Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 318th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here and buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!
AUGUST 30-SEPTEMBER 5, 1918: LENIN IS SHOT; BOLSHEVIKS UNLEASH RED TERROR
Following the Bolshevik coup in November 1917 and Lenin’s agreement to the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, in spring 1918 Russia plunged into the anarchy of civil war, pitting Lenin’s “Reds” against a loose coalition of “White” anticommunist forces. By the late summer, the Bolsheviks were increasingly isolated. They required support from the hated German victors to stay in power and were unable to rely on even their closest allies, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Left SR), who assassinated the German ambassador Count Mirbach and launched an ill-fated uprising in July in a failed bid to force the Bolsheviks to renounce the peace with Germany.
Although the Left SR coup was suppressed, the Bolsheviks’ position continued to be incredibly precarious (as reflected in their lenience towards the Left SR leaders, who still commanded a sizeable political following). Without an army to speak of, threatened by the Czech Legion and the growing hostility of the Allies, by August 1918 many observers concluded that the Bolsheviks were finished. White forces had snuffed out the last remaining outposts of Bolshevik control across Siberia and Central Asia and closed in on their core Russian territories from all sides. However, even top Bolshevik apparatchiks underestimated Lenin’s determination to cling to power, matched only by the ruthlessness of his henchman Felix Dzerzhinsky (below), the psychopathic Polish aristocrat who was appointed head of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, in December 1917.
Following a horrifying preview with the summary execution of the former royal family in July, the true extent of their proclivity for extreme violence was finally revealed in the aftermath of a failed assassination attempt against Lenin on August 30, 1918—the same day as a successful assassination attempt against the head of the Petrograd Cheka, Moisei Uritsky.
Hyperactive as always, on the evening of August 30 Lenin left the heavily guarded Kremlin without a bodyguard, accompanied only by his driver Stepan Gil, to deliver two rousing speeches at the Moscow Corn Exchange and the Mikhelson Armaments Factory. After the second speech, in which he urged an audience of factory workers to reject false democratic ideals, Lenin was returning to his car when he was waylaid by a delegation of peasant women, protesting Bolshevik guard detachments who prevented peasants from entering cities to sell food. Lenin promised to look into their complaint and turned to get in the car, at which point at least one assassin armed with a Browning pistol stepped forward and fired three shots from just a few paces away, hitting Lenin twice in the left shoulder and neck.
Panicked Red Guards, soldiers, and workers immediately formed a cordon around the injured Bolshevik leader, who was bleeding profusely. Gil shoved him in the car and raced back to the Kremlin, where doctors and surgeons were summoned (security precautions meant there were no physicians on duty inside the heavily fortified leadership compound). Lenin was convinced that he was dying, but his condition soon stabilized and the doctors assured his wife, Nadezha Krupskaya, that he would live. Lenin himself took several more days of convincing.
Meanwhile the Cheka apprehended Fanya Kaplan, real name Feiga Haimnova Roytblat, a 28-year-old Jewish woman who was apparently deranged (“hysterical”) as well as a member of the now-banned Left SR. Under interrogation, Kaplan explained that she considered Lenin a traitor to the revolution for dissolving the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, which had been dominated by the Socialist Revolutionaries, and then outlawing her party. Kaplan refused to name any accomplices and on September 3, 1918 she was executed by the Cheka. Her body was doused with gasoline and burned in a barrel.
Subsequent historians have speculated that Kaplan had at least one accomplice: possibly another woman, Zinaida Ivanova Legonkaya, who had previously worked for the Bolsheviks as an intelligence agent. This in turn gave rise to not-implausible conspiracy theories in which dissident members of the Cheka itself were somehow involved in the assassination attempt. On that note, Alexander Protopopov, a former leader of the Left SR who had held a high-ranking position in the Cheka, was swiftly executed on the evening August 30, 1918, fueling suspicions the attempt was indeed an inside job. Some even speculate that top-ranking Bolsheviks, including Soviet central committee chairman Yakov Sverdlov and Dzerzhinsky himself, were also involved; their possible implication in the failed attempt on Lenin’s life may explain the zeal with which they carried out what came next.
