Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror

The Bolsheviks under Vladimir Ilich Lenin seized power in Russia and proceeded to eliminate opposition through ruthless repression and violation of fundamental human rights.

Summary of Event

Russia entered World War I allied with Britain and France against the Central Powers, of which Germany and Austria were the chief members. Although Russians fought bravely, their country’s poorly developed industries could not meet the needs of the armed forces or the civilians. Decades of protest against autocratic rule had divided Russia at a time when conduct of the war demanded national unity. The war brought defeat and the end of czarist rule. Nicholas II abdicated in March, 1917, amid revolution. Russian Revolution (1917)
Red Terror
Bolsheviks;Red Terror
[kw]Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror (1917-1924)
[kw]Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror, Russian (1917-1924)
[kw]Red Terror, Russian Communists Inaugurate the (1917-1924)
[kw]Terror, Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red (1917-1924)
Red Terror
Bolsheviks;Red Terror
[g]Russia;1917-1924: Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror[04170]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;1917-1924: Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror[04170]
[c]Human rights;1917-1924: Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror[04170]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1917-1924: Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror[04170]
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich
[p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Red Terror
Trotsky, Leon
Stalin, Joseph

The abdication left Russia without a legal government. Nicholas named Prince Georgy Yevgenyevich Lvov Lvov, Georgy Yevgenyevich as prime minister. Lvov became leader of a committee from the Duma, Russia’s ineffectual parliament, that formed a provisional government that was largely under the influence of liberals who wanted a constitutional republic. More radical factions desired sweeping social and economic, as well as political, changes and therefore viewed the provisional government with malice.

Among the dissidents, two Marxist movements, the Mensheviks Menshevik Party (Russia) and the Bolsheviks Bolshevik Party (Russia) (communists), competed for power with other factions. The government’s decision to continue the war gave the Bolsheviks a major propaganda advantage. They demanded immediate peace. Lvov and Aleksandr Fyodorovich Kerensky, Kerensky, Aleksandr Fyodorovich the minister of war, tried to revitalize military efforts, but discipline in the army was extremely poor, and mass desertions occurred. Lvov resigned in July, 1917, and Kerensky became prime minister while German armies advanced and the provisional government languished in confusion.

In the midst of this disarray, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, returned to Russia after three years spent in exile as punishment for revolutionary activities. He called for the overthrow of the government as a prelude to peace and a radical restructuring of society. Soon the populace of Petrograd became an uncontrollable mob demanding peace, and the ranks of the Bolsheviks grew rapidly. Kerensky’s frantic effort to find support failed as military units defied his orders. On November 6, 1917, communists seized control of the capital and arrested ministers of the provisional government. The Military Revolutionary Committee, under Leon Trotsky, had gained support of the garrison in Petrograd. Armed force brought the communists to power.

At the time of their victory, the communists were still only one of several revolutionary groups in the capital. Ever since the unsuccessful uprising of 1905, soviets (revolutionary councils) had provided leadership for various socialist factions in the country. The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was the most important such body in 1917. Socialist Revolutionaries, Socialist Revolutionary Party (Russia) Mensheviks, and Bolsheviks all had blocs of support within it, as they did within soviets elsewhere. A Congress of Soviets convened as the communists seized power in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). Most Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries denounced the Bolsheviks’ action and withdrew from the congress to protest it. This lack of action left Lenin’s party in control.

Lenin demanded “all power to the soviets” and total authority for the Communist Party. The congress declared the immediate creation of a socialist society and instituted the Council of People’s Commissars Council of People’s Commissars to lead the new regime. Lenin was chairman of the council, Trotsky was foreign commissar, and Joseph Stalin was commissar of nationalities.

The transition to dictatorship did not proceed smoothly. Most government officials were hostile and went on strike as soon as commissars appeared to take charge. The state bank refused to give money to the new rulers. The communists responded with brutal coercion.

Once the Congress of Soviets had disbanded, the Communist Party Communist Party;Soviet Union cemented its control over a one-party state. Against some opposition within his own Central Committee, Lenin made peace with the Germans on terms that were humiliating and costly to Russia, but the imminence of a German conquest had left no alternative. When Socialist Revolutionary protests became violent and a dissident wounded Lenin, his regime imposed a reign of terror executed by the communist secret police, known as the Cheka Cheka (an acronym from the Russian form of the organization’s official name, Extraordinary Commission to Fight the Counterrevolution and Sabotage). Among the victims of the terror were former officials of the provisional government who, upon release from jail, denounced Bolshevik tyranny and demanded free elections to choose a constituent assembly. The Cheka incarcerated them at Kronstadt Naval Base. Lenin ordered the abolition of hostile local councils and city governments.

