THE reorganization of the Soviet political police, the OGPU, and its virtual transformation into a Commissariat for Internal Affairs which does not possess the right to pronounce summary death sentences, marks a second important stage in the evolution of the terrorism which has been a consistent feature of Soviet administrative practice. The first stage was in 1922, when the Cheka, or Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution, was reorganized as the OGPU. A strong element of continuity is noticeable in both these changes. Felix Dzerzhinsky, the original head of the Cheka, remained head of the OGPU until his death in 1926, when he was succeeded by another Pole, Menzhinsky, who died in the spring of 1934. Both the head of the new Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Heinrich Yagoda, and his two assistants, Agranov and Prokofiev, are veteran Chekists; and the Soviet newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda sees in this fact a desirable proof that the spirit of the Cheka will continue to prevail and that there will be no relaxation of the struggle against "class enemies."

The functions of the Commissariat for Internal Affairs are also strikingly similar to those of the OGPU. It retains control of border defense, of the ordinary police and of the numerous forced-labor camps which have grown up in Russia in recent years. It also possesses the less formidable functions of supervising fire prevention and the registration of marriages and divorces. Attached to the Commissariat is a special commission (osoboe soveschanie) which has the right to exile persons from the country or to sentence them to terms of confinement, up to five years, in prisons or in labor camps "administratively," i.e. without any court trial. This indicates that there will be no lack of conscripted "class enemies" for the digging of canals and for other rough tasks where large supplies of cheap labor are appreciated.

All these similarities between the functions of the OGPU and of its successor lend some point to the cynical remark of a foreign resident of Moscow when rumors of an impending reorganization and renaming of the OGPU began to circulate in Moscow last spring: "It's like changing the name of a dog with a bad reputation for biting people in the hope that people will forget it's the same animal."

At the same time the withdrawal from the Commissariat for Internal Affairs of the right to pronounce summary death sentences and the fact that no apparent provision is made for transferring to the Commissariat the special regiments which were under the control of the OGPU are developments of genuine importance. The wings of the OGPU have been clipped. The new Commissariat will still be an agency of terrorism, endowed with summary punitive powers which would be unthinkable in a democratic country. But it will not be quite the old OGPU, just as that organ, even at the height of its virtually uncontrolled power, never equalled the Cheka in the number of its executions.

Several circumstances seem to have contributed to the curbing of the OGPU. First of all, the Soviet authorities are convinced that the satisfactory harvest of 1933 and the subsequent improvement in the supply of the towns with food and manufactured goods marked a definite turn for the better in the prolonged crisis which the Soviet Union has been experiencing since the inauguration of the first Five Year Plan. With the resistance of the peasant to collective farming broken (not least through the huge state-organized famine of 1932-1933), and with more foodstuffs and goods on the long depleted shelves of the coöperative stores, it seemed that the need for extraordinary methods of repression, which smacked strongly of martial law, had passed.

Then, too, the OGPU, despite the fact that the Pravda assures us that it was "surrounded with the warm love of tens of millions of workers and peasants," had acquired an extremely bad reputation in the outside world. Thanks to the secrecy with which its operations were cloaked, and in consequence of Russia's abundance of inaccessible and almost unknown places of banishment and the severe Soviet censorship, the full truth about the decimation of the Russian intelligentsia and of a considerable part of the peasants through all these years may never be known. But enough facts did leak out to convince the public opinion of the world that the OGPU was a sheer terrorist organization, rather than an ordinary political police. The charges of "sabotage" which it gave as excuse for its frequent wholesale arrests inspired little credence, especially after the curious piece of bad luck which attended the most elaborately staged of all the sabotage trials, that of the so-called "Industrial Party." For Professor Leonid Ramzin, who obediently turned state's evidence and incriminated himself and his colleagues in all sorts of treasonable and sabotage activities, inadvertently mentioned as one of the leading figures in the "conspiracy" and a candidate for the post of Premier in the event of its success, one P. P. Ryabushinsky, a well-known pre-war industrialist. And P. P. Ryabushinsky, very inconveniently for the stage-managers of the trial, had died in Paris long before the trial had begun and before the Industrial Party had begun its self-confessed but rather questionable existence.

