IT IS a curious but indisputable fact that Jacob Peters, known to the world as "Peters, the Terrorist," has never been head of the Russian Extraordinary Commission. Since its inception, Fedore Dzerzhinsky has had charge of that sombre institution, which in the revolutionary vernacular is known as the "Cheka," a word derived from the initial letters of "extraordinary" and "commission."
Dzerzhinsky is a Pole, forty-four years of age, with an unusually classical background for a Chief Executioner. He ranks high even among the intelligentsia. After finishing his literary studies in a Russian university, he took post-graduate courses in Vienna, Berlin and Zurich.
He has a temperament much like Tchicherin; shy, aloof and deeply puritanical. One feels he can neither understand nor forgive moral weaknesses in others, since he himself possesses that fanatical devotion which has made it possible for him to travel the hard, bitter road where his ideals lead. He asks nothing of life but to serve the cause of Socialism. Ease, wealth and happiness he puts behind him as he would Satan. Such a man can sign away life with an unruffled firmness that would break one of a warmer temperament. He needs only to be convinced that his course is righteous; nothing else matters. The individual is not considered, in that "Nirvana" which is his ultimate goal.
Dzerzhinsky adores Lenin and serves him with the abject faithfulness of a slave; in his eyes Lenin can do no wrong. In the first days of the terror, he brought his doubts before Lenin, doubts which had only to do with the effect of such measures on the national and international political situation and not with his own soul. Lenin, when all is said, is the only man who cannot afford to be swayed by doubts. His responsibilities are those of a field marshal during a battle; he has no right to indecision. He reserves only the right to change his tactics - which is quite another matter.
The terror was established in a moment when the revolution was almost lost. The liberal government had fallen, the moderate Socialist government had fallen. If the Bolsheviks fell, only chaos or a return to the monarchy was possible. So it was that when Dzerzhinsky came to the Kremlin and stood hesitating like a school-boy before his master, it was often Lenin who for the moment became the high lord of life and death.
I can see that scene in my mind's eye. In his hand Dzerzhinsky would have a list of prisoners and the evidence hastily gathered. Lenin would look at Dzerzhinsky's list, asking sharp, short questions in his shrewd way. Most of the names of the counter-revolutionary conspirators were familiar to him. He could quickly piece together the scanty evidence of the secret trials. In his mind thoughts like these must have traveled: "Ah, yes, there is X-- caught plotting with Y-- which, of course, entirely accounts for the rising at B--" Suddenly he would turn to Dzerzhinsky and say without excitement and without raising his voice: "It would be better to shoot these two, hold ,these five and release the rest."
In justice to Lenin it must be recorded that he was always against capital punishment for his political rivals, or even for those who plotted to assassinate him; he believed in the death penalty only for those who attempted forcibly to overthrow the government. His dictatorship of the Cheka, like his dictatorship of other government departments, ceased with the first semblance of order. At the same time, I do not believe for a moment that the Cheka ever got beyond his control. Recently, when he saw it growing into a power which interfered with the natural development of the country, he began at once to weaken it. Dzerzhinsky will no doubt assist him in such an undertaking with the same zeal which he brought to its creation.
A good deal of political manoeuvering has always been necessary in. order to appease popular opinion about the Cheka. When time has cooled our emotions for and against the Communist idea, we will realize that Jacob Peters and Fedore Dzerzhinsky were just as much victims of the revolution as were those counter-revolutionaries who came under their stern jurisdiction.
Peters was sent away from Moscow in 1919 because he had become, however unjustly, a symbol of terror in the public mind and life was beginning to settle down again into more normal ways. As a matter of fact, Peters but countersigned orders already bearing the signature of Dzerzhinsky. It was his duty to see that, the prisoners were quickly and humanely disposed of. He performed this grim task with a dispatch and an efficiency for which even the condemned must have been grateful, in that nothing is more horrible than an executioner whose hand trembles and whose heart wavers.
Pursuing the same devices, a few weeks back when Lenin forced the Cheka to be made subservient to the Department of Interior and Communications, the public looked upon this step as a real compromise and a definite move toward the abolition of the secret police. Trials again became public with employers and other unbelievers in Socialism openly represented .by lawyers, who had long ceased to regard their profession as anything but a dead asset. Lenin never dismisses men he can trust, so while Dzerzhinsky ceased to be head of the once all-powerful Extraordinary Commission, he was elected in the same moment Commissar of the Interior and Communications, although temporarily he was sent to Siberia to expedite grain shipments for the famine areas. Thus the history of the Cheka repeats itself.