Immediately after the communist coup, Lenin had promised parliamentary elections, but he feared that the outcome might be detrimental to his party. Trotsky persuaded him to hold the elections rather than risk a severe reaction for reneging on the promise. The results confirmed Lenin’s fears. Of the 703 deputies chosen, only 168 were communists. The Socialist Revolutionaries had a clear majority. The people had spoken, and Lenin decided to silence them.

The communists arrested more opposition leaders to intimidate the assembly into declaring a vote of confidence in Lenin’s government. When that body met, it nevertheless elected Socialist Revolutionary leader Viktor Chernov Chernov, Viktor its president rather than accept dictation from the communists. When the deputies recessed, the communists would not allow them to reconvene. They shot those who protested. The duly elected assembly was no more, and the communists had full control of the government.

By this time the plight of the imperial family was precarious. Nicholas, Czarina Alexandra, and their five children were under house arrest at Ekaterinburg, Siberia. In July, 1918, local Soviet leaders executed all of them. Even the family dog died in a volley of gunfire.

Despite its control of the central government, the Communist Party was not secure in its position across Russia. It needed a large, disciplined military force to impose its directives and to fight opposition groups in various parts of the country. Trotsky proceeded to construct the Red Army. Red Army Military training became compulsory for urban workers and peasants. People deemed incurably anticommunist became conscripted laborers. Capital punishment awaited deserters. Trotsky coerced former officers of the czar’s army to serve his regime; reprisals awaited their families if they refused. Political commissars watched such officers and indoctrinated the troops.

To feed the Red Army, the government forced peasants to deliver to the state all but the minimum needed for their own subsistence. Peasants often resisted and suffered execution for doing so. In factories, managers worked under the supervision of Communist Party agents.

Sporadic uprisings against the regime were unsuccessful. Organized military forces gathered around commanders of the old imperial army and navy, and civil war raged until 1921. Russian Civil War (1918-1921) Despite intervention from the West and from Japan, the communists won. Foreign assistance to the anticommunists was insufficient for their victory but just enough to allow the Bolsheviks to claim they were defending Russia against outside aggressors.

The empire of the czars had been a multiethnic state in which Russians dominated other peoples. Resentment led to secessions, beginning in 1917, as the war effort disintegrated. Finland, the Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia declared independence. The communists lacked the means to prevent the loss of the Baltic states, but they did reclaim a large sector of the Ukraine, which they made a Soviet republic despite Lenin’s avowed subscription to the principle of self-determination of peoples. In Central Asia, the Red Army, aided by communist subversives, imposed its rule without regard for the wishes of the peoples involved. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics came into being in 1922, its constitution affirmed the right of constituent republics to secede, but rulers in the Kremlin had no intention of allowing secession. Despite losses of territory, the Russian empire remained intact, with Lenin in control.

Not only did the communists impose their rule on the non-Russians of their country, but they also dealt severely with all dissidents within Russia itself. In March, 1921, when sailors at Kronstadt Kronstadt rebellion showed support for striking workers in Petrograd, Trotsky led the Red Army in conquering the naval base. Many of the sailors who surrendered were shot, and many more went to prison camps.

The strength of the Kronstadt rebellion, in addition to continuing unrest in general, convinced Lenin to compromise communist ideology in order to save his regime. From 1921 until his death in 1924, he followed the New Economic Policy New Economic Policy (NEP), a temporary retreat from state socialism. The government allowed small businesses and factories to operate in private hands, and it obtained foreign investments to aid the economy. Although many problems remained, the NEP did bring stability that aided Lenin’s government.

The achievement of relative stability gave Lenin an opportunity to eliminate his opponents in a systematic way. Frightened Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and others fled into exile. Many who remained spent years in prison and went into exile afterward. By the end of 1922, organized opposition no longer existed within the country.

In addition to dealing with opposition parties, Lenin had to face contention within the Communist Party, where abject surrender to the Germans and the NEP contradictions of Marxism had aroused criticism. Some Bolsheviks, including Trotsky, became alarmed at the growth of bureaucracy as a power base for dictatorship. A workers’ opposition group protested the trend toward despotism and joined Trotskyites in complaining about the NEP. At the same Party Congress that adopted the NEP, Lenin denounced deviations from this program and vowed to stop them. He purged party membership from 730,000 to 530,000. The secret police arrested troublesome party members.

Although Lenin was a dictator, he claimed that the Soviet government operated on the principle of democratic centralism, which allowed free discussion at all levels until a Party Congress established policy. This freedom was, however, entirely theoretical. The Political Bureau of the Central Committee (Politburo) ran the party, and its members sat on the Council of People’s Commissars and controlled the state.

In July, 1918, a Congress of Soviets adopted a constitution that included the Declaration of Rights of Toiling and Exploited People. Declaration of Rights of Toiling and Exploited People It soon became clear, however, that this was not a guarantee of rights but an expression of aspirations for the future. This remained the case in the constitution of 1923, of which Joseph Stalin was the chief author. Despite proclamations about human rights in official documents, the peoples of the Soviet Union were subjects more than citizens, as policies toward education, religion, and the Jews indicated.


