As eastern Ukraine languishes under the threat of a renewed escalation of violence launched from the occupied territories of the Donbas, and local residents of areas bordering the separatist regions worry from day to day about the fate of their homes and families, it is worth reflecting on the tragic legacy of Moscow’s rule over Ukraine over the last hundred years.
Beginning with the period of Ukrainian independence from Moscow before most of it was incorporated into the Soviet Union (1917-1921), we see terror – in the form of ‘state terror’ deliberately decreed from the Kremlin – on a scale that exceeded any previous revolution. This was particularly true in eastern Ukraine, in and around the city of Kharkiv (‘Kharkov’ in Russian). As if to outdo the Jacobins of 18th-century revolutionary France, Lenin directed units of the Soviet secret police – then known as the ‘Emergency Committee’ (originally called the All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage) or ‘Cheka,’ for short – to wipe out all signs of counterrevolution or the “bourgeois” class in the area. The tortures and executions that took place at the hands of the ‘Chekists,’ by contemporary accounts, were so horrific and prolific that many who survived are reported to have gone insane with nightmares.
Taken from material published on the Gulag website, the following is a grave indictment of Muscovite rule over Ukraine, but is only a relatively brief episode in the long history of repression and atrocity meted out on smaller nations by the Russian central government. In the wake of the February 22nd, 2015, bombing of a peaceful demonstration in Kharkiv, killing four people, it may be instructive to remember the ‘Red Terror’ in Ukraine during the period when the Bolsheviks were uniting the Soviet Union by force. The atrocities in this historical account cover Bolshevik rule in not only Kharkiv, but also Kherson, Odessa, Mykolaiv and other areas of Ukraine that lie within the boundaries of Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperial ‘Novorossiya’ project. Furthermore, since the current Russian regime seeks to honor the memory of the Soviet tyranny, since Russia’s president believes the collapse of the USSR was one of the greatest tragedies of all time, and since the outside world is unable to gain unfettered access to areas controlled by Moscow-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, the Soviet experience of mass murder and terror is not irrelevant.
Summary information about the crimes and wrongs of the Bolsheviks
June 29, 1919, № 4338, Yekaterinodar.
Kharkiv: The reign of terror unleashed by the Bolsheviks during the period of their occupation of Kharkiv was so severe that many descended into madness from persistent and frequent nightmares. One who distinguished himself for his special brutality was Commissar Saenko, fortunately captured by volunteers. The Bolsheviks shot people mercilessly, including women and children.
On two streets and in the basements of several houses they dug corridors, at the end of which those who were to be shot were stood. When these fell, they were covered with earth. […] The next day, in the same place, the next victims were shot, then again covered with earth, and so on up to the top.
Then the next series would start in the same corridor. […] In one of these corridors lay up to 2,000 who had been shot. Some women were shot simply for refusing the romantic advances of the commissars. In the basements they found people crucified on the floor and bolted to the floor with screws. Many women had had the skin removed from their hands and feet in the form of gloves and stockings, and all the skin flayed off from the front of their bodies.
[…] An unusual flash of red terror marked the last period of Soviet power in the city.
The Kharkiv Cheka (Bolshevik secret police), numbering up to 1,500 agents, and worked around the clock. Every day, hundreds were arrested. In the basement of the house in which the Cheka was located (on Sumy Street) were three large rooms. These rooms were always so crowded that those arrested were forced to stand.
At the disposal of the Cheka was a special Chinese company that tortured those arrested under interrogation, and shot the condemned. Forty to fifty people were shot every day, with this figure increasing greatly during the final days.
Among others the Bolsheviks shot were former Irkutsk Governor Bantysh and his son, Generals Nechayev and Kuskov, and Prince Putyatin. It is estimated that the Bolsheviks shot more than 1,000 people in Kharkiv at this time.
In the concentration camp on Tchaikovsky Street, thirty-three corpses of hostages shot by the Bolsheviks were dug up. The Bolsheviks not only shot the hostages, but they cut them down with swords in ready dug graves, buried people alive in the graves, and threw hostages down manholes. The underground dungeons were full of water, in which the hostages drowned.
It was established that […] Captain Sorokin and the merchant Velichko were shot.
According to eyewitnesses, the bodies are buried in the courtyard of House No. 47 on Sumy St., which housed the commandant of the Cheka. The corpses of the former employee of “New Russia” Captain V.G. Plaks-Zhdanovich and the merchant Shikhovsky, both shot on the same day, should be buried here.