The firm stand of the British Government at the time of the arrest and trial of six British engineers in the service of the Metro-Vickers Company in the spring of 1933 was a pointed indication of the external complications which were likely to arise when the OGPU gave scope to its unlimited powers and its lively imagination at the expense of citizens of foreign countries. President Roosevelt's insistence that a fair and open trial would be expected for American citizens who might be arrested in Russia was probably another factor in bringing the Soviet leaders to the conclusion that a modification and limitation of the OGPU would be an aid to the country's international relations.

Finally, the existence of an organization with unlimited power of life and death over every Soviet citizen, and possessing its own army and an immense apparatus of espionage, was not consistent with the régime of Cæsarian dictatorship which Stalin has created in the Soviet Union. Although there is no evidence that the OGPU ever tried to play the rôle of a "state within a state" or endeavored directly to shape the course of political and economic policy, there was always the possibility that efforts in this direction might be made.

So the OGPU has gone the way of the Cheka, and the Commissariat for Internal Affairs will write a new chapter in the history of Soviet administrative repression.

Organized in December 1917, the Cheka during the first few months of its existence was quite mild in its operations. Its relatively few victims during this period were mostly bandits or "anarchists" with a strong impulse to "expropriate" private property, who could scarcely be distinguished from bandits. Beginning with July 1918, however, the Cheka began to put to death political opponents of the régime in large batches. The fiercest aspects of the Terror of the French Revolution were repeated, and as a result of much the same causes: domestic uprisings, foreign intervention, a critical food situation. Bolshevik terrorism reached what was perhaps its climax in September and October 1918, after Lenin had been wounded and a prominent Petrograd Communist, Uritsky, had been killed by Socialist Revolutionaries.

The largest single shooting was in Petrograd, where it was officially announced that more than 500 persons had been put to death in revenge for the murder of Uritsky and the attack on Lenin. Among these were several former Tsarist Ministers, A. N. Khvostov, A. D. Protopopov, I. D. Stcheglovitov and N. A. Maklakov. The town of Yaroslavl seems to have come second, with more than 400 victims, executed after the suppression of an uprising there in July. A description of what must have been a grim massacre in a sleepy provincial town is contained in the following laconic message to the Soviet press from Penza, dated September 25: "The White Guard plot and the attempt to break into the prison and free the hostages have been liquidated. For the murder from ambush of one comrade, Egorov, a Petrograd worker, the Whites paid with 152 lives. In the future firmer measures will be taken in regard to the Whites. Signed: The President of The Provincial Soviet, Turlo."

On a single day, October 3, almost 200 killings were reported from various parts of the country. The Cheka of the Front in Kotelnich led the list with 61 executions; the Chembar county Cheka put to death 48 as "hostages for Egorov;" Rybinsk killed thirty hostages; the little town of Klin executed eight for "counter-revolutionary agitation;" the Astrakhan Cheka put to death twelve who were accused of participating in an uprising in that town on August 15. The Cheka recognized no sex distinctions; one often finds the names of women among its victims; and sometimes it seems that whole families were wiped out, especially in the country districts.

After the defeat of Kolchak and Denikin, at the end of 1919, there was a short-lived tendency toward mildness, which found expression in a decree of January 19, 1920, abolishing the death penalty except on the fronts. But this decree was not carried out in practice; the war with Poland, the continued resistance of the last of the White leaders, General Wrangel, in the Crimea, and the difficulty of subduing the unruly Ukrainian peasantry all tended to preserve a system of merciless severity until the civil war was definitely ended and the wave of guerrilla uprisings which outlasted the regular civil war was crushed.

The number of persons who were put to death by the Cheka cannot be established with any degree of certainty. During the first period of terrorism, in the summer and autumn of 1918, the Soviet authorities, wishing to inspire as much fear as possible, pursued the policy of publishing fairly regular figures of executions, accompanied in some cases by lists of names. Later the opinion apparently gained ground that excessive frankness in this connection was injurious to the prestige of the Soviet régime abroad, and that secrecy in regard to the number of executions might create still greater terror. So one searches the Soviet newspapers in vain for adequate reference to an outburst of terrorism which is common knowledge among Russians: the slaughter of great numbers of persons who were suspected of association with Wrangel's régime in the Crimea after the evacuation of the peninsula in November 1920.

