The Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Chrevzuychanaya komissiya po borbe s kontrarevolutsei i sabotazhem), or Cheka, was founded on 20 December 1917, only six weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution. Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir Lenin appointed Feliks Dzerzhinsky, a Polish Bolshevik, to head the infant service. From its first days, Lenin saw the Cheka as the avenging sword of the party, ordering it to take immediate action against “enemies.”
   Dzerzhinsky grew the Cheka into a massive security empire with responsibility for counterintelligence, oversight of the loyalty of the Red Army, and protection of the country’s borders, as well as the collection of human and technical intelligence. By the end of the civil war, the Cheka had a staff of 250,000. (The total complement of the Okhrana and tsarist Corps of Gendarmes was 15,000 in the years immediately prior to the Bolshevik Revolution.) Under Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka became the shield and avenging sword of the revolution. Beginning in 1918, the Cheka arrested and executed hostages, including women and children. One Cheka leader noted that the Cheka’s raison d’etre was destruction of enemy classes. A recent study estimates that the Cheka was responsible for 143,000 executions between 1917 and 1921.
   Along with the executions came an orgy of torture and killing not seen in Europe in hundreds of years. Mass drowning of prisoners, the random shooting of hostages, and the use of physical torture was commonly practiced by the Cheka. The rank and file of the Cheka was largely drawn from the lumpenprolitariat. Most of the new recruits were in their 20s or late teens. Few had more than a village education, and many had no formal education at all. According to recent academic studies, many came from the Red Guards that had been organized in 1917, while others came from the underworld. Given authority by the Bolshevik Party to arrest, torture, and execute, they did so with gusto. Part of the cruelty of the Cheka can be explained by the revolutionary times, but part of the explanation lies in the raw material of the new staff.
   The Bolsheviks could not have won the civil war without the Cheka, but an issue for the Leninist leadership was how to control the secret police after victory. In late 1921, the Cheka lost much of the power of carrying out executions. Between 1921 and 1922, executions for political offenses dropped from 9,701 to 1,962. In 1922 the number dropped even further to 414. The Cheka also lost some of its bureaucratic clout when it was folded into the GPU in February 1922. The decision to reduce the terror was a tactical one as the Soviet leadership began its New Economic Policy to help the country recover from the ravages of war and famine.
   The Cheka was originally devised by Lenin and Dzerzhinsky as a domestic counterintelligence service. Its foreign operations were an extension of its domestic security and counterintelligence missions. The Cheka did not establish a foreign intelligence component, the Inostranniy otdel, until December 1920, three years after the organization’s founding. Since its primary responsibility was rooting out subversion, foreign intelligence operations were directed against émigré White Russian organizations and the Western states that supported them. During this period, most Cheka foreign intelligence operations were directed by non-Russians because of their extensive revolutionary experience outside the Russian empire.
   Under Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka became a major player in Soviet politics. The security service became the prime source of information about developments within and outside the country for the political leadership. Moreover, beginning with Lenin, Soviet leaders used the service to intimidate and silence enemies of the revolution and the state. These years were portrayed as a period of heroic revolutionary sacrifice, and the Cheka’s heritage was important for succeeding generations of Soviet intelligence and security officers. They received their pay on the 20th of the month—the service was founded on 20 December—and they referred to themselves throughout the Soviet period as Chekists.
   See also GPU; KGB; NKVD; MGB; OGPU.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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