WWI Centennial: Lenin is Shot; Bolsheviks Unleash Red Terror

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

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.

Map of Russian Civil War September 1918
Erik Sass

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.

Felix Dzerzhinsky
RIA Novosti archive, RIA Novosti, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

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.”

He added:

“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.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

8 Momentous Facts About Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

An illustration of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address from 1905.
An illustration of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address from 1905.
Sherwood Lithograph Co., Library of Congress // No known restrictions on publication

Seven score and 17 years ago, Abraham Lincoln uttered fewer than 280 words in front of Union mourners at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg. Brief as it was, the Gettysburg Address captured the democratic spirit of the nation and galvanized the North to redouble their efforts in the Civil War.

Read on to learn more about the speech that originated the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and taught us all that longer doesn’t always mean better.

1. Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The Union triumphed over Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg—often considered the turning point of the Civil War—in July 1863, but both sides suffered grievous losses. Townspeople formed a committee to replace more than 3500 temporary battlefield graves with a national cemetery, and committee leader David Mills invited Abraham Lincoln to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication ceremony on November 19. Though Lincoln spoke for just two minutes, his 272-word Gettysburg Address remains one of the most famous speeches ever delivered.

2. The Gettysburg Address wasn’t the main speech of the event.

edward everett
Edward Everett
Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

The star speaker of the ceremony was Edward Everett, a former Harvard president, U.S. congressman and governor of Massachusetts, and Millard Fillmore’s secretary of state. Everett lived up to his reputation as the greatest orator of the time with an epic, impassioned two-hour speech that he delivered from memory. But he, too, was impressed with Lincoln’s concision.

“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery,” he wrote to Lincoln in a letter the following day. “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

3. Abraham Lincoln probably didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on the train.

Legend has it that Lincoln hastily scrawled his brief speech on the back of an envelope on the train ride from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. However, one copy was partially written on official White House stationery, leading experts to believe that Lincoln worked on his speech before leaving home and finished it the night before the ceremony. Also, the bumpy train rides of the 1860s would have affected Lincoln’s handwriting, and both of his early manuscripts are written in his characteristically neat, even script.

4. Abraham Lincoln may have had smallpox when he delivered the Gettysburg Address.

On the train ride to Gettysburg, Lincoln reportedly told one of his private secretaries that he felt weak, and his health deteriorated rapidly in the days after the speech. In 2007, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston studied the symptoms of his mysterious illness—which included high fevers, headaches, backaches, and scarlet blisters all over his skin—and suggested that he had actually suffered from a life-threatening case of smallpox. Fortunately, Lincoln made a full recovery, and resumed his regular presidential duties three weeks after falling ill.

5. The Gettysburg Address has similarities to Pericles’s funeral oration from 431 BCE.

pericles's funeral oration
Pericles's Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz, 1852.
Philipp Foltz, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 431 BCE, Athenian statesman Pericles delivered a rousing speech to commemorate those who had already perished in the Peloponnesian War (which would last for nearly 30 more years). Not only do both speeches honor the soldiers’ sacrifice, but they also recognize those who came before them, emphasize equality in the eyes of the law, and encourage the surviving citizens to continue to fight for the greater good.

6. Not everyone loved the Gettysburg Address at the time.

Though many Union supporters and Republicans praised Lincoln’s carefully chosen words, Democrats and other skeptics did nothing to hide their derision—in fact, certain publications practically shouted about it. The Chicago Times said that “the cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the president of the United States,” and Pennsylvania’s Daily Patriot and Union recommended that the nation never repeat or think about “the silly remarks” ever again. Even the Times of London thought the ceremony “was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln.”

7. There are five known manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address.

bliss copy gettysburg address
The Bliss copy of the Gettysburg Address.
Smithsonian Collection, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The two early manuscripts that Abraham Lincoln entrusted to his private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, are both housed in the Library of Congress. Sometime after he delivered the speech, Lincoln penned three more copies. One was for Everett, which is now kept at the Illinois State Historical Library; another, now at Cornell University, was requested by historian George Bancroft; and a third, for Bancroft’s stepson, Colonel Alexander Bliss, now lives in the Lincoln Room of the White House.

The five manuscripts differ slightly, and so do people’s opinions on which one is considered standard. Some prefer the Bliss copy, since it was Lincoln’s final draft and also the only copy he signed, while others think the Associated Press transcription from the actual event is a more accurate version of the speech.

8. There’s only one confirmed photo of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.

abraham lincoln at gettysburg
David Bachrach, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1952, archivist Josephine Cobb was studying a glass negative of a photo taken by David Bachrach when she spotted a familiar face in the crowd at the Gettysburg dedication ceremony. It was Abraham Lincoln, his hat-less head slightly bowed as he waited for his turn at the podium later that afternoon. Alexander Gardner also snapped a photograph at the occasion that might show Lincoln, too, but people disagree about exactly where Lincoln appears. John Richter, director of the Center for Civil War Photography, identifies him on horseback, while former Disney animator Christopher Oakley places him on the ground several yards to the right.

10 Facts About Fort Sumter

Cannons used in the Civil War are on display at Fort Sumter.
Cannons used in the Civil War are on display at Fort Sumter.
ovidiuhrubaru/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Though it was built in response to an earlier conflict, Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor was the birthplace of the American Civil War. Tensions between the North and South had been high for years, but the situation didn’t escalate into an all-out war until Confederates took the Union-occupied garrison in April 1861. Here are 10 things you should know about Fort Sumter, its origins, and its ever-relevant legacy.

