Q. : Where was the best place to be during the Russian civil wars?
A. : Anywhere but Russia.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin earned himself the moniker of “Chekist” because of his previous career as a KGB spook. Indeed, the KGB was the direct descendant of the Cheka (aka чека in Russian). The Cheka, an infamous Russian secret police that meted terror, torture and death upon its own citizens, dates back to the Russian civil war.
In Russia's 1917, you could choose your terror: Red Terror, White Terror... terrors abounded. Here's how it happened.
Czar Nicholas II
The setup was as follows: up to 1917, the Russian people's welfare had been ignored by the monarchy for so long that Czar Nicholas II Romanov and his ill-fated royal family could in many ways be deemed responsible for the 1917 Bolshevik revolution that brought the advent of the Cheka. Czar Nicholas, a contemporary of the equally and dangerously hapless Kaiser Wilhelm II, did nothing for his people. He was incurious about them and more preoccupied with power plays and losing overseas military adventures. Lacking vision militarily, economically and socially, he seemed prone to look more at the symptoms of a disease than the disease itself. Most agree that Nicholas was weak and incompetent and so his country, under his watch, went from world power to a sprawling and chaotic backwater.
In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Czar Nicholas and his family.
What we now call Potemkin Villages were whole make-believe villages, peopled by actors, that were purposely built where members of the aristocracy could see them from their passing carriages. Their aim was to falsely convince those traveling aristocrats that the people were living normal, affluent lives. Whether Potemkin Villages really existed in exactly this form or not (there is some historical nitpicking), they did exist and the very concept expresses the way the wool was pulled over the aristocracy's eyes to persuade them that everything was well and good in their kingdom. Everything was not. Nothing was.
The economy was in a deep hole, society was broken and the Russian monarchs didn't even speak Russian amongst themselves at home.
They spoke French.
The path to the Russian civil war
Tellingly, serfdom was not abolished until 1861. Most Russians (80%) lived in hovels, died of a whole slew of diseases the most common of which were brought on by malnutrition and poor sanitation, and had no hopes at all. Peasants, who wound up with no representation, were “lawfully” expropriated from their homes, their lands, their livelihoods, and were left with no choice but to migrate to the cities with their ragtag families, where the very same emerging bourgeoisie class who wrote those laws in order to lawfully steal their lands, funneled them into their newly built industrial establishments to work unseemly long hours for almost no pay.
Such was the industrial revolution.
What little money the workers earned they gave back in rent and supplies, often to the same bourgeois/landlords who employed them, for the pleasure of living in slums with little or no sanitation. If they survived losing a limb to the boss's extremely dangerous industrial machinery, they were given only a few rubles as compensation and shown the door. Child labour was normal – Charles Dickens' London street urchins had nothing on Russia's children labourers when it came to suffering. Workers in those deadly factories worked seven days a week, toiling hours so long that a lot of them did not even bother to go home, but slept under their work tables. Some despairing workers, coming out of the factories at the end of a workday, decided to escape their awful lives by jumping off bridges. They sometimes drowned themselves to the applause of their co-workers, possibly envied by those who were not quite yet ready to (literally) take the big plunge.
In this context, Russia became communist
Hardcore, hard line, no-holds-barred, five-year-plan-respecting and take-no-prisoners totalitarian communists. You thought Venezuela's bad? It is, but this was much, much worse.
First, it's very important to note that, in many people's minds, communism is the same as socialism. It is not.
If you set aside the ideas of the sociologists who put forth that tribes, such as in ancient Africa or the pre-colonial Americas, were really primitive communists, there is a case to be made that socialism predates communism and that the latter, in a way, is a 'weaponization' of socialism brought about in Russia by the grave excesses of the industrial revolution.
Even some of their principal luminaries such as German communist/economist Karl Marx and British socialist Robert Owens barely shared the same time frame. Marx lived from 1818 to 1883, while Owens lived from 1771 to 1858, predating Marx by forty-seven years. It can also be said that the principal promulgators of socialism in Britain, those who carried the torch of Owen's CO-OP movement to the next century, were the wives and daughters of the very same bourgeois who exploited the workers. The success of the happy marriage of socialism and capitalism in many advanced countries as in those of Scandinavia is ample proof that this can work.
But, be that as it may, in the struggle to get rid of the monarchy the Bolsheviks emerged as the force to contend with. The monarchy, of course, did not abdicate, so they fought a great war of repression that is now called the White Terror, to counter the Bolsheviks' Red Terror. The White Terror's leader, a Siberian Cossack army intelligence officer named Lavr Kornilov, ordered his men to take no prisoner, famously telling them “The greater the terror, the greater our victories.”