In the first moments of elation following the March revolution when prison doors were thrown open all over Russia and prison records publicly burned it seemed as if the day of the secret police was forever passed. In those joyous days it was almost impossible to keep one's perspective, or to feel a premonition of the rising storm of world opposition to the development of the revolution. When Kerensky abolished the death penalty in the army, he sacrificed his last shred of control to the dictates of his heart. At that time even the Communists did not believe in capital punishment. Once Trotsky, in an impassioned speech at Smolny, during the November days, made mention of a guillotine. His remarks let loose the most violent opposition. For weeks this issue was discussed everywhere; in the press, at public gatherings, even in street cars and on railway trains. He was vigorously denounced for holding such opinions. And he had merely said that this was something to be considered in a national crisis. By the summer of 1918 the Soviet government found itself surrounded by an iron ring of death. Also, there was graft and intrigue and dishonor in the Communist ranks. It was, Peters himself, torn, between the right and wrong of re-establishing capital punishment, who said to me in January, 1918, "If we ever have to kill, it must begin in our own ranks." His face was white and stern; he appeared on the verge of collapse.
"Will it ever really come to that?" I asked.
He passed his hand across his eyes with the weary gesture of a man who has not slept well for many nights. Before him on his desk, was a pile of paper. He pointed to them and said, "If you could know what evidence I have here, you would see how necessary it is if the revolution is to continue, for the Communists to purify their own ranks"
It is a matter of record that the first persons put to death were opportunists who pretended to believe in Communism and had accepted bribes or otherwise had betrayed their own party.
The momentum of the revolution rapidly increased after the signing of the first death warrant. It was not long before the despised secret police once more made their appearance. They were back again protecting now a revolutionary government as energetically as they once protected the Tsar!
It is impossible to say how many of the old police force actually served under the Soviets. I found, on personal investigation, that many of the stories were largely myths. The most typical legend was the one concerning Lapochine, once head of the Okrana and exiled by the Tsar for telling a Social Revolutionist that Azef was a spy. The rumor that he now holds an important post in the Cheka is not true. His daughter was one of my intimate friends in Moscow and I went very often to her home. Her father was holding two small clerkships which took all his time, in order to get double rations to support himself and his invalid wife. Lapochine was never connected with the secret police after his exile, although he was brought back to Russia after six years in Siberia and publicly forgiven by the Tsar. He was governor of Esthonia at the outbreak of the revolution. However, to the ordinary individual, all this makes little difference. A detective is simply a detective, working in dark ways, someone to be feared and someone to be despised. And as for the Lapochines, the last time I heard of them they were trying to borrow money in America to start a sausage factory near Moscow.
All the important posts in the Cheka have been and still are largely held by Letts or Poles with unimpeachable revolutionary records. The rank and file are Russians. There are scarcely any Jews. The reason why the Russians hold minor positions is not exactly clear but the general calculation is that they are more susceptible to bribery and more easily influenced. Certainly, the Cheka has played an important role in the revolution; it is no exaggeration to state that without the vigilance of the Extraordinary Commission, the Soviets would never have maintained themselves through numerous critical moments. It was Peters and other Lettish secret agents who discovered such counter-revolutionary plots as the Lockwood plan to blow up bridges and cut off Petrograd and the government from all communications. And as military intervention developed, the Communists were forced to consider Russia in a state of siege and the Cheka their most necessary means of self-protection.
In a speech before a session of the Extraordinary Delegation, Trotsky made this statement: "The monopoly of using force and reprisals in any normally functioning state, regardless of its external form, is an attribute of the government. Every state organization is in this way fighting for its existence. It is sufficient to picture to one's self the society of the present day, this complicated and contradictory cooperation in such a tremendous country as Russia, for example, in order at once to understand that in the present condition of affairs, torn by every social contradiction, reprisals are absolutely inevitable.
