There is tragically nothing new about the scenes of indiscriminate terror unfolding in Ukraine: bombing and shelling unleashed by Putin’s forces in the streets of Kharkiv and Mariupol against civilians today is a familiar tale – almost a reflex action – of what Russia does whenever it is faced with opposition or the defiance of a smaller nation. We have been here before. In fact anyone born in 1952, the year of Vladimir Putin’s birth, has been here many times: East Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968, Kabul in 1979, Grozny in 1999 and Aleppo in 2016.
Lashing out in insensate rage and violence and sending in the tanks is not only Moscow’s default position against external enemies, however: systematic state terror is built into the very foundations of Putin’s regime, and used just as ruthlessly against those he perceives as his internal foes. Russia’s dictator inherited his taste for terror from the cradle. He is literally a child of the regime that consciously forged terror as a weapon from its birth right down to today.
Putin’s paternal grandfather, Spiridon Putin, was a cook who served meals to Russia’s previous genocidal dictators, Lenin and Stalin; his father, Vladimir senior, briefly served in the NKVD – Stalin’s feared secret police – in World War Two. Russia’s vast and far reaching security apparatus in the changing alphabet soup of its successive incarnations – Cheka, GPU, OGPU, NKVD, KGB, and today’s FSB – was created within six weeks of the original Bolshevik takeover in December 1917. It has been the steely core of Russia’s ruling elite ever since.
The founding father of the terror state – the first in modern times since Robespierre’s brief Reign of Terror during the French Revolution to deliberately construct a system of state repression and killing of its own people – was Felix Dzerzhinsky. A gaunt and austere Pole of aristocratic ancestry, Dzerzhinsky had been hardened and embittered by years of imprisonment for his revolutionary activities.
After creating the Cheka in 1917, foregoing all normal pleasures – he despised art, family, food and music – Dzerzhinsky would live in his unheated office at the Lubyanka, the former insurance company HQ in Moscow that he converted into a multi purpose house of fear: a combined jail, interrogation centre, torture chamber, and execution site with sloping floors in the basement cells to drain away the blood. Sipping mint tea and munching bread rolls, sleeping wrapped in his greatcoat, ‘Iron Felix’ set about building his new organisation into a formidable machine to combat the new Bolshevik government’s many enemies, real and imagined.
Like the later SS in Hitler’s Germany, Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka – the name is an acronym for ‘Extraordinary Commission’ – was the secret state within the rapidly evolving totalitarian state that Russia became under Bolshevik rule. They were the gangster elite of the new regime, the hardest of the hard and the purest of the pure. These ‘Chekisty’ took pride in their barbarous cruelty. They arrested, interrogated, tortured and shot ‘enemies of the people’; ran the far flung system of labour camps – some within the Arctic Circle – known as the Gulag; and policed the thoughts, words and actions of ordinary Russians. They ensured that people adhered to the narrow party line dictated by the small group of men in the Kremlin. Russia itself became a vast prison with its people living in constant fear of arrest, deportation or death.
Having dealt with its real internal enemies, the Bolshevik revolution began like Saturn to devour its own children. Following the death of Lenin in 1924 and the passing of ‘Iron Felix’ in 1926, Russia was ruled by a troika of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. After exiling his principle rival Trotsky, Stalin used Dzerzhinsky’s successor Genrikh Yagoda, to purge and execute his two rivals, before disposing of Yagoda himself.
Terror then entered its most murderous phase in the late 1930s. Run by a tiny bureaucrat named Nikolai Yezhov who stood less than five feet tall and was nicknamed the ‘poison dwarf’, the Chekisty, now known as the NKVD, purged whole sectors of Soviet society: the party apparatus, its industrial managers, the Generals running the Red Army, and finally the NKVD and the party leadership itself. Millions died, millions more suffered in the frantic hunt for imaginary spies, saboteurs and wreckers. Yezhov admitted that most of the victims were innocent of the trumped up charges brought against them, justifying the insane process with the argument that it was better for ten innocents to die rather than let one guilty ‘spy’ escape. He added cynically: ‘When you chop wood, chips fly’.
Inevitably, Yezhov himself became one of the ‘chips’. Removed from the NKVD by Stalin and made boss of the country’s canals, he awaited his fate – arrest, torture, trial and execution – knowing what was to come. He spent his final weeks of freedom indulging in drunken sexual orgies. He was succeeded by Lavrenti Beria, like Stalin a Georgian, and as murderous a sadist as both his predecessor and his boss. Beria would abduct young women from the streets of Moscow, rape them, and if they protested, have them murdered and buried in the garden of his Moscow home, now the Tunisian embassy.
