The Bolsheviks established their own secret police force, the Cheka, to eliminate political opponents. And to the Cheka, your status as a political threat wasn’t about what you had done or thought, it was about who you were. Martin Latsis, chief of the Cheka in Ukraine gave this advice to Cheka leaders: “Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence… Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused.”
Often, the fate that met the accused was simply a bullet in the base of the skull, administered in a dank basement prison with the blood of the previously condemned pooling on the floor. There’s no way to say for certain how many people died at the hands of the Cheka. But modern estimates for the number of people who were murdered during the Civil War usually range between 100-200,000. And of course, the Cheka weren’t the only people carrying out these killings, nor were all the killings ordered from the top Soviet leaders themselves. Instead, the average Soviet soldier understood that the party wanted its enemies murdered, and many were happy to do it.
And many took special delight in attacking the Russian Orthodox Church. The campaign against religion during the Civil war wasn’t entirely about keeping to Marx’s ideology. There was a long-standing hatred among many communist-leaning Russians for the Church. The Orthodox church was a key part in the traditional structure of Russian society. And the Church often supported the anti-communist White movement. The average Soviet soldier considered this reason enough to consider the church their enemy. Then, of course, there was the element of greed.
Churches have always been places where wealth tends to accumulate in the form of gold or silver religious ornaments. This has made them a target for pillaging since the Viking days. So, when Soviet soldiers entered a village that was held by their enemies, one of the first things they did was loot the local church. And confiscation of church property was actually the official Soviet policy from the earliest days of the revolution. Lenin himself was officially tolerant of Christianity. He publically stated that eventually, people would simply abandon the church on their own as communism took hold in the country. But he did have a few plans to help the process along.
The communist party declared that all church property now belonged to the state and ordered the troops to start confiscating it. But the religious people of Russia often surrounded the churches, trying to protect them from looting. In many cases, Soviet troops opened fire into the crowds indiscriminately. In response to the looting and the massacres, the leaders of the Russian church officially excommunicated the Soviet leaders. Lenin, meanwhile, responded by arresting and executing dozens of bishops and church leaders. And soon, the escalating violence would spin into an ever-growing cycle of brutality and bloodshed.