If anyone showed signs of life after being shot, Saenko finished them with his own dagger.
On Sumy and Tchaikovsky Streets, living quarters were full of the smell of rotting corpses. Victims of the Bolshevik atrocities were shot by the ‘Chekists’ themselves and immediately buried there. The dead bodies were barely covered with earth.
In the basement of House No. 47 on Sumy Street was found a board, on which those sentenced to death had recorded their last words. There are some signatures on it: Kulinin, Andreyev, Znamensky, Broblovsky.
A moat and barbed wire fence surrounded the buildings in which so recently had been placed a concentration camp for the bourgeoisie and counter-revolutionaries, and where the sadist Saenko committed his atrocities. It was only possible to enter the house across a small bridge. The whole house is now completely empty.
In the courtyard, two enormous mass graves were arranged in which those shot were buried one on top of the other. How many bodies were buried in these mass graves has not yet been established.
Excavation of the graves of the victims of the Red Terror continues. So far, 239 corpses have been exhumed. The protocol of the forensic research has established the facts of burial alive, abuse and torture.
Volchansk: Information was received that before leaving the city the Bolsheviks shot 64 hostages in the custody of the “Emergency” commission. Among the murdered were the headmistress of a school for girls and prominent public figures.
Executions of Kyivans: The Kyiv Cheka, headed by Sorokin, cultivated a system of executions. Many prominent public figures charged with fantastic conspiracies against the Soviets were killed. Among the prominent people of Kyiv, apart from Professors Armashevsky, Florinsky, Pr[ince] Trubetskoy were shot; Mr. Razmitalsky [well-known in Kyiv]; City Bank Director Tsitovich; the barrister Palibin; Kyivan financiers Penes and Rubinstein; the barrister Lurie; and many others. Lukyanivka Prison and all other detention chambers were crammed with arrestees.
Terror in Odessa: 400 people were sent into forced labor for non-payment of indemnities.
Throughout Ukraine, the Bolsheviks carried out looting and violence. The Red Army visited one rich peasant and asked him for 40,000 rubles. He was only able to provide 4,000. Not satisfied with this, the Red Army bound the man and his wife and began to burn their heels with a candle.
Executions in Petrograd: According to the information received, by decision of the Cheka in Petrograd, the following persons were shot: Navy Capt. Ganych; Lt. Paskevich; Col. Chetyrkin; Commander of the Baltic Minelayer “Lena” Brun; Kuteinikov; Midshipman Ovchinnikov; Navy Lt. Shteyngetter; Chausov; Midshipman Kuchinsky; the Central Staff officers Sibiryakov , Zubchaninov, Popov, Sergeyev, Tchaikovsky, Nadypov, Kaportsov, Zeykov, Durnov, Karasyuk, Vasiliev, Ivanov, Dalypin-Shaylekov, Rogachev, Kotov, Bolshakov, Khmyzov-Smirnov Vykholkov, Yastyakov, Safronov, Borisov, Akimov, Anto-Samsonov. The sentences were signed by Chairman Skorokhodov and Secretary Chudin.
In addition, by order of the same Cheka officers, employees of “Russian flag” Luka Zlotnikov, I.V. Revenko, L. N. Bobrov, V.N. Mukhin, A.D. Ha-ryavin, N.A. Larin, and others; officers: R.R. Depner, N.S. Surmonov, Y.Y. Tyagunov, D.N. Karpov, V.K. Kospeletsky, N.B. Shklovsky, S.M. Pomochnikov, M.P. Bazykin, P.S. Belyakov, G.I. Gazan and others.
In the vicinity of Perm, Countess Gendrikov and Ms. Schneider, who accompanied the royal family during her journey from Omsk to Yekaterinburg, were found dead. They were taken under escort to Perm, where they died at the hands of the Bolsheviks.
Summary information of the crimes and wrongs of the Bolsheviks
26 August 1919, № 110195, Rostov-on-Don.
Odessa: […] In the basement of the Odessa “Cheka,” instruments of torture and many corpses of torture victims were found. Among the instruments of torture, particular attention is being paid to specific devices such as chains for stretching limbs. The British command brought members of their ships’ crews to the “Cheka” dungeons. The instruments of torture made a painful impression on the British sailors.