The executions of Kaplan and Protopopov were only the beginning of an officially sanctioned wave of violence known as the Red Terror, decreed on September 5, 1918 and obviously modeled on the infamous Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, in which radicals led by Maximilien Robespierre executed around 17,000 alleged counter-revolutionaries. Justifying the Red Terror as a necessary measure to secure the revolution and communist government, the Bolsheviks consciously rejected prevailing notions of morality, justice, and individual rights. “We represent in ourselves organized terror—this must be said very clearly,” Dzerzhinsky said, explaining that it consisted of “the terrorization, arrests, and extermination of enemies of the revolution on the basis of their class affiliation or of their pre-revolutionary roles.”
The Red Terror began with mass executions by Cheka officers of prisoners, hostages, and suspected counter-revolutionaries, including around 600 executions in Moscow and 500 in Petrograd in the first two days alone. Including earlier waves of repression beginning with their November coup, from 1917-1922 the Bolsheviks would execute around 200,000 people, most on vague charges of “counter-revolutionary” actions or sentiments. The precedent was later eagerly embraced by Stalin, who is generally blamed for the deaths of 10 to 20 million Soviet citizens, including countless Bolshevik revolutionary veterans, during his leadership from 1924-1953.
Implementation of the Red Terror fell to the Cheka, members of the Red Guard, and ordinary citizens, and featured wide application of summary capital punishment. Among other things, the return of executions for desertion or cowardice played a key role in Leon Trotsky’s building of a new Red Army, which eventually triumphed over White forces in the Russian Civil War by 1922. The Terror was coordinated from the Kremlin via telephone, telegraph, word of mouth, and couriers, and often carried out by mobile detachments traveling by train or in trucks.
For the victims, the Red Terror was exactly what it was intended to be—terrifying. Pitrim Sorokin, a Social Revolutionary on the run from the Bolsheviks in northern Russia, remembered finding refuge in a house owned by sympathizers:
“An absolutely noiseless life, the existence of a fleshless phantom, I lived in the place of refuge. Never laugh, never cough, never approach a window, never leave the house, be ready at the slightest warning to fly to the lumber room, then remain motionless and still as long as a chance visitor remained, to listen night and day for untoward sounds – these spelled the price of existence … I knew they were looking for me, knew that my presence in the village was suspected. Sooner or later they would get me.”
Finally apprehended, Sorokin joined others waiting to meet their fate in prison, never knowing when death might come. “Today seven victims. Today three. Today only one. Today nine. Death hovers over me but does not touch me yet. Today three more. My God! How long will this torture keep up?” he wrote. “I am remembering descriptions of the French Terror. This is quite like it. History repeats itself.”
“Every night the same summoning of victims to the slaughter. Our suspense grows almost unbearable. It would be easier to walk out to death than to die thus slowly from day to day. It is difficult to keep one’s outward calm for weeks together … It is very difficult even for the bravest. I try to take cold, to contract typhus, anything to hasten the end. All the others, I observe, do the same. There is actually competition among us to get nearest the typhus patients. Some of the men pick lice off the unconscious and dying and put them on their own skins.”
The list of victims included children of counter-revolutionaries, Sorokin noted:
“Sixty-seven new prisoners, among them five women and four children, have just come in. They are peasants of the Nicholsky District, who had the temerity to resist when the Communists came to ‘nationalize’ all their corn, cattle, and other possessions. Artillery and machine guns were sent to the village to put down the revolt. Three villages were razed and burned, many peasants were killed, and more than a hundred arrested. The 67 who joined us here are in horrible plight, arms broken, flesh lacerated, black bruises. The bitter weeping of little children is heard now in our prison. I wonder how long they can live in this hell. If they survive they will be, no doubt, good Communists in the future.”
It should be noted that the Bolsheviks’ opponents also employed mass executions in a widespread violence known as the “White Terror,” probably killing between 20,000 and 100,000 people before their final defeat in 1922. (There is disagreement among historians whether the White Terror was a coordinated, official policy like the Red Terror.) The foreign forces that occupied northern Russia and the Russian Far East during the Civil War—the former to protect Allied war supplies from falling into German hands, the latter to cover the retreat of the Czech Legion—also executed an unknown number of Bolsheviks. In November 1918, Donald Carey, a U.S. soldier in the Anglo-American force occupying northern Russia, witnessed the execution of six captured Bolsheviks accused of murder in a warehouse in the port city of Archangel. He wrote, “The Russians were smoking, laying their cigarettes aside while laughing and calmly shaking hands before being lined up and shot … I had underestimated their courage.”