Beria’s main ‘achievement’ as head of the security and espionage apparatus from 1938 was the acquisition of the West’s atomic bomb secrets after World War Two. This was carried out courtesy of the Cambridge spies: Philby, Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and co. and Communist scientists like Klaus Fuchs and Alan Nunn May. The threat of nuclear blackmail that Putin holds over the West today originated in the betrayals of such ‘useful idiots’, to use Lenin’s contemptuous phrase.
During the war, Beria relied on the political commissars he inserted into the Red Army alongside the Generals to ensure continued Communist control. Adolf Hitler – an admirer of Stalin’s methods – was well aware that the secret police state held the levers of power in Russia and gave orders ahead of his 1941 invasion that the commissars, when captured, should be immediately shot.
Beria was also responsible for the massacre of more than 10,000 Polish officers and officials in 1939 in the Katyn forest after Russia had invaded and divvied up Poland with their Nazi German allies. His chief executioner at Katyn was a ‘Chekisty’ charmer named Vasily Blokhin. ‘Credited’ with having personally killed more people across his long career than anyone else in human history, Blokhin would don a pair of long leather gauntlets and, with a selection of pistols, kill scores of victims every night by shooting them in the nape of the neck. After Katyn he complained of suffering from a sore trigger finger. He fell with his masters after Stalin’s death and Beria’s own execution in 1953, and died – possibly by suicide – two years later aged 60, a hopeless, insane alcoholic.
The total death toll within the Soviet Union exacted by the Chekisty under Lenin and Stalin is a matter of debate, obscured by the mega deaths of the Second World War. It was undoubtedly in the tens of millions and was piquantly encapsulated in a Limerick written by the British historian Robert Conquest, whose book ‘The Great Terror’ was one of the first to document the human cost of Soviet rule:
‘There was an old Marxist called Lenin
Did two or three million men in,
That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in,
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in’.
After the Bolshevik consolidation of power in the mid-1920s, the Chekisty, like a metastasising tumour, sprouted branches abroad with the mission of spreading Communism, and undermining the capitalist world. Via the Comintern – the Communist International – they recruited sympathisers and spies around the globe, and their long arm stretched out to commit more crimes from the kidnap and killing of dissidents, such as the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, down to the poisoning of exiles in Britain, like Bulgaria’s Georgi Markov; Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei and Yulia Skripal are more recent targets of the reach of the Russian state. Their lethal weapons were ricin, polonium and novichok, developed by a special poisons department of the KGB.
Despite a measured thaw and liberalisation under Khrushchev after the death of Stalin, with the release of thousands from the Gulag, the secret apparat of the Chekisty remained at the heart of the Soviet state. In 1963, one of them, the disillusioned Colonel Oleg Penkovsky who had betrayed Soviet secrets to the West, was caught, tried and executed. The method of his death is unknown, but rumour has it that he was chained to a gurney and slowly fed into a furnace. His suffering is said to have been filmed, and the footage shown to KGB recruits to warn them of the consequences of treachery to mother Russia.
Yuri Andropov, the KGB boss who presided over the bloody repression of the Hungarian people’s uprising in 1956, became one of the final geriatric leaders of the Soviet Union before the reforming Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the mid 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – called by Putin the worst disaster of the 20th century – made no difference to the control by the Chekisty who morphed into the FSB, and stayed in place at the Lubyanka despite the felling of Dzerzhinsky’s statue outside the building. The oligarchs who profited from the collapse of Communism only made their billions by permission of Putin and his Chekisty pals. Above all, the Chekisty value continuity, and FSB officers are reported to be sleeping in their offices at the Lubyanka during the current crisis just like ‘Iron Felix’ did a century ago.
This, then, is the culture of cruelty, crudity and crime that Vladimir Putin signed up to when he joined the KGB in 1975. He is a Chekisty to the very marrow of his bones, schooled in the methods of deception, repression and, in the final analysis, brute force and murder, that has characterised the organisation from its foundation. That is why the tight inner circle around him are almost all fellow Chekisty. That is why he has consistently outsmarted the feeble ‘civilised’ western politicians who have dealt with, and signally failed, to tame him during his years in power.
We should not be remotely surprised by the horrific scenes of death and destruction unfolding on our TV screens night after night as human values are ruthlessly crushed, hospitals and nuclear power plants shelled, and mothers and babies buried by Russian bombs under Putin’s commands. This is what they do. This is what he is.