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.

One Vaccination, Under God: When George Washington Kept a Smallpox Epidemic From Costing Him the American Revolution

"You, there! Have you been vaccinated?" George Washington looks to be saying in this portrait.
"You, there! Have you been vaccinated?" George Washington looks to be saying in this portrait.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1751, a teenaged George Washington emerged from a harrowing bout of smallpox, which he had contracted in Barbados, that left him weak, pockmarked, and well aware of just how catastrophic an outbreak of the insidious disease could be. Nearly 25 years later, the experience would help him prevent smallpox from ravaging the ranks of American soldiers, an event that could have dramatically affected the outcome of the American Revolution.

As Andrew Lawler reports for National Geographic, British, Canadian, and German troops surged into Boston in 1775 to quell the burgeoning revolt, bringing with them both weapons and, unwittingly, germs. While the foreign forces had built up an immunity to smallpox due to previous exposure, Boston colonists were no match for the disease, which began to spread through the city. To keep it from infecting his Continental Army, stationed across the Charles River, Washington forbade anybody from Boston from entering his camp and quarantined any soldier who showed signs of sickness. Washington’s precautionary measures proved successful, but the venerated general wasn’t satisfied with temporarily keeping smallpox at bay: He wanted to inoculate his entire army.

There were a few significant stumbling blocks to this course of action. For one, the vaccination process—known as variolation, after variola, the virus that causes smallpox—was still illegal in some states, and the Continental Congress had outright prohibited military surgeons from inoculating soldiers. Much like modern vaccinations, variolation entailed injecting a patient with a tiny quantity of the virus, just enough for the immune system to fight it off without seriously sickening or killing the patient. When administered properly, variolation resulted in immunity. If the dosage was wrong, however, it could lead to death—which had happened to King George III’s own son.

Washington wasn’t exactly abstaining from mass inoculation on behalf of the legislature, though. Even when done correctly, the vaccination can produce smallpox symptoms, and Washington couldn’t afford for thousands of his soldiers to be incapacitated for weeks right in the middle of the war. Instead, he ignored Congress’s order and mandated variolation only for newly recruited men, calculating that they would be fully recovered before heading into battle.

Despite his efforts, smallpox was already wreaking havoc on the existing troops. In May 1776, for example, Major General John Thomas lost somewhere between one third to one half of his 10,000 soldiers to smallpox during a siege on Quebec (which they did not win), and Thomas himself died of the disease on June 2.

“The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians, and Indians together,” John Adams wrote.

In February 1777, Washington told Continental Congress president John Hancock that he saw no other way to prevent the spread of the disease than to inoculate the whole army. By the end of the year, variolation had been performed on about 40,000 soldiers, and infection rates plummeted from 20 percent to a measly 1 percent. Soon after that, legislators across the fledgling nation did away with variolation prohibition.

While Washington has long been lauded for leading American revolutionaries to victory on the battlefield, his shrewd foresight and strong leadership in the face of disease was just as, if not more, important.

“A compelling case can be made that his swift response to the smallpox epidemic and to a policy of inoculation was the most important strategic decision of his military career,” historian Joseph Ellis told National Geographic.

[h/t National Geographic]

PBS Is Making Several Ken Burns Documentaries Available for Free to Teachers and Students

Ken Burns, namesake of iMovie's "Ken Burns effect," during a press tour in 2014.
Ken Burns, namesake of iMovie's "Ken Burns effect," during a press tour in 2014.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns has a reputation for presenting audiences with incredibly comprehensive, detail-oriented portraits of American history, covering everything from baseball to the Brooklyn Bridge. His documentaries are just as informative as they are engrossing, and you might walk away considering yourself an unofficial expert on whatever topic Burns lends his talents to.

Now, PBS LearningMedia is bringing Burns’s educational spirit to housebound students and teachers across the nation with a new “Ken Burns in the Classroom” digital hub, where you can watch a number of his docuseries for free. So far, the list comprises Jazz (2001), The Roosevelts (2014), and College Behind Bars (2019), and it will include four others by the end of April: 1990’s The Civil War, 2007’s The War (about World War II), 2009’s National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and 2012’s The Dust Bowl.

“We have heard loud and clear that teachers are in need of full films to better engage students and to align with their teaching during this period of distance learning,” Ken Burns said in a statement. “We have worked closely with PBS to clear rights and package these films so they can be streamed and made accessible.”

In addition to full-length series, the hub also houses video clips from Burns’s other works, covering subjects like the Vietnam War, Lewis and Clark’s expeditions, and more, along with a wealth of supplemental materials and lesson plans that teachers can send to their students via Google Classroom or another “share” option on the site. The resources are organized in two ways—by film and by era—so educators can skip right to a section on, for example, “The Industrial Age (1870-1900)” or see what content is available from Burns’s 2011 docuseries Prohibition. The hub will remain open through June 30.

To give us yet another way to explore the history of America through his body of work, Burns has created a separate PBS-run webpage called “Unum,” where video clips and supplements are split up into different categories, from themes like “Protest,” “Elections,” and “Art” to specific events like the Great Depression and Watergate.

All things considered, both Unum and “Ken Burns in the Classroom” are wonderful opportunities to expand your historical knowledge, whether you’re a student, teacher, or just a curious person.

And if you are a teacher, you can tune in to a live Q&A session with Ken Burns on PBS LearningMedia’s YouTube channel on Wednesday, April 29, at 7 p.m. EST, where he’ll answer questions submitted by teachers.

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