There were not only two terrors, but also two revolutions, a few months apart.
The February revolution of 1917, what the Soviets called the "February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution", led to the abdication of Tsar Nicolas Romanoff II.
The October revolution, called the Bolshevik revolution and headed by Vladimir Lenin, largely annulled a lot of the gains of the February revolution, and made communism the rule of the land. They also carried out the execution of Tsar Nicolas Romanoff II and his whole family in 1918. And all of this against the backdrop of the aforementioned industrial revolution!
This was an era of incredibly tumultuous changes with thousands of complex moving parts impossible to enumerate here. Suffice to say the White Revolution was put down in 1923 after a long, horrible fight, and the Bolsheviks thus began their iron rule.
But that's not all.
The Cheka, guardians of the revolution
The pre-Bolshevik predecessor of the Cheka was the Okhrana. It was the czarist secret police. Alexander II was an ardent antisemite, and the Okhrana is suspected of fabricating 'The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion' to please him: an antisemitic pack of lies that advances the theory that the Jewish people's aim is to achieve world domination. The word “advances” is at the present tense here because the lies of the Protocols are still sometimes dusted off and brought back as historical fact today by antisemites in order to drum up hatred towards the Jews.
But although the Okhrana did torture and kill suspects for information, punishment or intimidation, the Cheka elevated it to an art form.
This was the Cheka's creed :
“We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of the fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will not let loose the floodgates of the sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands ; let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky, Zinovief and Volodarski, let there be floods of the blood of the bourgeois - more blood, as much as possible.”
- From Bolshevik newspaper Krasnaya Gazeta
Keep this mess together
So, to keep this mess of a country together, the communist leaders created the Cheka to scare and coerce everyone in line with their Marxist-Leninist dogma and make an example of anyone they deemed ideologically impure.
And boy, did they scare and coerce everyone in line! They totally went medieval.
The rat torture (don't ask!)
People tied to planks and slowly pushed into vats of boiling water or furnaces.
People stripped naked and rolled around in barrels whose interior was covered in nails, reminiscent of the Black Widow torture.
Naked prisoners, bound in sheets in winter, transformed into live ice statues by pouring water on them.
Degloving. The act of pulling the skin off the hands, something that sometimes happens naturally only in decomposing cadavers.
Prisoners were led down into prison cellars and shot in the back of the head. That's probably where Vasili Blokhin learned his trade (see: The man with the perfect gun).
Prisoners machine-gunned down en masse in prison courtyards.
Prisoners forced to dig their own graves when killed outside the city.
Also rapes, of course. Any kind of rape. For example, demands for clemency from prisoner's wives were welcome because the poor women were then passed around amongst the jailers. That's probably where the Soviet monster Beria learned this trick (see: Lavrentiy Beria - The Monster Lurking In Stalin's Shadow.)
They also had a grudge against Cossacks, who mostly lived in southern Russia. There, the Cheka organized 'days of Red Terror': massacres in all the cities where Cossacks lived reminiscent of the movie 'The Purge', where each neighbourhood had to reach a designated kill quota. These very real purges were well organized and government sanctioned but instead of wearing masks as in the movies, the killers often wore uniforms. Someone even had the bright idea to simply kill all the patients of a whole hospital in Cossack country in order to easily meet their kill quota. "In October 1920 alone more than 6,000 people were executed" in that region. For comparison's sake, only 3,000 clergymen were assassinated in the whole of Russia in all that year. Only.
And they called this 'class struggle'.
Actually, it was a blueprint for all the horrors that followed in the twentieth century.
With Felix Dzerzhinsky at its head, the Cheka quickly grew to 143,000 employees.
Look at Russian President Vladimir Putin arriving fashionably late at some diplomatic function. He swings his left arm normally when he walks, but keeps his right arm dramatically immobile, bent closer to the chest.
Q. : Why does he do this?
A. : To make himself more menacing by pretending he still has his KGB issued pistol hidden in a sling under his jacket. This is sometimes known as “The KGB walk.”
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who regularly has his political opponents imprisoned or killed outright, fixes elections and plays undemocratic musical chairs at the top with Dmitry Medvedev, is an ex-career KGB apparatchik and a true son of the Cheka. As those in the Russian secret service like to say: “Once KGB, always KGB.”
Trump has regularly praised him for providing “strong leadership”.