The Red Terror

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The Red Terror (Russian: Красный террор) was a period of political repression and mass killings carried out by Bolsheviks after the beginning of the Russian Civil War in 1918.

The term is usually applied to Bolshevik political repression during the Civil War (1917–1922), as distinguished from the White Terror carried out by the White Army (Russian and non-Russian groups opposed to Bolshevik rule) against their political enemies (including the Bolsheviks). It was modeled on the Terror of the French Revolution. The Cheka (the Bolshevik secret police) carried out the repressions perpetrated during the Red Terror. Estimates for the total number of people killed during the Red Terror for the initial period of repression are at least 10,000. Estimates for the total number of victims of Bolshevik repression vary widely. One source asserts that the total number of victims of repression and pacification campaigns could be 1.3 million, whereas another gives estimates of 28,000 executions per year from December 1917 to February 1922. The most reliable estimations for the total number of killings put the number at about 100,000, whereas others suggest a figure of 200,000.


The establishment of the Red Terror regime in September 1918 was caused by various factors. There was economic and political disorganization in the country, the radicalization of the masses, the devaluation of life and polarization of society that intensified during the First World War, leading to the emergence of mob justice, banditry, and riots. Increasingly, a violent solution to political and social problems were emphasized. The use of coercion was inherent to all parties to the conflict.

The invasion by Czechoslovakian, American, British, French, and Japanese forces intensified the civil war. The use of repression gained further justification as a result. There was the suppression of revolutions in Hungary, Germany, and especially Finland, which pushed for more decisive action by the Soviet state against its adversaries. Believing that its foes were diametrically opposed to it, the Soviet forces aimed at suppressing them, including their social basis. Thus, the repression was directed against ancien regime officials and military officers, policemen, and members of the upper classes 

In addition to clearing the old state apparatus, the Red Terror had a purpose in strengthening the Soviet state. The situation demanded the Bolsheviks retain power not only by suppressing rebellion, but also to prevent it at all costs, as well as signs of anarchy. The Red Terror sought to fix the problem of the spontaneous, individual terror. 

The Red Terror in Soviet Russia was justified in Soviet historiography as a wartime campaign against counter-revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War of 1918–1921, targeting those who sided with the Whites (White Army). Bolsheviks referred to any anti-Bolshevik factions as Whites, regardless of whether those factions actually supported the White movement cause. Leon Trotsky described the context in 1920:

The severity of the proletarian dictatorship in Russia, let us point out here, was conditioned by no less difficult circumstances [than the French Revolution]. There was one continuous front, on the north and south, in the east and west. Besides the Russian White Guard armies of Kolchak, Denikin and others, there are those attacking Soviet Russia, simultaneously or in turn: Germans, Austrians, Czecho-Slovaks, Serbs, Poles, Ukrainians, Roumanians, French, British, Americans, Japanese, Finns, Esthonians, Lithuanians ... In a country throttled by a blockade and strangled by hunger, there are conspiracies, risings, terrorist acts, and destruction of roads and bridges.

— Trotsky (1920)

He then contrasted the terror with the revolution and provide the Bolshevik's justification for it:

The first conquest of power by the Soviets at the beginning of November 1917 (new style) was actually accomplished with insignificant sacrifices. The Russian bourgeoisie found itself to such a degree estranged from the masses of the people, so internally helpless, so compromised by the course and the result of the war, so demoralized by the regime of Kerensky, that it scarcely dared show any resistance. ... A revolutionary class which has conquered power with arms in its hands is bound to, and will, suppress, rifle in hand, all attempts to tear the power out of its hands. Where it has against it a hostile army, it will oppose to it its own army. Where it is confronted with armed conspiracy, attempt at murder, or rising, it will hurl at the heads of its enemies an unsparing penalty.

— Trotsky (1920)

Martin Latsis, chief of the Ukrainian Cheka, stated in the newspaper Red Terror:

We are not fighting against single individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. 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.

 Martin Latsis (Mārtiņš Lācis)Red Terror

The bitter struggle was described succinctly from the Bolshevik point of view by Grigory Zinoviev in mid-September 1918:

To overcome our enemies we must have our own socialist militarism. We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia's population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.

