"We stand for organized terror -- this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. When confronted with evidence criminals in almost every case confess; and what argument can have greater weight than a criminal's own confession.".
Felix Dzerzhinsky, interviewed in Novaia Zhizn (14th July, 1918)
Convinced that all opposition was counterrevolutionary, the Bolshevik leadership created the Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage Dec. 4, 1918.
Felix Dzerzhinsky received the nod to head the new organization. When it looked like a strike threatened to undermine the entire Bolshevik structure, Dzerzhinsky was ordered to create the All Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage or Cheka.
Years after his death, Felix Dzerzhinsky would be placed in the KGB pantheon of heroic figures of the Russian revolution. His status in 1918 was far simpler. Like many of the early leaders of the Cheka, he was not a Russian. He saw the first light of day in 1877 when he joined a family of wealthy Polish landowners and intelligentsia.
As a child he believed God had called him to become a Catholic priest. Instead he became a young convert to Marxism and in 1895 joined the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party. He soon abandoned his formal education and decided to pursue a much more practical life's course by joining the masses. Five years later he was known as an accomplished agitator and one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. His outspoken support of revolutionary causes landed him in prison.
The nearly twenty years of incarceration would have stilled the revolutionary ardor of most but not Dzerzhinsky. Once released from prison after the fall of the Tsar in February 1917, he joined the Bolsheviks and took part in the October Revolution.
Dzerzhinsky was probably best described by his contemporaries as a steadfast workaholic. During his first year as head of the Cheka, he ate, worked, and slept in his office in the Lubyanka, once the offices of Lloyds of London.
His endurance and his selfless life style brought him the nickname of Iron Felix. Like Lenin, the Cheka leader was ready to sacrifice himself for the revolution. No one espoused better the Bolshevik doctrine. During his first year at the helm of the Cheka, he supported the uses of seizure of property, resettlement, deprivation of ration cards, publication of lists of enemies of the state and an impressive assortment of other measures. All focused on gaining political power for the Bolsheviks.
The main weapon, however, was terror. Once Lenin became fully aware of the opposition to the Bolsheviks, his thinking evolved into a position that supported the use of terror to achieve party objectives. Dzerzhinsky and many of his associates believed that the use of terror was not directed against individuals but against bourgeoisie as a class. It was class warfare. For the recipients of Cheka attention, their treatment became very personal. When the extent of their brutality became known publicly, Dzerzhinsky explained it as being nothing more than bloodthirsty impulses. These impulses in Moscow brought unfavorable reactions.
From 1917 to 1921 the Cheka, in attempting to secure power for the Bolsheviks, probably executed more than 250,000 people. Most were charged with treason but many not at all. Under Dzerzhinsky's leadership, the terror they wielded was complete. Those meeting their fate shared the common characteristic of being opposed to Bolshevism. With the Bolshevik victory secure in 1921, many in the party believed the Cheka had outlived its usefulness. Their methods had been at times excessive. It was accordingly reduced in size and its responsibilities curtailed in 1921. It remained active but on a reduced scale until Feb. 8, 1922 when it was replaced by the State Political Directorate or GPU.
Felix Dzerzhinsky would remain in control of the GPU until his death July 20, 1926 of a fatal heart attack.
"There followed a series of uncovered plots, some true, others fantastic, some Cheka provocations. Dzerzhinsky was constantly sharpening the weapon of Soviet dictatorship. To Dzerzhinsky was brought the mass of undigested rumours from all parts of Petrograd. With the aid of picked squads of Chekists, Dzerzhinsky undertook to purge the city. Little time was wasted sifting evidence and classifying people rounded up in these night raids. Woe to him who did not disarm all suspicion at once. The prisoners were generally hustled to the old police station not far from the Winter Palace. Here, with or without perfunctory interrogation, they were stood up against the courtyard wall and shot. The staccato sounds of death were muffled by the roar of truck motors kept going for the purpose."
"Dzerzhinsky furnished the instrument for tearing a new society out of the womb of the old -- the instrument of organised, systematic, mass terror. For Dzerzhinsky the class struggle meant exterminating 'the enemies of the working class.' The 'enemies of the working class' were all who opposed the Bolshevik dictatorship."
"At meetings of the Sovnarcom, Lenin often exchanged notes with his colleagues. On one occasion, he sent a note to Dzerzhinsky. 'How many vicious counter-revolutionaries are there in our prisons?' Dzerzhinsky's reply was: 'About fifteen hundred.' Lenin read it, snorted something to himself, made a cross beside the figure, and returned the note to Dzerzhinsky."
"Dzerzhinsky rose and left the room without a word. No-one paid any attention either to Lenin's note or to Dzerzhinsky's departure. The meeting continued. But the next day there was excited whispering. Dzerzhinsky had ordered the execution of all the fifteen hundred 'vicious counter-revolutionaries' the previous night. He had taken Lenin's cross as a collective death sentence."
"There would have been little comment had Lenin's gesture been meant as an order for wholesale liquidation. But, as Fotieva, Lenin's secretary, explained: 'There was a misunderstanding. Vladimir Ilyich never wanted the executions. Dzerzhinsky did not understand him. Vladimir Ilyich usually puts a cross on memoranda to indicate that he has read them and noted their contents.'"
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