Skip to main content

What’s the Context? 20 December 1917: formation of the Cheka, the first Soviet security and intelligence agency

‘The Soviets would not last two days without the activities of the Cheka, but with the Cheka, the Soviet State was safe’: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Defending the Revolution

Old KGB (Russian Intelligence Agency) emblem, it looks like a shield decorated in gold
KGB symbol source:

Before the October Revolution in 1917 that put the Bolsheviks in power in Russia, their long-exiled leader, Lenin, had insisted publicly that in a proletarian dictatorship there would be no need for a police force, let alone a security service. In fact, he had already concluded that a coercive organisation would be needed to ensure the success of the revolution and neutralise political opposition. The Cheka, established on 20 December 1917, was in many ways a reincarnation of the Tsarist security service, the Okhrana, making use of its methods and in some cases its personnel, as well. The Cheka’s first head, the Pole Feliks Dzerzhinsky, had spent years in Tsarist prisons or exile, and had learned his tradecraft from the Okhrana.

The name ‘Cheka’ was a contraction of Chrezvychayneyye komissii–emergency committees–itself a shorter form of the ‘All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Sabotage and Speculation’. The Cheka later evolved into what eventually became the KGB; many KGB officers called themselves Chekisty and received their salaries on the 20th of the month in honour of the Cheka’s ‘birthday’. Even today, the term remains in use as shorthand for Russian security and intelligence officers. The Cheka’s symbols were the shield and sword, the first to defend the revolution and the sword to smite its enemies.

Spreading the Revolution

Initially focussed on internal opposition, the Cheka began very soon to send agents abroad to gather intelligence and promote revolution by covert means, drawing on the long experience of clandestine illegal action by the Bolsheviks in exile. Though the overthrow of capitalism globally was an avowed aim of the Bolsheviks, they also found it useful domestically to spread the idea that there was an orchestrated Western capitalist conspiracy to overthrow the Soviet regime. Uncovering plots, real or imaginary (often instigated by Chekists) enabled the Bolshevik leaders to claim victory over counter-revolutionary enemies, and to spread rumours justifying repressive measures: an early use of fake news, and recognition that the appearance of security was as important as its reality.

British intelligence versus the Bolsheviks

The British intelligence establishment, though focussed primarily on the war with Germany, viewed the Bolshevik takeover and the formation of the Cheka with some concern. Both MI5, the domestic intelligence organisation (Security Service), and its overseas counterpart MI1c (later Secret Intelligence Service, MI6) had expanded enormously during the First World War, although both struggled with attempts by the War Office and Directorate of Military Intelligence to control their activities and by 1917 had been forced to reorganise. For MI5, the Bolshevik takeover increased the risk of subversion in Britain, as well as posing a global threat throughout the Empire (MI5 worked closely with Indian Political Intelligence, set up jointly with the Indian Government to detect seditious and subversive activities overseas).

MI1c was involved in counter-intelligence and counter-espionage activities against the Bolsheviks within Russia, in bordering territories and further afield. Much of its reporting from Russia, from officers like the novelist Somerset Maugham and the future Cabinet minister Sir Samuel Hoare, was shared with the United States through Sir William Wiseman, the British baronet and MI1c officer who established a remarkable liaison channel with the White House. There was no coordinated American intelligence effort at this time, and British intelligence exercised considerable influence on the US administration, particularly President Woodrow Wilson who rejected attempts by his own military advisers to strengthen American intelligence capability.

A major success story in the First World War was in the field of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), where starting from virtually nothing in 1914, Britain had built up a considerable capability at the War Office, on the Western Front, in the Middle East and most notably in the Admiralty where by the end of 1917 almost complete mastery of German naval cryptographic methods had been established. It was through the activities of Room 40 and Admiral ‘Blinker’ Hall that the intercepted Zimmerman telegram announcing Germany’s intention of resuming unrestricted submarine warfare was brought to the attention of the Americans, leading to their entry into the war in April 1917. Both War Office and Admiralty SIGINT sections already had some success against Russian ciphers, but their anti-Bolshevik capabilities were to expand greatly at the end of the war when they combined to form the Government Code and Cypher School, precursor of GCHQ.

The First World War context

The Bolshevik takeover, leading to the armistice between Russia and Germany on 16 December 1917 (four days before the Cheka was formed), came at a time when Allied prospects in the First World War seemed grim. Few American troops had yet landed in Europe, there had been huge losses during the horrific battle of Passchendaele, Haig’s attack on Cambrai had been pushed back, and Russia’s collapse meant that Turkey, no longer pressed on its Caucasian borders, was free to expand eastwards towards India, with German support. By the end of 1917 Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, had taken over the strategic conduct of the war, with a shake-up of the military leadership and an Allied Supreme War Council formed in cooperation with French premier Georges Clemenceau.

There were some hopeful developments. On 11 December the British army entered Jerusalem after Allenby pushed the Turks out of Gaza (thereby making it possible to implement Balfour’s promise to establish a National Home for the Jewish People in Palestine); victory in the submarine war meant that much-needed American supplies could cross the Atlantic safely; and within Germany itself there was serious internal unrest and disputes between the political and military leadership about war aims. The stage was set for a major ‘push’ by both sides on the Western front, ultimately leading to Allied victory in November 1918. That victory was to be followed by a Russian Civil War and abortive attempts by the Western allies to support those seeking the overthrow of the Bolshevik regime. But the Bolsheviks, and the Cheka, survived; and Western governments, together with their intelligence agencies, had to find a way to deal with them and counter their subversive activities.


Further reading

Vasily Mitrokhin, ‘Chekisms’: A KGB Anthology (The Urasov Press, 2008)

Christopher Andrew and Vasily Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West (London: Penguin, 1999)

Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence from Washington to Bush (London: HarperCollins, 1995)

Keep tabs on the past. Sign up for our email alerts.

Sharing and comments

Share this page

1 comment

  1. Comment by Jonathan posted on

    Whilst Felix Dzerzhinsky's family were Polish-Lithuanian aristocrats, Dzerzhinsky was born in what was then the Russian Empire, now Belarus. One of the last remaining statues of Dzerzhinsky can be found in a small park in Minsk, directly opposite the current Belarusian KGB Headquarters. I would suggest that referring to Dzerzhinsky simply as a Pole, is to simplistic and masks his complex heritage and identity.