Your RDA of Irony

The Kreme de la Kremlin

Vladimir Putin is feeling sentimental today. It is the 98th anniversary of the founding of the Cheka, the first Soviet secret police. In honor of this special day, 98 journalists will be assassinated. (To make that quota, the corpse pile will have to include four movie critics and seven cooking columnists; Russia is running out of journalists.)

We tend to think of Lenin as a misunderstood old dear, just a badly tailored Edmund Gwenn. Of course, that is only because we are comparing him to Stalin. In fact, Lenin wasn’t that old, a mere 47 at the time of the November Revolution. (Now, don’t you feel like an under-achiever.) Nor was he remotely lovable. Although he was not a Stalinoid monster, Lenin was a certifiable creep. He was an obsessed, remorseless tyrant who actually read calculus books for fun. Would you be any less dead if Lenin shot you for the sake of dialectic materialism than if Stalin shot you because it was his hobby?

So, it was not surprising that Lenin would establish a secret police just six weeks after the November Revolution. (So much for the honeymoon.) The first head of the Cheka was Felix Dzerzhinsky who was unique among the Bolshevik aristocracy in that he really was an aristocrat. Anyone who slighted him at a soiree or beat him at tennis probably did not live to regret it. Dzerzhinsky may have betrayed his class but not his tastes. In the midst of revolution and civil war, Dzerzhinsky requisitioned a Rolls-Royce for his personal use. It should be noted that his timing was as impeccable as his style. He died of heart attack in 1926, and so avoided a less natural cause of death from Stalin.

In organizing the Cheka, Lenin was just observiing a hallowed Russian tradition. Since Ivan the Terrible, the Tsars had relied on secret police as well. Indeed, Ivan set the standard. His death squads, the Oprichniki, had a very distinctive insignia: the severed head of a dog on their saddles. The dog’s head presumably would sniff out treason. Ivan distrusted his nobles, and the Oprichniki eliminated the causes of his anxiety. Of course, even the Oprichniki found that Ivan could be a little too whimsical. There is a story of a father-and-son team who had risen high in the Oprichniki hierarchy. While at a feast, Ivan thought of a test of loyalty for entertainment. The son was ordered to strangle the father. Before the guests, the son did as he was ordered. Then Ivan ordered the son to be executed; after all, how could Ivan trust anyone who would kill his father?

At least, subsequent Tsars and their secret police refrained from decapitating dogs for decor. (However, Faberge could have made some wonderful facsimiles.) In the last decades of the Russian Empire, the secret police was known as the Okhrana. Their chief concern was suppressing the growing radical movement. They proved so successful at infiltrating revolutionaries groups that Okhrana agents actually were managing many of the revolutionary plots. In 1911, Okhrana oversaw the assassination of the Russian Prime Minister, Pyotr Stolypin. A political moderate, at least by Russian standards, Stolypin’s attempts at reforms outraged the conservatives. So, Okhrana manipulated a thoroughly infiltrated radical group to kill him. The actual assassin was a genuine revolutionary but his supervisor and his supervisor’s supervisor were all on the Okhrana payroll. It was a perfect Okhrana coup: the reactionaries kill the moderate and frame the radicals.

Yes, the Okhrana even infiltrated the Bolsheviks. One of their double agents was a young Georgian who called himself Stalin. We can surmise that Stalin only gave up the names of the people he didn’t like. Of course, that could have been enough to crowd Siberia.

Oprichniki, Okrana, Cheka, KGB…These are the happy memories that Vladimir Putin is enjoying today. And who says that you can’t bring back the good old days?

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    Eugene — Very well done. You’ve performed a public service by reminding us just how bad Lenin was. Years ago, I heard Robert Conquest (author of “The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purges of the 1930s”) give a talk in which he made it quite clear that Lenin was as much of a mass murderer as Stalin. He said something I will never forget: “Rosa Luxemburg railed against what she called Lenin’s ‘Tartar-Mongolian barbarism.’ And this was in 1905, before he’d had a chance to kill anybody.”

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