communists” from the cowards worked marvelously.67

Those predisposed to sadism needed it in amplified doses after they had begun to take part in routine bloodshed manifest during the Red Terror.  They have “contracted the execution habit” and became addicted to gore as if to narcotics; killing has “become necessary to them,” as if it were morphine. They cannot sleep unless they have shot someone dead and “volunteer for the service,” revealed a contemporary reporter.  Some were clinically mad; others, including aberrant juveniles as young as 14, were “half-idiots.” 68

Local Cheka committees became notorious for specific forms of torture, which they claimed as their expertise, such as scalping prisoners in Khar’kov, or burying them alive in Kremenchug.  In Ekaterinoslav, the Cheka officers specialized in crucifixions, and in Kiev they liked the joke of putting a captive in a closed coffin with a decaying body.  “Throughout the country, without investigation or trial, the Chekists . . . tortured old men and raped schoolgirls and killed parents before the eyes of their children. They impaled people, beat them with an iron glove, put wet leather ‘crowns’ on their heads, buried them alive” and “locked them in cells where the floor was covered with corpses.”69

“Homicide rates increase dramatically following all wars, the same for victor or loser nations,” 70 and so it did in Russia after years of bloodshed during WWI.  Lenin’s policies contributed further to dramatic devaluation of human life.  Still, no matter how much people were conditioned to cruelty, it was apparently not a trivial matter for the Bolsheviks to find enough volunteers to jail, guard, interrogate, torture, and execute.  To maintain “purity of the cause,” the idealists occasionally refused to follow orders; for example, to examine 19 cases of alleged counterrevolutionaries and shoot them all, regardless of the outcome of the investigation.71 People were too “sentimental,” complained Peters, when charged with recruitment of the rank-and-file Cheka cadres.

There is a great deal of evidence that genes play a significant role in aggressiveness.  Animal breeding studies have shown that it is possible to select for violent behavioral traits, and family studies have confirmed that hostility is highly heritable.  Some genetic mechanisms responsible for aggression have been revealed by molecular genetics; however, the importance of environmental factors has also been highlighted by researchers.72 The Bolsheviks were at work on forging the environment conducive to murder from their earliest days in power.



[1]  The Jacobins, while responsible for the “Reign of Terror” during the French Revolution, had not, like the Bolsheviks, engaged in violence prior to the fall of monarchy.  This article is based on research from Anna Geifman, Death Orders:  The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia (Santa Barbara, CA—Denver, Colorado—Oxford, England:  Praeger Security International, 2010).

[2]  Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 11 (Moscow, 1959), 340-343; Chuzhak, “Lenin i ‘tekhnika’ vosstaniia,” Katorga i ssylka, 12 (73) (1931): 77.

[3]  Discussed in Geifman, Thou Shalt Kill:  Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1993), 92-96.

[4]  Trotsky cited in Walter Laqueur, Terrorism (Little, Brown, & Co.: Boston-Toronto, 1977), 68.

[5]  Cited in Hugh Phillips, “The War against Terrorism in Late Imperial and Early Soviet Russia,” in Isaac Land, ed., Enemies of Humanity (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2008), 219.

[6]  Cited in V. A. Posse, Moi zhiznennyi put’ (Moscow-Leningrad, 1929), 321.

[7]  Cited in Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (Vintage Books:  New York, 1990), 791-792.

[8]  Cited in Cited in Nathan Leites, A Study of Bolshevism (The Free Press Publishers:  Glencoe, IL, 1953), 355.

[9]  Cited in Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (W. W .Norton & Co Inc, 1999), 98.

[10]  On the general history of the Cheka see Leonard D. Gerson, The Secret Police in Lenin’s Russia (Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 1976) and George Leggett, The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1986).

[11]  Cited in Leites, A Study of Bolshevism, 353.

[12]  Cited in Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 805, 790.

[13]  Cited in Robert D. Warth, “Cheka,” The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History (MERSH), vol. 6 (Academic International Press), 218.

[14]  James Bunyan and H. H. Fisher, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1918:  Documents and Materials (Stanford University Press:  Stanford, 1934), 297-298.

[15]  Cited in Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 800-801, 804-805.

[16]  Richard Sakwa, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991 (Routhedge, 1999), 75.

[17]  Cited in Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 800-801, 804-805.

[18]  Cited in Ibid., 787.

[19]  Ibid., 820.

[20]  Cited in Yevgenia Albats and Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. The State within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia – Past, Present, and Future (Farrar Straus & Giroux: New York, 1994).

[21]  Noi [Noah] Zhordaniia, Moia zhzn’ (Stanford, 1968), 80; Zeev Ivianski, “The Terrorist Revolution:  Roots of Modern Terrorism,” David C. Rapoport, ed., Inside Terrorist organizations (London, 1988), 133.

[22]  “Kronika vooruzhenoi bor’by,” Krasnyi arkhiv 4-5 (11-12) (1925): 170.

[23]  V. Bonch-Bruevich, “Moi vospominaniia o P. A. Kropotkine,” Zvezda 6 (1930): 196.

[24]  Report of 26 May [8 June] 1906, Archive of the Russian secret police (Okhrana), Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, CA [cited hereafter as Okhrana], XIX-13; Petr Zavarzin, Rabota tainoi politsii (Paris, 1924), 128.

[25]  Warth, “Cheka,” 218.

[26]  See, for example, Mikhail Osorgin, Vremena (Sredne-Ural’skoe knizhnoe izd-vo: Ekaterinburg, 1992):  577.  Numerous cases of execution of family members are cited in Mark Kramer, ed., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1999).

[27]  Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891–1924 (Penguin: New York, 1998). 647.

[28]   Robert Gellately, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe (Knopf, 2007), 58-59.

[29]  Sergei Mel’gunov, “Krasnyi terror” v Rossii, 1918-1923 (“PUICO:” Moscow, 1990), 108.

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