— Grigory Zinoviev, 1918


The campaign of mass repressions officially started as retribution for the assassination (17 August 1918) of Petrograd Cheka leader Moisei Uritsky by Leonid Kannegisser and for the attempted assassination (30 August 1918) of Vladimir Lenin by Fanni Kaplan. While recovering from his wounds, Lenin instructed: "It is necessary – secretly and urgently to prepare the terror".

On August 5, 1918, a revolt led by wealthy peasants broke out in Kuchkino district in the Penza region. The rebellion was suppressed on August 8, but the situation in the region remained tense. On August 18, another revolt broke out, led by the Socialist-Revolutionaries. The Penza regional leaders were seen as not responding firmly enough against rebellion, which prompted Lenin to send several telegrams urging them to be more resolute in fighting against the rebels: "Essential to organise a reinforced guard of selected and reliable people, to carry out a campaign of ruthless mass terror against the kulaks, priests and whiteguards; suspects to be shut up in a detention camp outside the city."

On August 11, 1918 Lenin instructed the following action:

"Comrades! The insurrection of five kulak districts should be pitilessly suppressed. The interests of the whole revolution require this because 'the last decisive battle' with the kulaks is now under way everywhere. An example must be demonstrated.

  1. Hang (absolutely hang, in full view of the people) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, filthy rich men, bloodsuckers.
  2. Publish their names.
  3. Seize all grain from them.
  4. Designate hostages - in accordance with yesterday's telegram.

Do it in such a fashion, that for hundreds of verst around the people see, tremble, know, shout: "strangling (is done) and will continue for the bloodsucking kulaks".

Telegraph the receipt and the implementation. Yours, Lenin.

P.S. Use your toughest people for this."

The Bolshevik communist government executed five hundred "representatives of overthrown classes" immediately after the assassination of Uritsky.

The first official announcement of a Red Terror, published in Izvestia, "Appeal to the Working Class" on 3 September 1918, called for the workers to "crush the hydra of counterrevolution with massive terror! ... anyone who dares to spread the slightest rumor against the Soviet regime will be arrested immediately and sent to a concentration camp". There followed the decree "On Red Terror", issued on 5 September 1918 by the Cheka.

On 15 October, the leading Chekist Gleb Bokii, summing up the officially ended Red Terror, reported that in Petrograd 800 alleged enemies had been shot and another 6,229 imprisoned. Casualties in the first two months were between 10,000 and 15,000 based on lists of summarily executed people published in newspaper Cheka Weekly and other official press. A declaration About the Red Terror by the Sovnarkom on 5 September 1918 stated:

that for empowering the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission in the fight with the counter-revolution, profiteering and corruption and making it more methodical, it is necessary to direct there possibly bigger number of the responsible party comrades, that it is necessary to secure the Soviet Republic from the class enemies by way of isolating them in concentration camps, that all people are to be executed by fire squad who are connected with the White Guard organizations, conspiracies and mutinies, that it is necessary to publicize the names of the executed as well as the reasons of applying to them that measure.

— Signed by People's Commissar of Justice D. Kursky, People's Commissar of Interior G. Petrovsky, Director in Affairs of the Council of People's Commissars V. Bonch-Bruyevich, SU, #19, department 1, art.710, 04.09.1918

Opponents of the Soviet government, particularly the government of White army leader A Denikin, claimed that significant numbers of prisoners, suspects and hostages were executed because they belonged to the "possessing classes", including between 2000 and 3000 in Kharkov in 1919 and 1,000 in Rostov in 1920.

According to Professor Ratkovsky of St Petersburg University, the number of executions carried out during the Red Terror amounted to 8000 people: 2000 executions occurred from August 30 to 5 September 1918, and another 3000 during the remaining days of September. 3000 more were executed during October-November 1918. 

There were claims among Russian emigres of large-scale repression in the Crimea after the Soviets established control of the region in 1920. Emigrant B.L. Solonevich wrote about 40,000 executed in the first three months alone, and S.P. Melgunov, who readily quotes eyewitness accounts and the white emigrant press, gave estimates of 50, 100 and 150 thousand people. These estimates are considered to be exaggerated. In the book “The Last Hermitage”, which contains reports on the executions of captured officers and gendarmes, there are 4,534 executed. Of these, there were 2,065 in Simferopol, 624 in Kerch, and 53 in Sevastopol. The report of P. Zotov, the head of the Special Division of the 9th Division, was published, in which out of 1,100 whites registered in Feodosia there were 1,006 people were executed. All the people who were executed belonged to officers, military officials and police officers of the White Army. A resolution was also issued on the execution of 320 officers in Dzhankoy on November 28, 1920. The scale of repression in Crimea was considered extraordinary, and there was no similar wave of repression against the captured armies of Denikin and Kolchak.

