On 20 December 1917, barely six weeks after the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in the Russian revolution, the All Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter Revolution, Speculation and Sabotage – the Cheka – was established by Lenin’s decree. The first in a series of Soviet state security organisations, within a year its leather-jacketed operatives had the right the arrest and execute people without external intervention. Its Troops for the Internal Defence of the Republic soon numbered 200,000. They put down rebellions and mutinies, pursued dissidents and deserters and ran the system of forced labour camps that became the Gulag.
By the end of 1920, there were 84 such camps housing some 50,000 prisoners, increasing to 315 by the end of the civil war. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 500,000 people were executed by the Cheka during the post-revolutionary ‘Red Terror’. And all this before Stalin developed the state security apparatus into his agency of total oppression.
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