1. Fort Sumter was named after a Revolutionary War hero.

General Thomas Sumter (1734-1832) served in the French and Indian War as an officer in the Virginia militia. He later relocated to South Carolina, where he attained national hero status once the American Revolution began. Sumter’s guerilla-style attacks kept the British on their toes and helped him score a surprise victory at the Battle of Blackstock's Farm in present-day Union County, South Carolina. Following the war, Sumter represented the state on Capitol Hill as both a U.S. congressman and, eventually, a senator. Here’s a fun tidbit for college sports fans: Ever wonder why the University of South Carolina’s athletic teams are called “The Fighting Gamecocks?” It’s a tip of the hat to Sumter, who was nicknamed “The Carolina Gamecock” during the Revolution because of his rooster-like vigor (or possibly his ego).

2. The War of 1812 spurred Fort Sumter’s development.

The War of 1812 proved that many of America’s coastal cities were vulnerable to attacks from foreign navies. So in 1816, Congress appropriated more than $800,000 (equal to about $14.5 million in today’s dollars) for new seaside fortifications. Although construction on Fort Sumter didn’t actually start until 1829, its origins can be traced back to this development.

3. Fort Sumter sits on an artificial island.

Fort Sumter was built on an artificial island.
Fort Sumter was built on an artificial island.
Thinkstock/Getty Images

When the plans for Fort Sumter were approved in 1828, its designers envisioned “a pentagonal, three-tiered, masonry fort with truncated angles to be built on the shallow shoal extending from James Island.” They had their work cut out for them: Not only did the sandbar get totally submerged at high tide, but it also tended to shift around in the current. Before the fort could go up, more than 109,000 tons of rock had to be deposited at the site to create a stable artificial island.

4. Construction at Fort Sumter was held up over a legal dispute.

Progress on Fort Sumter stalled from 1834 to 1841, thanks to questions about land ownership and, more broadly, federal authority. Trouble started when William Laval, a private citizen, claimed he owned the shoal upon which the fort was being built. At the same time, many of South Carolina’s elected officials believed the decision to build a military garrison in the Charleston Harbor infringed on their state’s rights. The matter was finally resolved in ’41, when the Palmetto State gave the title on that disputed terrain to the federal government.

5. Fort Sumter wasn’t finished when the Civil War began.

South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Six days later, Major Robert Anderson, a Union loyalist who’d been put in command of Charleston’s Federal troops, gathered his men and ferried them to Fort Sumter, which could be more easily defended than any of the harbor’s other fortifications. At the time, several components of their chosen refuge remained unfinished. Portions of the gunrooms, barracks, and quarters were missing when Anderson and company arrived—and while the facility was designed to house 135 cannons, only 15 had been set up there.

6. There were no casualties in the 1861 attack on Fort Sumter—but someone died in the aftermath.

Civil War cannon at Fort Sumter.
A Civil War cannon at Fort Sumter.
Martina Birnbaum/iStock via Getty Images

Stranded on the island, Anderson and his forces languished at Fort Sumter until the spring of 1861. Hostilities escalated that April, when President Abraham Lincoln tried to resupply the garrison. In response, Confederate gunmen led by General P.G.T. Beauregard started firing at Fort Sumter on the morning of April 12, 1861. The attack commenced just after 4:30 a.m. Some 34 hours later, on April 14, Anderson surrendered. Not a single human life was lost during the bombardment, but as the Union Flag was being lowered, Private Daniel Hough of the 1st U.S. Artillery was unintentionally killed by a ceremonial cannon-shot.

7. Another battle erupted at Fort Sumter in 1863—and it was much bloodier.

The battle—a follow-up to a failed naval assault—took place on September 7 and 8, 1863. Four hundred Union sailors and marines advanced on the garrison, which was believed to be largely unoccupied. But unfortunately for the Union troops, it wasn’t. Some 300 Confederates attacked them from within the structure. “Two-thirds of the amphibious [Union] force escaped, but nearly two dozen of them were killed or wounded and more than a hundred were captured on the face of the fort,” recounts the National Park Service website. “No Confederates were injured.”

8. When Fort Sumter was recaptured, Anderson got to raise the Union Flag.

Raising the flag over Fort Sumter.
Raising the flag over Fort Sumter.
Wikimedia Commons // public domain

The Second Battle of Fort Sumter may have been a Confederate victory, but over the next 15 months, from September 1863 through February 1865, the Union shot 50,000 projectiles at the building. Then, on February 18, 1865, Charleston was surrendered to the Union. At the invitation of Lincoln’s War Department, Robert Anderson made the trip down to Fort Sumter from his New York City home. On April 14, 1865—the same day Lincoln was fatally shot at the theater—Anderson hoisted the Union flag over the garrison he’d lost exactly four years earlier.

9. Fort Sumter was upgraded for later wars.

After the battered fort was patched up in the 1870s, Fort Sumter was mostly used as a lighthouse until the Spanish-American War began in 1898. To prepare for a potential enemy assault, it was fitted with a set of long-range rifle cannons. The fort was again made battle-ready for World Wars I and II. During the latter, four rapid-fire 90-millimeter anti-aircraft guns were installed.

10. Fort Sumter is part of a National Historical Park.

Fort Sumter was deactivated in 1947 and became a national monument the following year. On March 12, 2019, its status was revised: Today, the human-made island and its famous occupant are part of the newly designated Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historic Park. (Fort Moultrie is an older facility that was the site of a 1776 Patriot victory in the American Revolution.) Fort Sumter attracts thousands of visitors every year and on April 14, 2015, reenactors gathered to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Robert Anderson’s 1865 flag raising ceremony.

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