M. Y. Latsis, a prominent member of the Cheka, states that 12,733 persons were shot all over Russia during the first three years of its existence, which would cover the whole period of the civil war.[i] But there are strong reasons for doubting the accuracy of this figure. The same Latsis in another work [ii] asserts that the Cheka during 1918 and the first seven months of 1919 shot 8,389 people in only twenty provinces of Central Russia. Now there were other parts of Russia (Ukraina, the North Caucasus, the Ural Territory, for instance) where the civil war was much fiercer and more protracted than it was in Central Russia and where the number of victims of terrorist repression, in all probability, was far greater. It is difficult if not impossible to believe that if the Cheka admittedly executed 8,389 people during the first year of a struggle which lasted for about two and a half years in Central Russia alone it executed only 12,733 in all Russia (it was just in the outlying parts of the country that the struggle was often most bitter) up to the end of the civil war. While any estimate, in view of the lack of complete and reliable data, must obviously be conjectural and approximate, it seems probable that about fifty thousand people met their death as a result of Red Terror during the civil war. Many careful estimates are very much higher.

When the Cheka was replaced by the OGPU in 1922 the latter was at first denied the right to inflict summary administrative death sentences. It soon regained this authorization, however. It made use of it sparingly until 1929, much more frequently during and after that year. Its most notorious mass executions without trial were the killing in 1927 of 20 prisoners, avowedly as a reprisal for the assassination of the Soviet Ambassador in Poland, Voikov; the execution of 48 specialists in the food industry for alleged sabotage in the autumn of 1930; and the shooting of 35 officials and employees of the Commissariat for Agriculture in the spring of 1933. The OGPU also carried out many secret executions, so that the total number of its victims is uncertain. Almost anyone who has lived in Moscow for some years knows of instances of such secret executions; two examples of this practice are the shooting of Sergei Treivas, a former secretary of VOKS, the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, and of Julius Rozinsky, an employee in the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.

Inasmuch as it functioned during a period of peace, whereas the Cheka grew up in the stress of civil war, the OGPU naturally shot fewer people than its predecessor. On the other hand, being endowed with uncontrolled and unlimited powers to carry out arrests, banishments and executions, and being able to extort confessions from its prisoners by threatening to inflict reprisals on their friends and relatives, the OGPU was in an uncommonly favorable position to manufacture imaginary plots either out of whole cloth or out of extremely fragmentary and tenuous material.

In the eyes of the OGPU, which naturally felt that its prestige was enhanced whenever it could "discover" a new case of alleged conspiracy or sabotage, and which collected a voluminous amount of information and also of misinformation from the host of spies and informers in its service, any expression of discontent over the food shortage became a signal of counter-revolution. When a small group of intellectuals and professors exchanged critical remarks around a samovar, a good deal of imagination and a liberal use of third degree methods, or the threat that relatives would suffer if "confessions" were not forthcoming, ultimately produced the most amazing tales about secret counter-revolutionary parties with surreptitious connections with foreign General Staffs and dark designs for the overthrow of the Soviet Government. Any industrial accident was likely to be dogmatically qualified as sabotage; and this was also true of any failure in a scientific experiment.

Before 1929, exile at hard labor was primarily a punitive measure. After 1929 the number of exiles increased so greatly (hundreds of thousands of kulak families alone were deported from their homes and sent to northern timber camps or to new construction enterprises for rough unskilled labor) that the OGPU found itself invested with an important new function: the supervision of an enormous mass of serf labor. It had not only the masses of exiled peasants for the manual labor of felling trees, carrying stone, digging earth, etc.; but also a considerable number of highly qualified engineers and technical specialists whom it could use as organizers and directors of this unskilled labor.

So forced labor, which had existed in Russia for a time during the civil war, but which had been abandoned under the New Economic Policy, reappeared on a very wide scale. Big enterprises, such as the construction of a canal which linked up the Baltic and White Seas, utilizing a network of lakes and rivers in the intervening territory of northwestern Russia, were constructed under the sole direction of the OGPU. The extensive Soviet industrial construction after the inauguration of the Five Year Plan was made possible in part by the very extensive exploitation of the forced labor of "class enemies" who were herded in the OGPU concentration camps and were compelled to work long hours under very hard living conditions and were given just about enough food to keep them alive.