It is absurd to consider the Extraordinary Commission in any but an objective way. The little border states of Finland, Lithuania, Roumania, and even Poland, have just as elaborately developed Chekas, searching just as diligently for Bolshevik plotters as Russia does for anti-Bolshevik plotters. Finland, for example, has a much more cruel revolutionary record. The division of the Red and White forces there was more equal; therefore, the struggle was intensified and the terror magnified accordingly. Only, in this case, it was White Terror instead of Red.
Even we ourselves have a Cheka, but we call it a Department of Justice, and we have a thousand little independent Chekas known as private detective agencies And now that America is in a happier state of mind we like to forget how our "intelligence" departments grew into formidable institutions during the short period of our participation in the war. Very soon after the declaration of war we began to suspect one another on a wholesale scale, all sorts of innocent persons were "trailed" and otherwise humiliated. If we remember those days, we can better understand what happens when the very life of a nation is at stake. Ours never has been. No one claims that the state electrician who pushes the button for the electric chair at Sing Sing is a criminal, or that his private life need necessarily be immoral. Yet the Sing Sing executioner is paid something like three hundred dollars for each life taken and one might almost imagine him having more than a routine interest in a good crop of homicides. If Peters and Dzerzhinsky were dismissed from office tomorrow they would have nothing but the clothes on their backs and broken health with which to begin new careers. I give this example for the sake of comparison or contemplation, not as a justification for either the American or the Russian official conscience.
The temptations of St. Anthony pale beside those of Peters and Dzerzhinsky. They have been flattered and offered every sort of bribe. I know of a single instance where Peters was offered what amounted to a cool million dollars. He did net refuse it, however, until he had all his tempters enmeshed beyond retreat.
The most romantic revolutionary story I know is the one Peters told me himself about his return to Russia, bound up as it was with Sir Roger Casement's execution. Up until the day of that unhappy event he was immersed in the life of London and almost untouched by the struggle in Russia. He had a comfortable post in an export house, an English wife and a baby whom he adored. Quite naturally thoughts of revolution had grown vague and alien to his mind. So it was that, wrapped in British complacency on a gray morning he started happily to work and encountered unexpectedly a little company of Irish folk bound for the Tower of London. At first he must have looked at them as he would have regarded any other procession. But he noticed, to his surprise, how emotional they were. Tears ran down their faces of which they were unashamed. He remembered then that this was the day when Sir Roger Casement was to die. Something, he said, made him follow that crowd, although they were going in an opposite direction from his office. Can you imagine the punctilious Mr. Peters, so highly efficient, never a minute late, for a reason unexplainable to himself, following a little group of Irish mourners? Perhaps he had even grown English enough to be a little embarrassed at his impulsiveness.
He described how he stood when the others knelt down outside the prison and began to pray. He would never forget, he said, how he suddenly realized what a vast, irreconcilable temperamental barrier lay between the English - and the Irish people.
By the time the bugler announced the execution, Jacob Peters was another man. Something called conscience or national pride or revolutionary honor awoke in him and with it came a deep homesickness for mother Russia. He felt himself burning with shame. It was as if Sir Roger Casement were pointing a finger at him and saying, "See how I am able to die, you who once called yourself a revolutionist." Those devout people reminded him of the Russian peasants they had the potency of an old tune. We have all seen men weep over some dear, familiar melody.
Peters never went back to work. He walked the London streets all day, wandered among the docks, watched the great ships and thought about Russia. All the dreams of his youth returned. At night he went home and told his wife he was going to Petrograd.
It seems almost regrettable that Sir Roger Casement could not have known that in that multitude come to mourn his death, was a little London clerk who, by the power of association, was somehow transformed into one of the characters that now make Russian history.
Neither Peters nor Dzerzhinsky bear much resemblance to their revolutionary predecessor, Marat, the venomous public prosecutor of the French revolutionary days. Dzerzhinsky is far too reserved to be an orator and I doubt if he understands the meaning of revenge. He must have known all too well the horror of prison life ages before he became head of the prisons. He spent eleven years in a Warsaw prison, an experience which permanently wrecked his health.
Early in his confinement a spirit of religious fervor, manifested in self-sacrifice and humbleness, was evident. He wished to abase himself in the same way a priest does penance before God. He took upon himself the most repulsive tasks in the prison in order to save his fellow prisoners, such as washing floors and emptying refuse pails. His only reply when questioned was, "It is necessary that someone should perform the lowest tasks in order that the others may be relieved of them." And it was this man whose fate it was to perform the lowest and hardest tasks for the young republic.
