Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1919
This organization was set up originally in December 1917 under Felix Dzerzhinsky. Its name is an abbreviated version of the acronym Vecheka (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage); its objective, as the name suggests, was to combat any opposition to the Bolshevik government and to investigate acts of anarchy, such as looting and black-marketeering, that were rife during the early months after the revolution.
Before long, as the scourge of all enemies of the state, the Cheka became a law unto itself. Its activities escalated unchecked, and in the words of Solzhenitsyn, it evolved into “the only punitive organ in human history that combined in one set of hands investigation, arrest, interrogation, prosecution, trial, and execution of the verdict.” During its existence, the Cheka adopted and perfected all the sinister techniques of terror and intimidation that would be passed down by the Soviet secret police in its later incarnations, as the GPU (1922), the OGPU (1923) and later Stalin’s infamous NKVD (1934). After Stalin’s death, the Soviet secret police finally acquired its most familiar acronym, the KGB (1954).
Many of Stalin’s later henchmen, such as Nikolay Bulganin and Genrikh Yagoda, as well as Stalin himself, learned the art of political repression with the Cheka. While in Tsaritsyn in southern Russia, Stalin, as director general of food supplies during the civil war, had organized branches of the Cheka to undertake the rounding up and execution of anti-Bolsheviks. When a special department of the Cheka was set up in 1919, responsible for maintaining security in the Red Army and monitoring counterespionage and countersubversion activities, it was ordered to report directly to Stalin. One of the Cheka’s most notorious exploits was the brutal suppression of the rebellion at the Kronstadt naval base in 1921; hundreds of the rebels were shot.
The Cheka also pioneered the first corrective labor camps, which were set up in August 1918. By 1922 they housed 85,000 prisoners. Having fulfilled its objectives, the Cheka was replaced in 1922 by the GPU. In the face of the horrors later committed during Stalin’s political purges by the OGPU and NKVD, it is easy to forget that in the years of Lenin’s leadership the Cheka itself was probably responsible for up to 200,000 executions. For the brief period of its existence, as the writer Ilya Ehrenburg recalls, “the two syllables [Che-ka]” became so “productive of fear and emotion in any citizen who had lived through the years of the revolution” that they were never to be forgotten.
Further reading: George Leggett. The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.