Commenting on the establishment of the Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the official Soviet newspaper, Izvestia, writes: "The proletarian dictatorship changes the character of its methods of struggle, passing over in considerable degree to methods of court procedure and relying in much greater degree on precise formulas of revolutionary law." The laws have certainly been sharpened to such a point that no one guilty of anti-Soviet activity is likely to escape merely because the OGPU can no longer shoot him out of hand.

Two very striking pieces of Soviet jurisprudence are the Law of August 7, 1932, which a high judicial authority, Vishinsky, characterized as the "basic law of our epoch," and a decree of June 8, 1934. The Law of August 7 makes death a permissive penalty for any theft of state or collective farm property. Under this law the hungry peasant who takes some of the grain which he has raised before the state levy has been met is liable to be put to death. Under the decree of June 8, 1934, any Soviet citizen, whether soldier or civilian, who crosses the frontier without permission is subject to the death penalty. Anyone abetting the flight of a Soviet citizen, or knowing of it without informing the authorities, is liable to five or ten years in prison and to confiscation of property. And a truly extraordinary feature of this law, which might have aroused more comment abroad in times when the world was not so overburdened with accounts of brutality and violence in many countries, provides that dependent relatives of the fugitive who have reached maturity, even if they knew nothing of his intention to flee, are to be banished to remote regions of Siberia for five years and deprived of food cards.

The decree of July 10, which established the Commissariat for Internal Affairs and abolished the "judicial collegium" of the OGPU, which formerly possessed the right to pass summary death sentences, prescribes that in the future "cases of treason, espionage and similar offenses are to be transferred to the military collegium of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union or to military tribunals." It is not yet clear whether this military collegium will be very different from the judicial collegium of the OGPU which has been abolished. One case which it has heard since the promulgation of the new edict resulted in the swift passing and execution of eight death sentences for alleged treason, espionage and wrecking on the railroads. No outside spectators were admitted, and it is uncertain whether the defendants had more opportunity to avail themselves of legal aid than if they had been sentenced to execution by the formidable judicial collegium of the OGPU.

Another point that will become clearer with the passing of time is whether the new Commissariat will be content to carry on without the right of summary shooting or whether, like its predecessor, it will chafe under the restriction which has been imposed and eventually shake it off. Much, of course, depends on the course of events within and without the Soviet Union. The outbreak of war, for instance, would automatically bring about a great intensification of terrorist methods. A setback in internal reconstruction, a failure to maintain and extend the upward move from the low point of the agrarian crisis would affect unfavorably the prospects of greater moderation.

The administration of justice in the Soviet Union has little concern with the security of the individual; the safeguarding of the authority of the state is always the paramount consideration. Consequently there is an element of impermanence and instability about any written laws or regulations; administrative practice varies widely in different periods; a man may be shot at one time for an offense which at another period would be punished by a short sentence of imprisonment.

Neither the conferring on the old organization of a harmless sounding name nor the more solid innovation represented by the withdrawal of the right to pass death sentences without court trial can be regarded as a reversion in Russia to western methods of legality. What has taken place is an evolutionary nuance in a continuing policy of terrorism, which finds abundant expression in such features of Soviet rule as the widespread employment of administrative banishment and forced labor, the infliction of the death penalty for theft, the legally acknowledged practice of holding innocent relatives as hostages. It is still difficult to predict whether, as the bogies of sabotage and counter-revolution become increasingly unreal, the evolutionary trend toward less ruthlessness will proceed in a straight line or in bewildering zigzags. Certainly an enormous change in Soviet official psychology and mentality would have to take place before any political trial in the Soviet Union will seem very convincing to western eyes. Too many indispensable prerequisites of judicial fair dealing -- independent courts, a free press, freedom of lawyers to defend their clients to the best of their ability without fear of administrative reprisals -- are still completely lacking.

[i] "The Extraordinary Commissions for Struggle with Counter-revolution," p. 9.

[ii] "Two Years of Struggle on the Internal Front," p. 74.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now