Red Terror in Soviet Russia

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the Red Terror in Soviet Russia. We will learn why the Red Terror took place and highlight key themes and developments related to this tragic event.

Liberty vs. Terror

We may not always like the decisions our political leaders make, or the things we see taking place in our government, but the wonderful thing about living in the United States is that we have the freedom to express ourselves. We are fortunate to live in a country that allows free speech and political expression.

Historically, this hasn't always been the case around the world. You probably know what became of Germans who were caught speaking out against Hitler during the 1930s and 1940s: many were summarily shot or sent to concentration camps. During the French Revolution, being on the wrong side of the government could result in your head being chopped off by the ''National Razor,'' a.k.a. the guillotine. This mass murder in France between 1793-1794 became known as the Reign of Terror. In this lesson, we will be learning about another reign of terror: what has come to be known as the Red Terror, which took place under the Soviet government following the Russian Civil War. The Red Terror was a program of mass murder, torture, imprisonment, and oppression carried out by the Bolsheviks (Soviet communists) against political opponents between 1918-1922. Let's dig in and learn more.

The Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War

The early 20th century was a tumultuous time for Russia. While Western European countries like Great Britain, France, and Germany had become industrialized, Russia remained very much backward. It did not have much of middle class: wealth and power were concentrated in the hands of the few, leaving the majority of Russians poor and oppressed. The Russian people had had enough. Revolution broke out in 1905, but the big revolution came a few years later, in 1917.

The Russian Revolution was a series of two revolutions that took place in 1917 and resulted in the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II and the ultimate creation of the Soviet Union, the world's first communist state. The leader of the Russian Revolution was Vladimir Lenin, a committed Marxist who had been exiled from Russia due to his revolutionary activities. Lenin returned from exile to lead the revolution and transform Russia into a communist state. Lenin's followers were called Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks were a radical left-wing faction composed mainly of urban working-class Russians. Sometimes, the Russian Revolution is called Bolshevik Revolution.

The leader of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin

The Bolshevik seizure of power resulted in civil war. The Russian Civil War was fought between the Bolshevik ''Reds'' and the conservative ''Whites'' between 1917-1922. The ''Whites'' were basically those who were anti-communist. Many of the ''Whites'' favored a conservative government, such as a monarchy. The death toll was horrendous: it is believed that some 10 million people died in the conflict. Coinciding with the time frame of the Russian Civil War was the Red Terror.

The Red Terror

The Bolshevik secret police, called the Cheka, were primarily responsible for carrying out the Red Terror, although other government agencies were certainly involved. The terror began after August 1918, when Cheka leader Moisei Uritsky was assassinated. Vladimir Lenin himself was also subject to an assassination attempt that same month. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, Lenin was badly injured. While recovering, he ordered: ''It is necessary -- secretly and urgently -- to prepare the terror.'' The Bolsheviks immediately embarked on a program to crush counterrevolution through mass terror. Anyone suspected of being a ''White'' or of holding counterrevolution ideas was imprisoned, and, in many cases, executed. In the first two months of the Terror, 10,000 to 15,000 casualties ensued.

Dead bodies are strewn outside a Cheka headquaters

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