Red Terror

The Bolsheviks rose to power in 1917, opposed to the poverty and violence of the Tsar's regime. But facing opposition from all sides, and the outbreak of civil war, the Bolsheviks soon resorted to violence themselves. This is the story of the Red Terror.

Red Terror Red Terror

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Table of contents

    Red Terror Timeline

    Let's look at the important events that led to Lenin's Red Terror.

    October 1917The October Revolution established the Bolshevik control of Russia, with Lenin as the leader. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries supported this Revolution.
    December 1917Lenin established the Cheka, the first Russian secret police.
    March 1918Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, conceding ¼ of Russia's land and ⅓ of Russia's population to the Central Powers to withdraw from the First World War. Breakdown of the alliance between the Bolsheviks and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries.
    May 1918Czechoslovak Region.The "White" Army formed an Anti-Bolshevik government.
    June 1918Outbreak of Russian Civil War. Lenin introduced War Communism to aid the Red Army against the White Army.
    July 1918Bolsheviks suppressed the Left Socialist Revolutionaries' revolt in Moscow.Members of Cheka assassinate Tsar Nicholas II and his family.
    9 August 1918Lenin issued his "hanging order" to execute 100 dissident peasants.
    30 August 1918 Assassination attempt on Lenin.
    5 September 1918The Bolshevik Party called on the Cheka to isolate "class enemies" of the Soviet Republic in concentration camps. Marked the official beginning of the Red Terror.
    October 1918Cheka leader Martyn Latsis declared the Red Terror a "class war" to destroy the bourgeoisie, justifying the brutal actions of the Cheka as fighting for communism.
    1918 to 1921 The Red Terror.Socialist Revolutionaries were targeted, around 800 members executed in the months following Lenin's attempted assassination.Cheka (the secret police) grew to around 200,000 members by 1920. The definition of Bolshevik opponents expanded to tsarists, Mensheviks, clergy in the Russia Orthodox Church and profiteers (such as kulak peasants).The katorgas (previous Tsar regime prison and labour camps) were used to detain dissidents in remote territories such as Siberia.
    1921The Russian Civil War ended with the Bolshevik victory. The Red Terror was over. 5 million peasants died in a famine.

    Red Terror Russia

    After the October Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks established themselves as leaders of Russia. Many pro-Tsarist and moderate Social Revolutionaries staged protests against the Bolshevik government.

    In order to secure their political position, Vladimir Lenin created the Cheka, Russia's first secret police, which would use violence and intimidation to eliminate Bolshevik opposition.

    The Red Terror (September 1918 - December 1922) saw the Bolsheviks use violent methods to secure their power. Official Bolshevik figures state that around 8,500 people were executed during this time, but some historians estimate that up to 100,000 died in this period.

    The Red Terror was a defining moment at the beginning of Bolshevik leadership, showing the extent to which Lenin was prepared to go to establish a Communist government.

    Generally speaking, the Russian Civil War was battles between the Red Army and the White Army. By contrast, the Red Terror were the covert operations to eliminate certain key figures and make examples out of Bolshevik opponents.

    Red Terror Causes

    The Cheka (the secret police) carried out terror operations since their creation in December 1917 to deal with certain dissidents and events after the Bolshevik revolution. Upon seeing the effectiveness of these missions, the Red Terror was officially instated on 5 September 1918. Let's look at the causes that pushed Lenin to enact the Red Terror.

    Red Terror Causes White Army

    The main opposition to the Bolsheviks were the "Whites", comprised of Tsarists, former nobility and anti-socialists.

    The Czechoslovak Legion were an army forced to fight by their Austrian rulers. However, they refused to fight Russia and peacefully surrendered. As a reward for their surrender, Lenin promised their safe return. However, in exchange for pulling Russia out of the First World War, Lenin was forced to return these soldiers to Austria for punishment. The Czechoslovak Legion soon revolted, taking over key parts of the Trans-Siberian Railway. They ended up in control of the new "White" Army which was bent on destroying the Bolsheviks.