Kherson: The population remembers with horror the atrocities of the Bolshevik Cheka, which had reached a fever pitch with the arrival in Kherson of two Chinese experts in torture, dissection of living people, skinning of feet and hands, and sticking pins under fingernails. In recent days, the Bolsheviks had killed many public figures to paralyze public life after the withdrawal of the Bolsheviks from Kherson.
Mykolaiv: Officers who have taken refuge from the Bolsheviks in the surrounding towns and villages are continuously coming to the commandant for registration. They recount horrors. The villages are glowing, set alight by the Bolsheviks. Sailors are destroying the provincial good, burning all the bread they are unable to carry with them. Domestic cattle are being shot; agricultural machinery is being destroyed.
In a place where the peasants had once revolted against the Bolshevik government, the Bolsheviks, not encountering men in the villages, took out their grudge on the women and children. For example, in one village, where the population had defeated a unit of Communists, the Bolsheviks stripped women naked and forced them to walk in front of a drunken crowd. Many corpses of children with severed limbs were found.
Kremenchug: In Kremenchug, excavations of those shot and tortured by the Bolsheviks are ongoing. The number of dead […] has reached up to 2,500 persons. A group of telegraph employees has been exhumed: 5 men, 1 woman. Executions were carried out by a large part of the sailors. The condemned were sat on the edge of the grave and shot in the head. When the grave was filled with the bodies of those killed, they began to fill the next one.
Penza: An individual from the Land of the Soviets paints a picture of life in Penza. In the cathedral, the Communists arranged a club where concerts and family parties for the Communists and their relatives were held. A Cheka unit was stationed in the bishop’s house, and carried out shootings day and night. A massive number of intellectuals and clergy were shot, and those remaining were mobilized for public work schemes.
In Cathedral Square, the Chinese and Latvians protected a monument to Karl Marx But one night the monument was destroyed, and the red terror began. 156 officers were arrested and imprisoned together with criminals. The latter escaped, and when some of them were caught, they gave up the officers who had organized the uprising against Soviet rule. All 156 officers were shot. The sailor, who was standing at the post at the place of execution, personally recounted that he could not bear the picture of horror and ran from his post. The woman in power during the terror was the Communist Yevgenia Bosch, now located in Astrakhan.
Kyiv: In the proceedings of the Kyiv Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, a list of those shot in Kyiv by the local Cheka was published: Prof. Armashevsky, I.A. Bashin, A.M. Beduinevich, an employee of the South-Eastern Railroad; N.S. Boch, high school teacher; A.P. Bebir, director of accounting courses; G.K. Bubnov, merchant; A.Y. Buravkin, former landlord of the “Grand National Hotel”; E.A. Bocharov, state counselor; N.E. De Vecchi, landlady; I.M. Dembitsky, merchant; G.K. Danilov, merchant; N.D. Kalkin, employee of the South-Eastern Railroad; Arkady Moiseyevich Grigoriev, barrister, lieutenant of artillery; N.F. Ivanov, former superintendent of Kyiv School District; B.V. Konoklin, a merchant; N.F. Kupyansk, engineer homeowner; M.T. Maninka, barrister; P.M. Mozhalovsky, assistant prosecutor; G.G. Molodovsky, homeowner; I.I. Nekludov, former vice-governor; A.F. Novikov, director of the 3rd High School, member of the State Duma; G.I. Pristupa, barrister; K.G. Pechenov, an employee of the railway; N. Rajic, deputy chairman of the District Court; P.G. Rudakov, homeowner; F.G. Sadovsky, employee of the railway; A.T. Slinko, 80-year-old; V.V. Stankov, merchant; Stakhov; N.I. Sukovkin, former governor of Kyiv; K.V. Tikhonov, homeowner; A.A. Tobolin, former director of the State Bank; A.L. Tsitovich, homeowner; S.N. Shchegolev, publicist.
Statistics of Chekist lies
Official data of the Cheka on those shot does not reflect, of course, even 10% of the real numbers. According to official data, 6,185 people were executed in 1918 (including 22 for the first half of the year), and in just three years – 12,733; 14,829 people were imprisoned in 1918. In the concentration camps, 6,407 were imprisoned and 4,068 taken hostage (in 1919 – 5,491). Not to mention the fact that, in addition to the Cheka sentences to which these data relate (possibly covering not all local organs of the Cheka, in any case), according to existing instructions “counterrevolutionaries” were to be shot on the spot. By this method, a large number of people were also liquidated, leaving behind even unidentified people (the Cheka executions were carried out by decree by revolutionary tribunals and military courts).