The meek can be truly terrible in positions of authority, as can the virtuous, since ordinary souls feel no defense against them.
In appearance Dzerzhinsky is tall and noticeably delicate, with white slender hands, long straight nose, a pale countenance and the drooping eyelids of the over-bred and super-refined. I never knew anyone who was a close friend of Dzerzhinsky's; he has, perhaps, too secluded a nature to permit of warm and intimate companionship. He is as distinctly aristocratic as Peters is distinctly a man of the people.
Peters is short, snub-nosed and almost stocky in build, with bristling, short, brown hair. He has read a good deal but is by no means a litterateur. He is a workman risen above the mass, risen just high enough to be an excellent interpreter. He has played in these years since March, 1917, other important roles than that of executioner. As Governor of Turkestan he has shown that he can create as well as destroy.
When Peters returned from England he went almost immediately to the front and joined a Lettish regiment. Because of his superior knowledge or his fervor he soon became a figure of importance among the soldiers. He was the favorite spokesman at the soldier meetings, which at that time were of great importance, since the soldiers were deciding very largely for themselves whether or not they would remain in the trenches. Even Kerensky found it necessary to take fortnightly trips to the front to argue and plead with them.
To certain men who once served in Peters' regiment, was some months later entrusted the keeping of the Royal Family. Every man in that guard was a Lett. As in other instances, had they been Russians, they might have shown more leniency or outright sentimentalism in a crisis. The Letts were instructed never to allow their royal prisoners to be rescued alive and the Letts are soldiers who understand the iron rules of military discipline.
Lenin has long put great trust in Peters. When he was in hiding during the first two months of 1917, Peters was in charge of that seclusion. Lenin's famous "Letters to the Comrades," which were sent out and printed broadcast, and caused so much havoc with. the Provisional Government, were entrusted to Peters and his subordinates. Peters was very proud of this trust. Once he said to me when I was living on a little street just off Nevsky Prospect., "Lenin is not far from this house." Little did I comprehend what an important confidence that was!
Peters speaks English fluently. In 1917 he translated a life of Kerensky for me and over tea cups he told me many things about the revolution which I did not understand. I should never have believed, in those days, that this mild-mannered and almost inspired youth would soon have such sinister work to do.
The last time I met Peters he was living in Tashkent which is the capital of the Province of Turkestan. He had even more sweeping powers than an ordinary governor, since he was the most important revolutionary official in a community not yet settled down to normal life.
I also met the new Madame Peters. The English wife divorced him at the time of the terror. The second Madame Peters was a very pretty, redheaded Russian who had been a teacher and who still worked at her profession. They lived in a single room, shared a dining room with twenty others and were poorly dressed. When we discussed this point, Peters bitterly denounced several Soviet officials who, he said, were living soft." "A revolutionist cannot expect to force privations on other people if he is not willing to be an example of self-sacrifice," he declared.
He had become known almost as a conservative among the Left-Communists because he had refused to close the Mohammedan bazaars, saying these people were not ready for Communism. His public trials were attended by large crowds and proved of great educational value in a very unenlightened community.
I found him much older. He seemed to have lived thirty years in three. He never mentioned the terror, nor did his wife, and I could not bring myself to. Only once did he indirectly refer to it. The three of us were starting to a local Soviet meeting. He picked up a revolver from his table and, for a moment, stood regarding it. Then he turned to me and said, "Have you ever used one of these?" I said, "Of course, I know how, but I 've never had to." And then he exclaimed, "I wish to God I never had !" After all, what a story can be condensed into a single sentence!
The Cheka was really the beginning of law and order; it marked the beginning of the first government which showed real strength and purpose. There was no doubt something very definitely nationalistic about the growth of the Cheka in spite of the fact that it was established by Communists. It had all the hardness of purpose and the narrowness possessed by the maximum of patriotism. Any student of history will remember what Carlyle said of those terror-ridden days when the guillotine ruled France. "Tigress nationale ! Meddle not with a whisker of her ! Swift rending is her stroke; look what a paw she spreads - pity has not entered her heart." Such acts Carlyle claimed would some day be known as the "Crimes of the Revolution," when they should rightly be recorded as the birth pains of the republic. Very naturally, conduct of open and avowed suppression will always be hated and condemned by liberals the world over, and used as campaign ammunition by political opponents.
