100 Years Ago – Lenin Unleashes Red Terror on Russia

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The term ‘Red Terror’ is often associated with the horrifying purges carried out by Joseph Stalin, however, it was his predecessor and found of the Bolshevik Revolution Vladimir Lenin, who unleashed the first Red Terror upon Russia on 5th September 1918.  

During the Soviet years the Red Terror was justified in Soviet historiography as a wartime campaign against counter-revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War of 1918–1921, targeting those who sided with the Whites (White Army). Under the slogan “Who is not with us, they are against us”, Bolsheviks referred to any anti-Bolshevik factions as Whites, regardless of whether those factions actually supported the White movement cause. 

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 Lenin by Fanni Kaplan. While recovering from his wounds, Lenin instructed: “It is necessary – secretly and urgently to prepare the terror”

*Uritsky is responsible for the deportation of Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich to Perm, where he was held under house arrest, until his murder by the Bolsheviks on 13th June 1918. 

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‘Attempt on Vladimir Lenin’s life’ by Pyotr Belousov (1957)

Earlier this week, Time Magazine published an interesting article How the Red Terror Exposed the True Turmoil of Soviet Russia 100 Years Ago.

The author Danny Bird is a graduate of UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, with a special interest in modern Russian and Spanish history. He writes:

‘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 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 attempted assassination 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.” ‘

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Bird estimates that 10,000 to 15,000 innocent people were victims of Lenin’s Red Terror, but Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH) offers more staggering estimates of victims in an article How many lives did the Red Terror claim?  Author Timofeychev writes: 

‘The figures differ greatly. Historian Sergei Volkov asserts that in 1917-1922 the Bolsheviks killed up to 2 million people. At the same time historians who refer to archival materials of those bodies that were responsible for the repressive policies argue that the organized terror claimed 50,000 lives. Some double this figure to include the victims of peasants’ revolts against the Soviet government.

‘Over 100,000 people killed is a shocking number but it constitutes only a small fraction of all the victims of the civil war estimated between 10 and 12 million people.’ 

© Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 7 September 2018