But the main thing that deprives the given figures of any credibility as somehow complete is the fact that mass executions had been carried out by the Cheka long before the official announcement of the Red Terror (hundreds, for example, by the Kazan organization, Yaroslavl affair, and many others, when allegedly only 22 people were shot).
According to the estimates of S.P. Melgunov published in the Soviet (central and some provincial) newspapers, random and very incomplete data for this time indicate that 884 people were shot. More than two months before the official declaration of terror, Lenin (in a letter to Zinoviev, dated 26 June 1918) wrote that, “it is necessary to encourage energy and mass-scale terror against the counter-revolutionaries, and especially in St. Petersburg, as a decisive example.”
And according to the Bolshevik newspapers themselves, it is easy to see that the executions of the Cheka, first, began long before the shooting of officers of the Semyonovsky Regiment, the brothers A.A. and V.A. Cherep-Spiridovich on 31 May 1918 (later announced as having been the first executions), and, secondly, the number shot on the published lists is much higher than what was announced later. In large cities, according to the observations of eyewitnesses, a few dozen were shot every day (in Kyiv, in particular, 60-70).
Finally, by many accounts, the lists did not include anywhere near the total number shot. In the case of Shchepkin in Moscow, more than 150 were shot according to a list of 66 in September 1919. In Kronstadt, in July of the same year, 100-150 were shot from a list of 19, and so forth. For the first three months of 1919, according to the calculations of the newspaper Will of Russia, 13,850 people were shot.
In January 1920, on the eve of the proclamation of the abolition of the death penalty (formally from 15 January to 25 May 1920, but which, of course, no one in fact canceled – Izvestia itself reported the shooting of 521 people from January to May), a wave shootings that swept through the prisons in Moscow alone killed more than 300 people; in Petrograd – 400; Saratov – 52; etc. According to official data alone, the revolutionary military tribunals shot 3,887 people from May to September 1920.
While the terror was officially announced on September 2, mass executions had begun the day before. An idea of its course is given by sketchy reports from the field (reflecting, of course, only a very small part of the repression). Here are only those reports where there are direct references to the officers, but the absolute majority of them do not identify the make-up of those shot, but only a total number and a general description such as “hostages,” “counter-revolutionaries,” “bourgeois,” “enemies of the proletariat,” etc.
At this time, officers made up a higher percentage of those shot than later, especially in 1919. They were arrested and shot first.
The first information about the terror, an editorial article of Soviet officialdom, commented as follows: “Reports came from all over of mass arrests and executions. We do not have a list of all who were executed with the designation of their social position, in order to create accurate statistics in this regard, but according to the individual, random and far from complete lists that reach us, it was mostly former officers who were shot… representatives of the bourgeoisie in civilian clothes were an exception.
In Petrograd, with the announcement of the “Red Terror” on 2 September 1918, according to an official report, 512 people (almost all officers) were shot. But this number did not include the hundreds of officers who were shot in Kronstadt (400) and Petrograd at the behest of the local Soviets, and taking into account that the number of executions reached 1,300. In addition, as the English priest Lombard reported to Lord Curzon, “in late August, two barges filled with officers sank, and their dead bodies were thrown onto the estate of one of my friends, located on the Gulf of Finland; many were bound in twos and threes with barbed wire.”
Agents of the Cheka went to the ships of the Baltic Fleet, and, as ordered, the team selected those officers whom they would take away to be shot. One of the survivors recalled: “When I went to the bridge in the morning, I saw a terrible sight. A crowd of sailors was returning from somewhere, carrying various items, officers’ clothing and boots. Some of them were covered with blood. The clothes of those who were shot the night before were being carried away for sale.”
In Moscow in early September, 765 people were shot. Every day in Petrovsky Park, 10-15 people were executed. In the newspapers from time to time they came across reports of small groups who had been shot. Such as occurred at the end of 1918 and all of 1919, 3 and 19 December, 24 January, 4 and 12 February (13 staff officers); March 23, April 12, 1, 5 and 10 May, 23 and 28 September, 20 December, 18 February 1920, etc.