Red Terror

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Initiated in 1918, Red Terror was a state policy of the Bolshevik government to suppress, intimidate, or liquidate real or potential adversaries of the regime. It started on September 5, when the survival of the Bolshevik regime was threatened by foreign and domestic foes. Individual guilt did not matter; belonging to a suspect social class did. It was, in other words, a class-based approach not to justice but to settling accounts with potential enemies. Its first victims were former tsarist officers, policemen, aristocracy, opposition parties' leaders, and property owners who had enjoyed privileges under the old regime. In 1918 about fifteen thousand were executed. In 1919, other social groups were targeted: former landlords, entrepreneurs, and Cossacks, attacked for their suspected anti-Bolshevik attitudes. In 1920 the policy was extended to peasants in rebellious provinces, along with thousands of captured White Russian officers and their families. White Russians were the counterrevolutionaries; the color white was a symbol of the old order and the color red was a symbol of revolution and communism.

Red Terror was carried out by a new institution, called the Cheka (an abbreviation of the Russian for "extraordinary commission"). The Cheka was a state institution, subordinate only to the Communist Party Central Committee. It was a political police force that did not enforce the law but instead administered systematic terror arbitrarily. Local Chekas, especially in the Ukraine, were notorious for their cruelty, and for mass executions carried out in the summer of 1919. It was a party instrument for the conduct of legalized lawlessness. Settling of accounts and personal gain were often motives for denunciation. New concepts entered the lexicon, among them "enemies of the people," "hidden enemies," and "suspect social origin." The long term consequence of Red Terror was a disregard for individual guilt or innocence, the institutionalization of a class-based approach to justice, the designation of "suspect social groups," fear and intimidation of entire population and, subsequently, an even greater wave of state-sponsored terror under Josef Vissarionovich Stalin.

See also: bolshevism; dzerzhinsky, felix edmundovich; state security, organs of; terrorism


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Vladimir Brovkin