    An anti-Bolshevik government was set up in June 1918 in Samara and by the summer on 1918, the Bolsheviks had lost control of most of Siberia. The revolt demonstrated that anti-Bolshevik forces were accumulating and that Lenin needed to take down these insurgences at the root by eliminating key opponents. This was a reason for the Red Terror.

    Red Terror Photograph of the czechoslovak legion StudySmarterFig. 1 - Photograph of the Czechoslovak Legion.

    The success of the Whites proved to inspire other insurgencies across the country, setting an example to Russian citizens that anti-Bolshevik insurgencies could be successful. However, by the autumn of 1918, Lenin had suppressed much of the White Army and put down the Czechoslovak Legion revolt.

    The Czechoslovak Legion soldiers retreated to the newly independent Czechoslovakia at the start of 1919.

    Red Terror Causes Tsar Nicholas II

    Many of the Whites wanted to reinstate the Tsar who the Bolsheviks held captive. The Whites were intent on rescuing the former ruler and they approached Yekaterinburg, where the Tsar and the Romanov family were being held. In July 1918, Lenin ordered the Cheka to assassinate Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family before the Whites could reach them. This radicalised both the White and Red Army against each other.

    Red Terror Causes Enforcing War Communism and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

    In March 1918, Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which gave large pieces of Russian land and resources away to the Central powers of WWI. In June 1918, Lenin introduced the policy of War Communism, which requisitioned all of Russia's grain and redistributed it to the Red Army to fight the Civil War.

    Both of these decisions proved unpopular. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries ended their coalition with the Bolsheviks following the Treaty. They cited the poor treatment of peasants as a result of these decisions as the reason. The peasants also objected to the forced land requisitioning as they were unable to provide for themselves.

    Red Terror Photograph of the petrograd cheka with Moisei Uritsky StudySmarterFig. 2 - Photograph showing the Cheka, the secret police.

    On 5 August 1918, a group of peasants in Penza revolted against Lenin's War Communism. The revolt was crushed 3 days later and Lenin issued his "hanging order" to execute the 100 peasants.

    Did you know? Although some "kulaks" (peasants who owned the land and profited from the farming peasants under them) existed, many of the peasants who revolted were not kulaks. They were branded this way from Lenin in order to justify the arrest and execution of them.

    This formalised the Bolshevik's opposition to so-called "class enemies" such as the kulaks - the wealthy peasant farmers. The kulaks were regarded as a form of bourgeoisie and seen as enemies of Communism and the revolution. In reality, the peasant revolts were fuelled by hunger after requisitioning and the harsh treatment of peasants by Lenin's actions. However, Lenin was used propaganda to justify the Red Terror.

    Red Terror Causes Left Socialist-Revolutionaries

    Upon Lenin signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, the Bolshevik-Left Socialist Revolutionary (SR) coalition broke down. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries soon rebelled against Bolshevik control.

    On 6 July 1918 many of the Left SR faction were arrested for opposing the Bolshevik party. That same day, Popov, a Left SR, was chairing a Central Committee meeting for the Left SR party. Popov arrested the head of the Cheka, Martyn Latsis, and took control of the country's media channels. Through the telephone exchange and telegraph office, the Central Committee of the Left SRs began proclaiming their control of Russia.

    The Left SRs understood the power the Cheka had for enforcing Bolshevik rule and attempted to revolt in Petrograd and control Russia through its propaganda channels.

    Red Terror Maria Spiridonova headed the Left Socialist Revolutionaries during the October Revolution StudySmarterFig. 3 - Maria Spiridonova headed the Left Socialist Revolutionaries during the October Revolution.

    The Red Army arrived on the 7 July and forced the Left SRs out with gunfire. Left SR leaders were branded as traitors and arrested by the Cheka. The uprising was quashed and the Left SRs were broken up for the duration of the Civil War.

    Red Terror Facts

    On 5 September 1918, the Cheka were tasked to eradicate "class enemies" of the Bolsheviks through executions and detainment in prison and labour camps. In the months that followed around 800 Socialist Revolutionaries were targeted in response to Lenin's attempted assassination.

    Why was Lenin almost assassinated?

    On 30th August 1918, Socialist Revolutionary Fanya Kaplan shot Lenin twice after he gave a speech in a Moscow factory. His injuries threatened his life, but he recovered in hospital.