In the early days of Bolshevik rule, schools became chaotic as revolutionary fanatics introduced an anarchic concept of freedom. The state eventually imposed discipline and made schools instruments of propaganda. Propaganda;Bolsheviks Attendance was compulsory, and teaching had to conform to communist ideology. Children learned to spy on their parents, and the Young Communist League (Komsomol) became a training ground for future party members.

Communism was militantly atheistic, and Lenin’s regime attacked Russia’s churches. Russian Orthodoxy Russian Orthodox Church ceased to be the state religion, and the government seized the church’s properties, including schools. A decree in 1921 forbade teaching religion to young people. When church leaders demanded freedom of religion under the constitution, the communists responded with terror. They murdered the metropolitan of Kiev and executed 28 bishops and 6,775 priests. Despite mass demonstrations in support of the church, repression cowed most ecclesiastical leaders into submission. Bishops asked the people to accept the authority of the government and promised to refrain from political pronouncements and activities. In return, the regime allowed the church to continue its strictly ceremonial and sacramental ministries.

Lenin believed that public interest in religion would disappear as Marxist ideology prevailed through state-controlled education. Although individual clergy members and members of various sects continued to defy the government and paid a high price for their disobedience, the Orthodox Church’s hierarchy remained subservient. Some bishops became tools of propaganda, telling the world that the Soviets respected freedom of religion.

In contrast with its animosity toward Christians, the regime appeared at first favorably disposed toward Jews. Jews;Soviet Union Among thirty-one members of the first Communist Party Central Committee, five were Jews. War Commissar Trotsky was a Jew, as was Grigory Yevseyevich Zinovyev, director of the Comintern, the agency charged with promoting revolution worldwide. Jews obtained positions even in the Cheka.

Given that Jews were welcome in the Communist Party, many believed that a new day of freedom and opportunity had dawned for Soviet Semites. Others regarded the disproportionate number of Jews in the Red leadership as evidence that communism was an international Jewish conspiracy, and some Gentiles distrusted Jews because of their prominence in the Cheka.

When Lenin came to power, he recognized the Jews as a minority entitled to self-determination, but as the Jews were dispersed across the country, that recognition was meaningless. Stalin said that all minorities would eventually be submerged into a single socialist culture, a prospect acceptable to Jews who had become communists. Jews who remained religious, however, were often victims of persecution.

Communist leaders showed special hatred of Zionism, Zionism the belief that world Jewry should repossess Palestine, its historic homeland. Jewish communists induced their government to outlaw Zionist organizations as counterrevolutionary. Soon the state ordered all Jewish social bodies to disband, and confiscation of Jewish schools and synagogues followed. Jews in so-called bourgeois occupations—clergymen, landlords, businesspeople, and moneylenders—suffered the same discriminations imposed on their Gentile counterparts.

Writing prophetically in the nineteenth century, novelist Fyodor Dostoevski had predicted that, when it came, the Russian revolution would begin with the promise of great freedom but lead to a cruel despotism. The rule of authoritarian czars gave way to that of totalitarian Soviets. A revolution many expected to produce a free and just society led to perhaps the most rigorous police state in history. Atrocities that began under Lenin reached huge proportions under Stalin, whose purges of the Communist Party and imposition of collective farming brought death to at least ten million people. Red Terror
Bolsheviks;Red Terror

Further Reading

  • Courtois, Stéphane, et al. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Translated by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Collection of essays by scholars and historians examines the brutal history of communism throughout the world. Includes index.
  • Mailloux, Kenneth F., and Heloise P. Mailloux. Lenin: The Exile Returns. Princeton, N.J.: Auerbach, 1971. Vivid account of how Lenin and his Bolshevik supporters seized power from the confused provisional government and then rendered other revolutionary factions impotent using divide-and-conquer tactics. Shows that Lenin never maintained a sincere commitment to democracy either within the Communist Party or for the Soviet Union.
  • Pipes, Richard. Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Comprehensive history by one of the leading authorities on the Soviet Union. Especially valuable for coverage of the Bolshevik policy toward non-Russian nationalities. Shows how the communists derived great advantages from the civil war.
  • Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2000. Authoritative and well-rounded biography uses information recently available from Soviet archives to shed new light on Lenin. Includes illustrations, map, glossary of names, select bibliography, and index.
  • Wolfe, Bertram. Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. 1964. Reprint. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001. One of the best histories of the Bolshevik Revolution available, a masterpiece of research and writing. The author was acquainted with several original Bolsheviks and lived for a time in Moscow. No student of the Russian Revolution can afford to ignore this work.

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Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian Orthodox Church

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Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution

Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution

Russian Civil War

Famine in Russia Claims Millions of Lives