The phrase Red Terror often refers to a campaign of mass killings, torture, and systematic oppression conducted by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution in Russia. The Cheka (the Bolshevik secret police) carried out the repressions perpetrated during the Red Terror.
Red Terror can also refer to other forms of leftist terrorism, both Communist and non-Communist. If excluding Islamist terrorism, then almost all terrorist attacks have been and are committed by terrorist groups that describe themselves as ideologically (far) leftist, as discussed in the article on hate crime.
Red Terror has also been used in reference to several other similar periods of communist (or more generally, far leftist) terror. They typically occurred before and/or immediately after a communist (far leftist) coup or an attempted communist (far leftist) coup.
One purpose was typically to gain or consolidate communist power, although individual participants may also have had other motives, such as revenge for perceived past persecutions/slights and/or personal gain. One non-communist example is the social anarchist terror campaigns before and during the Spanish Civil War. The communists also conducted terror campaigns before and during the Spanish Civil War.
After communist power has been consolidated and is more secure, communist persecutions of opponents may take on a somewhat different and more quasi-legal character, and often no longer be referred to as Red Terror. For example, opponents may after a show trial be sent to forced labor camps, such as the Gulag system, rather than being executed immediately without a trial. However, also long after the communist coup, there may be more active terror periods. One example is during the Great Purge, sometimes referred to as the Great Terror. The phrase may have be inspired by the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) during the French Revolution, the last weeks of which are sometimes referred to as the Great Terror or even the Red Terror.
One of the main organizers of the Russian 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.
- October 1917 The October Revolution established the Bolshevik control of Russia, with Lenin as the leader. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries supported this Revolution.
- December 1917 Lenin established the Cheka, the first Russian secret police.
- March 1918 Lenin 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 1918 Czechoslovak Region. The "White" Army formed an Anti-Bolshevik government.
- June 1918 Outbreak of Russian Civil War. Lenin introduced "War Communism" to aid the Red Army against the White Army.
- 6 July 1918 Wilhelm Maria Theodor Ernst Richard Graf von Mirbach-Harff, German ambassador to Moscow, was assassinated at the German embassy in Moscow by Yakov Grigorevich Blumkin and Nikolai Andreyev at the request of the Central Committee of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, who were trying to reignite the war between Russia and the German Empire.
- July 1918 Bolsheviks suppressed the Left Socialist Revolutionaries' revolt in Moscow.
- 17 July 1918 Members of Cheka assassinate Russian Emperor Nicholas II and his family.
- 9/11 August 1918 Lenin issued his "hanging order" to execute 100 dissident kulak peasants.
- 30 August 1918 Assassination attempt on Lenin.
- 5 September 1918 The 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 1918 Cheka leader Martyn Latsis proudly 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 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 (prison and labour camps) were used to detain dissidents in remote territories such as Siberia.
- 1921 The Russian Civil War ended with the Bolshevik victory. The Red Terror was over. 5 million peasants died in a famine.
Lenin's hanging order
On 5 August 1918, a uprising led by wealthy peasants broke out in Kuchkino district in the Penza region. The rebellion was suppressed on 8 August, but the situation in the region remained tense. On 18 August, 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 11 August 1918, Lenin had 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 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".
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.
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Russian propaganda tried until the collapse of the Soviet Union to limit "official" estimates for the total number of victims to only 50,000. Historian Sergey Volkov estimates that the Bolsheviks killed up to two million people in the years 1917 to 1922. Other sources state at least 1,3 million. Still, these numbers are small in comparison to the millions murdered in the era of Stalinism or by the "Red Guards" under Mao and Lin Biao, which was also known as "Red Terror" or "Red Holocaust".
- “We are not waging war against individual persons,” said Cheka leader Martyn Latsis. “We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class.” He encouraged his fellow Cheka members to lash out at people suspected of being sympathetic to the bourgeoisie instead of looking for evidence they had actually acted against the Soviets. Within months, the Cheka executed at least 10,000 people. Thousands more were placed in camps that were liquidated in frequent massacres. The death toll of the Red Terror may have been much larger—by some accounts, up to 1.3 million may have been its victims. However, due to secrecy, censorship, and the summary nature of many of the executions, the true extent of the Red Terror will likely never be known.
- As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the "sacredness of human life". We were revolutionaries in opposition, and have remained revolutionaries in power. To make the individual sacred, we must destroy the social order which crucifies him. And that problem can only be solved by blood and iron. The man who recognizes the revolutionary historic importance of the very fact of the existence of the Soviet system must also sanction the Red Terror. — Leon Trotsky
- 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), chief of the Ukrainian Cheka, in the newspaper "Red Terror"
- 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 in mid-September 1918
- Sergei Petrovich Melgunov: “Red Terror” in Russia 1918 – 1923, 2nd Edition, Berlin 1924
- Red Terror Timeline
- The Red Terror, timenote.info
- How the Red Terror set a macabre course for the Soviet Union, nationalgeographic.com