    Kaplan was captured by the Cheka and stated that she was motivated because Lenin had closed down the Constituent Assembly and had accepted the punishing terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. She had branded Lenin a traitor of the revolution. She was executed by the Cheka 4 days later. Lenin permitted the instigation of the Red Terror shortly after in order to crack down on anti-Bolshevik violence.

    During the Tsarist regime, katorgas were used as a network of prison and labour camps for dissidents. The Cheka reopened this network to send their political prisoners. Ordinary Russian citizens were targeted and anti-Bolshevik activities were encouraged to be reported to the Cheka, creating an atmosphere of fear.

    Did you know? The Cheka grew from only around the hundreds in 1918 to over 200,000 members in 1920.

    The Red Terror served the purpose of intimidating the Russian population into accepting the Bolshevik regime and quashing any attempts at counter-revolution by Bolshevik opponents. Some historians estimate that around 100,000 people were executed between 1918-1921 during the Red Terror despite official Bolshevik figures stating around 8,500. Once the Bolsheviks had won the Russian Civil War in 1921, the Red Terror era ended, but the secret police would remain.

    The Red Terror Stalin

    The Red Terror also demonstrated how the Soviet Union would continue to use fear and intimidation to secure its rule of the country. Stalin succeeded Lenin after his death in 1924. Following the Red Terror, Stalin used the network of katorgas as a basis for his purge camps, the gulags, throughout the 1930s.

    Red Terror - Key takeaways

    • The Red Terror was a campaign of executions with the purpose of intimidating the Russian public to accept the Bolshevik leadership after they seized power in 1917.
    • The main opposition to the Bolsheviks were the "Whites", comprised of Tsarists, former nobility and anti-socialists. Whilst the Russian Civil War saw the Red Army fighting the White Army and other insurgencies, the Red Terror was used to target individual anti-Bolsheviks using the secret police force, the Cheka.
    • Various insurgencies indicated that Lenin required more force and intimidation to quell the civil unrest at Bolshevik rule. The Czechoslovak Legion Revolt, the Penza peasants' revolt and the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries coup demonstrated the need for Terror.
    • Assassinations were recognised as an effective way of commanding control. The Cheka assassinated Tsar Nicholas II to remove the possibility of his returning to power.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Red Terror

    What was the Red Terror?

    The Red Terror was a campaign launched by Lenin after he assumed power in October 1917, and officially part of Bolshevik policy in September 1918, which targeted anti-Bolshevik dissidents. The Cheka imprisoned and executed many dissidents, including peasants, tsarists and socialists (such as SRs). After the Bolsheviks were victorious after the Civil War, the Red Terror ended, but the secret police remained to carry out operations to remove potential insurgencies.

    Why did the Red Terror happen?

    According to Marxist ideology, enforcing socialism allowed the elimination of those who refused to learn the benefits of equality over private ownership, so Lenin also followed this philosophy. After the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, there were a series of insurgencies such as the Czechoslovak Legion revolt and the peasants revolt in Panza, which demonstrated that there was resistance to Bolshevik rule. After Lenin was almost assassinated in August 1918, he issued an official request for the Cheka to use terror to crackdown on anti-Bolshevik individuals and secure his leadership of Russia.

    How did the Red Terror help the Bolsheviks?

    The Red Terror created a culture of fear and intimidation within the Russian population that discouraged anti-Bolshevik activity. The executions and imprisonment of the Bolshevik opponents meant that Russian civilians were more compliant to Bolshevik rule.

    How did Russian society transform in the early 1920s?

    As a result of the Red Terror, the Russian population were intimidated into following Bolshevik rule. After the Soviet Union was established in 1922, Russia was in the process of becoming a socialist country. 

    What was the purpose of the Red Terror?

    The Red Terror helped the Bolsheviks to intimidate the Russian population into supporting them. Any political opponents were eliminated by the Cheka and so the civilians were more likely to accept the Bolsheviks policies through fear of execution or imprisonment.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When did Lenin create the Cheka?

    When did Lenin sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk?

    What significant Russian institution did the Czechoslovak Legion assume control of in May 1918?


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