Nicholas Werth

      Excerpt from “The Black Book of Communism” / 2000   






Although large-scale military operations between the Whites and Reds lasted little more than a year, from the end of 1918 to the beginning of 1920, the greater part of what is normally termed the civil war was actually a dirty war, an attempt by all the different authorities, Red and White, civil and military, to stamp out all real or potential opponents in the zones that often changed hands several times. In regions held by the Bolsheviks it was the "class struggle" against the "aristocrats," the bourgeoisie, and socially undesirable elements, the hunt for all non-Bolshevik militants from opposing parties, and the putting down of workers' strikes, of mutinies in the less secure elements of the Red Army, and of peasant revolts. In the zones held by the Whites, it was open season on anyone suspected of having possible "Judeo-Bolshevik" sympathies.

The Bolsheviks certainly did not have a monopoly on terror. There was also a White Terror, whose worst moment was the terrible wave of pogroms carried out in Ukraine in the summer and autumn of 1919 by Simon Petlyura's detachments, which accounted for more than 150,000 victims. But as most historians of the Red Terror and White Terror have already pointed out, the two types of terror were not on the same plane. The Bolshevik policy of terror was more systematic, better organized, and targeted at whole social classes. Moreover, it had been thought out and put into practice before the outbreak of the civil war. The White Terror was never systematized in such a fashion. It was almost invariably the work of detachments that were out of control, taking measures not officially authorized by the military com­mand that was attempting, without much success, to act as a government. If one discounts the pogroms, which Denikin himself condemned, the White Terror most often was a series of reprisals by the police acting as a sort of military counterespionage force. The Cheka and the Troops for the Internal Defense of the Republic were a structured and powerful instrument of repres­sion of a completely different order, which had support at the highest level from the Bolshevik regime.




Red Terror as seen by  Russian artist



As in all civil wars, it is extremely difficult to derive a complete picture of all the forms of terror employed by the two warring parties. The Bolshevik Terror, with its clear methodology, its specificity, and its carefully chosen aims, easily predated the civil war, which developed into a full-scale conflict only at the end of the summer of 1918. The following list indicates in chronological order the evolution of different types of terror and its different targets from the early months of the regime:


  • Non-Bolshevik political militants, from anarchists to monarchists. Workers fighting for the most basic rights, including bread, work, and a minimum of liberty and dignity.
  • Peasants—often deserters implicated in any of the innumerable peas­ant revolts or Red Army mutinies.
  • Cossacks, who were deported en masse as a social and ethnic group sup­posedly hostile to the Soviet regime. "De-Cossackization" prefigured the massive deportations of the 1930s called "dekulakization" (another example of the deportation of ethnic groups) and underlines the funda­mental continuity between the Leninist and Stalinist policies of political repression.
  • "Socially undesirable elements" and other "enemies of the people," "suspects," and "hostages" liquidated "as a preventive measure," par­ticularly when the Bolsheviks were enforcing the evacuation of villages or when then took back territory or towns that had been in the hands of the Whites.

The best-known repressions are those that concerned political militants from the various parties opposed to the Bolsheviks. Numerous statements were made by the main leaders of the opposition parties, who were often imprisoned and exiled, but whose lives were generally spared, unlike militant workers and peasants, who were shot without trial or massacred during punitive Cheka operations.



One of the first acts of terror was the attack launched on 11 April 1918 against the Moscow anarchists, dozens of whom were immediately executed. The struggle against the anarchists intensified over the following years, al­though a certain number did transfer their allegiance to the Bolshevik Party, even becoming high-ranking Cheka officials, such as Aleksandr Goldberg, Mikhail Brener, and Timofei Samsonov. The dilemma faced bN, most anarchists in their opposition to both the new Bolshevik dictatorship and the return of the old regime is well illustrated by the U-turns of the great peasant anarchist leader Nestor Makhno, who for a while allied himself with the Red Army in the struggle against the Whites, then turned against the Bolsheviks after the White threat had been eliminated. Thousands of anonymous militant anar­chists were executed as bandits as part of the repression against the peasant army of Makhno and his partisans. It would appear that these peasants consti­tuted the immense majority of anarchist victims, at least according to the figures presented by the Russian anarchists in exile in Berlin in 1922. These incomplete figures note 138 militant anarchists executed in the years 1919­1921, 281 sent into exile, and 608 still in prison as of 1 January 1922.


The left Socialist Revolutionaries, who were allies of the Bolsheviks until the summer of' 1918, were treated with relative leniency until February 1919. As late as December 1918 their most famous leader, Maria Spiridonova, pre­sided over a party congress that was tolerated by the Bolsheviks.