On Aug. 30, 1918, Fanny Kaplan, a 28-year-old member of Russia’s Socialist Revolutionary Party, brandished a pistol at that day’s guest to the Mikhelson factory in Moscow. As its workforce gathered to wave off their esteemed visitor, Vladimir Lenin, Kaplan catcalled at him. When the Soviet leader turned to face the culprit, three shots rang out. Seconds later, amid the chaos, a wounded Lenin was spirited off to the Kremlin and Kaplan apprehended.
Or so the official Soviet line went. In reality, Kaplan’s confused mental state during her questioning has raised serious doubts over whether she actually perpetrated the deed. Regardless, she was executed just days later — a convenient scapegoat for a regime both under enormous duress and keen to demonstrate its resolve to outsiders. With Lenin incapacitated, and the Bolshevik government shaken by the successful assassination of Petrograd’s secret-police chief, Moisei Uritsky, that same day, calls for an extreme response to the “White Terror” grew louder.
In the nine months since the October Revolution, the fledgling Soviet Republic founded by Lenin’s Bolshevik Party had been fighting a vicious civil war across the former Russian Empire against the pro-monarchist, conservative “White” forces. Simultaneously, Lenin’s government had taken Russia out of the First World War by signing a treaty with the Central Powers, provoking the ire of her erstwhile allies, Britain and France. During August of 1918 and even as World War I continued, the Allies began invading northern Russia, lending assistance to the region’s anti-Bolshevik groups.
Under attack on all fronts — including from peasants unhappy with the coercive measures taken to distribute their grain from the countryside to the towns and cities — and with Lenin’s life now in the balance, Soviet Russia was about to detonate.
On Aug. 31, the state-controlled media responded by launching a vociferous campaign aimed at whipping up popular bloodlust. A frenzied article inciting violence appeared in Pravda exclaiming: “the time has come for us to crush the bourgeoisie or be crushed by it … The anthem of the working class will be a song of hatred and revenge!” The scope of this vengeance would soon extend beyond the Bolsheviks’ political foes in Russia, assuming a global dimension whose legacy continues to reverberate in international relations to this day.
The following day, the Petrograd newspaper Krasnaia Gazeta asserted that: “only rivers of blood can atone for the blood of Lenin and Uritsky.” Bolshevik newspapers became the key instigators and chroniclers of the sudden escalation in state violence. Indeed, on Sept. 3, Izvestia reported that in the four days since the attempt on Lenin, over 500 hostages had been executed in Petrograd alone. Finally, on Sept. 5, the Soviet government adopted a decree sanctioning “Red Terror,” which prescribed “mass shooting” to be “inflicted without hesitation.”
Felix Dzerzhinsky, the infamous director of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission, better known by its Russian initialism, “Cheka,” a predecessor of the KGB, had been entrusted with rooting out counterrevolutionary threats to the Soviet state since December 1917. The attacks on Lenin and Uritsky at last persuaded the government to heed his lobbying for greater internal security.
Soviet Russia promoted itself as a new type of state, one that had established the “dictatorship of the proletariat” forecast by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It was thus engaged in an epoch-making struggle with the bourgeoisie, the social class that ruled over capitalist society. Looking to the example of the Paris Commune, the short-lived radical government that ruled the French capital for a period in 1871, Lenin and his comrades saw a need to deploy violence against their adversaries in that struggle. They eagerly anticipated that the proletariat, capitalism’s exploited working class, was poised to rise up in a worldwide socialist revolution that would transcend borders and ethno-national loyalties — and avenge the Commune. Russia was to be the tinderbox to a global conflagration.
This prognosis was both reinforced and endangered when the capitalist powers resolved to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle through military intervention. Defense of the revolution meant that ideological conviction soon turned to state violence. Shortly after the Red Terror began, hundreds of foreign officials and residents living within Soviet territory found themselves inside the Cheka’s interrogation cells. The political turmoil of the past 18 months had witnessed an influx of spies operating on Russian soil, and suspicion of a non-native fifth column only aggravated the hysteria.
Despite the Red Terror’s explicit identification of the Bolsheviks’ political rivals — the Socialist Revolutionaries — as primary targets, their commitment to class conflict and internationalism gave the Red Terror an indiscriminate quality when it came to its victims’ nationality. Both Russian and foreigner alike became suspect as a result of an alleged “bourgeois” background. Though in reality, the immediate context in which the policy was implemented meant that those born in Russia suffered proportionately higher. And in fact, the majority of its victims were associated not with the Socialist Revolutionaries but with Russia’s former monarchy. To the many Bolsheviks who had languished for years in prison or exile, the Red Terror presented an opportunity to get even with the tsarist system.
Estimating the precise number of people killed during the Red Terror depends largely on one’s interpretation of when the policy “ended.” Repression continued long after the Congress of Soviets declared an amnesty in November 1918. The total figure reported in the official press up to that month suggests 10,000 to 15,000 victims, a range that, regardless of deliberate downplaying or otherwise, is a sobering testament to the scale of the ideological fervor. As one leading Chekist, Martin Latsis, made plain to his officers that fall, the victims’ social class was the sole criterion for persecution: “We are not waging war against individual persons. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class … In this lies the significance and essence of the Red Terror.”
And although he was a fierce critic of Russian chauvinism, Lenin’s vision of Soviet Russia as a “fortress besieged by world capital” marked a new phase in the country’s centuries-old mistrust of the West, which became synonymous with the bourgeois enemy. His implied dichotomy resonated with a population raised on stories of Polish intrigue, Napoleon’s invasion in 1812 and the European powers’ aggression during the Crimean War in the 1850s. Faced with the reality of Allied armies joining their White enemies at the gates in 1918, the Bolsheviks’ recourse to mass terror and ideological enforcement on the domestic front was a part of this age-old fight for survival.
The Red Terror’s legacy of state violence, suspicion of alien “bourgeois” infiltration and conformity through fear became indelible characteristics of Soviet statecraft. Taken to the most monstrous extremes during Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s, it subsequently helped shape the Kremlin’s methods going into the Cold War. Even with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, events like the color revolutions that erupted in several ex-Soviet republics during the early 2000s and the recent Euromaidan demonstrations in Ukraine, which prompted the Kremlin to annex Crimea, are invariably cited as evidence of “Western meddling” in Russia’s sphere of influence. Today’s tensions between Moscow and the West show just how durable this legacy remains.
Danny Bird is a graduate of UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, with a special interest in modern Russian and Spanish history.