One of the highest officials of the Cheka said to me, "Most foreign correspondents write about the Extraordinary Commission as if we had no right on our side. Now I will give you two examples of the sort of problems continually confronting us, and if you would submit them to any American police official, he would tell you very promptly that the Cheka had no other course than the one which it pursued.
"First, there is the case of Marie Spirodonova. She is a woman with an honored revolutionary past. Naturally, we don't want to have her behind bars. But she was for years a terrorist, she killed the Governor of Tambov and she still believes that individual acts of terror are justified. As you know, the Communists were always against such a policy. We believe in mass action and not individual violence.
"Marie Spirodonova is a highly-strung,- sensitive person. She makes a splendid agitator but we have gotten to the point of reconstruction, of building, not tearing down. Russia was forced to sign the Brest-Litovsk treaty. You may agree with me that that was a bad thing to do or you may disagree with me, but as an American, understanding and believing in government, you will certainly agree that we had to protect the representatives of Germany after the peace was signed.
"When Mirbach came to Moscow, it was very bitter for any of us to receive him. But it is another matter to go to his house and kill him with a bomb. This was the plan of Marie Spirodonova. Now what could we do? Were we to allow her and her associates to kill any foreign representative who came here? How could we ever hope for relations with other nations if we could offer their representatives no protection? Then why are we criticized because we put Spirodonova in a sanatorium? And we allowed her to escape. I confess that we have kept a watch over her. The woman in whose house she stayed used to report to us. That was merely to prevent any repetition of the Mirbach affair.
"One thing I wish the world could understand, one thing that my experience in the Cheka has taught me, that a person capable of starting a revolution is not necessarily capable of finishing one or even carrying one on after it is started."
Another time the same official gave me his version of the Anarchist problem. "We had Bill Shatov as Chief of Police in Petrograd. He was formerly an Anarchist but had come over to work with us. He had quarreled with the Anarchists and he claimed that a lot of loafers and thieves had joined their organizations just to have an excuse not to do any work.
"Some time later there were a lot of robberies in Petrograd. One night Bill Shatov arrested every so-called Anarchist in town. He held them two weeks without trial. In those two weeks not a single robbery took place in Petrograd !
"When the trial came Up, Bill had a novel way of trying cases. He put each man through a sort of Anarchists catechism. All those who knew their litany he released - the others he held.
"Anarchists are the most difficult of ail groups during a revolution. They not only lack balance and refuse to cooperate but they are really dangerous. There is hardly a Soviet official whose life has not been threatened by Anarchists. Twice, you know, they nearly finished Lenin. "What does the outside world really expect us to do? We have to be especially vigilant now because these are harassing times. Later we will be no more formidable than your own police."
The Soviet Government has a passion for exhibits. The Labor Temple in Moscow almost all year round has about half its space devoted to educational displays. In a little room here I once saw a most curious and gruesome show. On the walls hung photographs of people executed for high treason, robbery and murder, with little cards attached giving the history of each case. In a corner were rifles of the type used in executing. There were also pictures of the victims of some of the criminals - pictures of Jews murdered in pogroms, for example, and of houses b1own up. Any person from the street was allowed to go there quite freely, without any special pass, and acquaint himself with the workings of the committee.
There is always something appalling when one comes face to face with such a display of law and order. It reminds me of a very eccentric Russian doctor of my acquaintance. This man had a habit of killing flies. If he saw one on a window pane or hovering about the table he would somehow manage, with great deftness, to capture it. Thereupon he would solemnly take out his pocket knife and behead the insect. Once I protested, saying that such a performance was disgusting. With great seriousness he admonished me. "So, you do not believe in killing. Well, nevertheless, we are all forced to kill. Flies annoy you, they poison your food, endanger your life and the lives of your children. In some desperate moment you strike out in a furious and chaotic manner. What is the result? Ugh, an ugly smash. Is there anything fine about that? You condemn me, but what do I do? I simply execute flies in a sanitary way - I am a true symbol of civilization."
Written: Between 1921 - 1923
Source: "Mirrors of Moscow", New York by Thomas Seltzer, 1923
First Published: 1923
Online Version: marxists.org 1999
Transcription/Markup: Alf Pangas