The author of an article in Crimean newspaper Sevastopol Pravda doubted claims of atrocities in Crimea in 1920, writing "I could not believe in the "Red atrocities" that Melgunov wrote about, because having lived in Sevastopol since 1948, I had not heard anything like this from the locals. Less than 30 years had passed by that time, and witnesses were alive... In addition, during and after the civil war, my grandfather lived with his family in the village, and my father, who was then 14 years old, lived in Simferopol. I did not hear anything about "Red atrocities" from them either. Moreover, in Sevastopol, two elder brothers of my father, privates who served with the White Army, were captured. One of them was wounded at Perekop and was in the hospital. None of them were subjected to violence and were not exiled to the North." 

On 16 March 1919, all military detachments of the Cheka were combined in a single body, the Troops for the Internal Defense of the Republic, which numbered 200,000 in 1921. These troops policed labor camps, ran the Gulag system, conducted requisitions of food, and put down peasant rebellions, riots by workers, and mutinies in the Red Army (which was plagued by desertions).

One of the main organizers of the Red Terror for the Bolshevik government was 2nd-Grade Army Commissar Yan Karlovich Berzin (1889–1938), whose real name was Pēteris Ķuzis. He took part in the October Revolution of 1917 and afterwards worked in the central apparatus of the Cheka. During the Red Terror, Berzin initiated the system of taking and shooting hostages to stop desertions and other "acts of disloyalty and sabotage". As chief of a special department of the Latvian Red Army (later the 15th Army), Berzin played a part in the suppression of the Russian sailors' mutiny at Kronstadt in March 1921. He particularly distinguished himself in the course of the pursuit, capture, and killing of captured sailors.

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    Name Born / Since / At Died Languages
    1Anastasia RomanovaAnastasia Romanova18.06.190117.07.1918de, en, fr, lv, pl, ru
    2Дора ЛюбарскаяДора Любарская00.00.190006.01.1920ru
    3Татьяна РомановаТатьяна Романова10.06.189717.07.1918ru
    4Vladimir  PaleyVladimir Paley09.01.189718.07.1918de, en, fr, ru
    5Ольга  НиколаевнаОльга Николаевна15.11.189517.07.1918ru
    6Николай БулганинНиколай Булганин11.06.189524.02.1975ru
    7Igor  ConstantinovichIgor Constantinovich29.05.189418.07.1918de, en, fr, ru
    8Sergej TrubeckojSergej Trubeckoj27.02.189024.10.1949en, lv, ru
    9Reinholds BērziņšReinholds Bērziņš16.07.188811.03.1938lv, pl, ru
    10Jekabs PetersJekabs Peters03.12.188625.04.1938de, ee, en, lv, pl, ru, ua
    11Владимир ПолухинВладимир Полухин02.07.188620.09.1918ru
    12Nikolay GumilevNikolay Gumilev15.04.188624.08.1921de, en, fr, pl, ru
    13Yakov SverdlovYakov Sverdlov03.06.188516.03.1919de, en, fr, lt, lv, pl, ru
    14Иван  КсенофонтовИван Ксенофонтов28.08.188423.03.1926ru
    15Grigory ZinovievGrigory Zinoviev23.09.188325.08.1936de, en, fr, lv, pl, ru
    16Aleksej SchastnijAleksej Schastnij16.10.188122.06.1918en, lv, ru
    17Leon TrotskyLeon Trotsky26.10.187921.08.1940de, en, fr, lt, lv, pl, ru
    18Joseph StalinJoseph Stalin18.12.187805.03.1953de, ee, en, fr, lt, lv, pl, ru, ua
    19Mikhail Aleksandrovich RomanovMikhail Aleksandrovich Romanov04.12.187813.06.1918de, en, fr, lt, pl, ru
    20Зинаида  КоноплянниковаЗинаида Коноплянникова14.11.187829.08.1906ru


    Name Born / Since / At Died Languages
    1Sts Peter and Paul CathedralSts Peter and Paul Cathedralen, pl, ru, ua