The Okhrana – Cheka Continuity

Of all of the historical oddities, one of the more fascinating is the similarity of the Tsarist ‘Okhrana’ secret police, to the early Bolshevik ‘Cheka’. This is odd both because the government of the early Soviet Union – with Lenin in particular disdaining the Okhrana, and; by the nature of the two opposing ideologies, one would not expect them to take such direct inspiration, nor for there to be a continuity of methods or personnel inspired by Tsarist loyalty. Where did this continuity come from therefore? Being that the Okhrana methods are far from the only viable ones – as shown by the divergent development of British, French, American, and German intelligence services. There is one major difference however – that the actions, and in particular the terror inflicted by the Okhrana in totality, were less significant as a part of the state than the Cheka and their ‘Red Terror’.

To take the earlier question then: there are two ways in which an organisation can maintain and continue an organisational memory – and thus the practices and norms which we seem to see carried over between the Okhrana and the Cheka. These would be through personal transmission, or through emulation. Under normal circumstances; personal transmission is preferred, as it allows a much greater scope of information to be conveyed, not least through the correction of misunderstandings, and the ensuring of a total rather than partial understanding. The lack of this personal connection is often enough to kill an organisational memory outright, if the tradition is held in sufficient regard to disallow new interpretations of the foundations, (perhaps even unwritten foundations,) thus meaning that the available scope of action will be limited to reactions according to a pre-set ‘script’. There is the other possibility however, for the interpretations to be used as the basis of a new organisational memory atop the base of the previous one. Thereby creating a new tradition inspired by the old. This is the mould, it seems, that shaped the early Cheka.

Even with this being the case, there is the matter of how this reformulation was generated. In other words; which basis was set, and informed by what?
The options are as follows:
The formerly dissident leaders projected their own perceptions of the organisation onto the new organisation.
The response to a threat to the regime remained the same, but the perceived number of threats to the regime increased.
The propensities of individuals involved in the organisation changed, such that more severe reprisals was considered desirable or acceptable for external reasons.
These will be discussed in turn, however there is much more to discuss in regards to the first point, so that will take centre stage.

The Cheka inherited much of the paperwork and written material – both internal and external – of the Okhrana but not so many of the staff due to major ideological differences. It is worth noting that some stayed on, but only those whose position within the organisation was either invaluable (as was the case with Ivan Zybin, head of cryptanalysis under both the Tsar and Lenin), or purely administrative. The similarity of decisions on tactics and strategy therefore, are derived more from the continuity of training manuals, some of which continued to be used from the Okhrana, through the Cheka, and into its successor organisations into the 1990s. This is not the only element however, as those materials could only form the basis of the new organisation, which would have to be augmented by the people inhabiting the new positions of power – thus putting their own stamp on the pseudo-new organisation. It is at this point that more fuzzy elements like perception can begin to play a part – because the reputation of the Okhrana in particular, was always much more substantial than its actual capabilities.

There are however, a select group of people who would know with significant clarity what the harshest edge of the Okhrana, and by extension the Tsarist state could be: the revolutionary dissidents, with the Bolsheviks among them. In this context then, those later tasked with remaking the intelligence apparatus, without the use of the staff who determined how existing capabilities were to be used; had a skewed perspective on what the appropriate methods of dealing with perceived dissidents were to be. Being that many of them had experienced siberian internal exile, they would be less hesitant about using it – albeit under worse conditions than the comparable laxity of Tsarist internal exile.

If this were to be extrapolated as a rule into other areas, then we would expect to see organisations founded under similar pretenses of emulation of perceptions rather than substance. An imperfect example of this can be found in the ancient Kardaka – the Acheimenid Persian copy of the Greek Hoplites. Their unimpressive record is perhaps testament to the misunderstanding of what lent the Hoplites their effectiveness – be that equipment (which seems not to have been copied fully, with helmets and body armour being potentially foregone), or the training, morale, and cultural elements which made much of the difference when Hoplites were fighting other Hoplites. The weaponry, shield, and method of fighting seem to have been copied, which would form much of the impression of the effectiveness of the Hoplites when witnessed on the battlefield on the opposing side – but not the training which took place beforehand, nor the cultural impetus that strengthened their morale. Another imperfect example might be the creation of the South Sea Company, which took on many of the exterior characteristics of the East Indian Company founded earlier, but lacked the fundamental basis which lent the latter strength as a profitable and relatively stable company, which created the famous bubble. This example is imperfect because there is good reason to believe that the purpose of the company was not to be a trading company, but instead a financial entity, wearing the clothes of a trading company to lend it an undue reputation. There may well be more appropriate examples which I am unaware of, so I would encourage you, the reader, to give them if you know of any, as most such emulations occur through a personnel transfer – not simply copying a reputation or impression.

There is not much to say in the case of the second point: the Bolshevik movement was quite small prior to its successful coup of the Provisional Government, and faced a great deal of opposition from every sector of the political spectrum. This is in contrast to the Tsar, who could rely on the united support of the political right, and often that of the liberal near-left for almost all of his reign (though notably it is when this support evaporated that he acquiesced to the demands being made of him, both in 1905 and 1917). Ergo the amount of dissidents posing a threat to the regime was much greater during the tenure of the Cheka, and so many more dissidents had to be treated with the same severity as the most hardened revolutionaries under the tenure of the Okhrana. This does not fully explain the phenomenon however, as the Cheka either had a much lower threshold for execution than the Okhrana, or were more liberal with the actual application of it. The Chekist Gleb Bokii claimed 800 executions in Petrograd alone during the official six week ‘Red Terror’, with the casualty total being somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 according to lists in official outlets. whereas in the period 1876 to 1912 under Tsarist rule, 3,767 were executed under military juridictions, (though some were for crimes unrelated to political activity) and 12 under civilian codes (all of which were for attempted assassination of the Tsar – one of which being Lenin’s brother). There is clearly a fairly significant discrepancy here, and when we take a look at the later history of the Cheka beyond its immediate succession from the Okhrana, and on to the Cheka’s own successors, it only gets more bloody until de-stalinisation (though not much less repressive).

This leads into the other possibility then; that the people tasked with filling the decision-making roles in the Okhrana were more personally moral than those who later replaced them in the Cheka. This is not something that strongly comes through however, based on the sources I have seen. The head of the Cheka for the period we are concerned with: Dzerzhinsky appears ideologically committed and capable of killing personally, but not sadistic or vicious in the way that his successors such as Yezhov, and Beria were. Meanwhile, although the Okhrana did not have a separate head, instead functioning under the portfolio of the Minister of the Interior, local commanders seem to have had some amount of autonomy. Figures such as Zubatov seem to have been personable enough to win over leftists during interrogations, and hold a genuine regard for the welfare of the poor. Meanwhile at the top level, people like Von Plehve were willing to turn a blind eye to things like anti-jewish violence as a means of achieving policy objectives – particularly Russification.

While the caveat must again be made that I am limited by the information I have to hand; it seems we are left with a question mark as to why this continuity seems to exist. It could be that the Cheka was formed based on the impressions of those who had suffered under the Okhrana. It could be that the methods used are the optimal or most logical for running a Russian secret police organisation, or simply that they lacked the time to develop new methods, and so used the ones that they had access to through the documentation and manuals that were available. The ideologies themselves may have something to do with the difference in severity however, as the overt rejection of religion, and thus consequences in the afterlife present in Bolshevism, compared to the state Orthadox Christianity of the Tsarist regime. This does seem to have, at the micro level created some differences in conduct, comparing people like Zubatov or Gapon to Dzerzhinsky, and observing their different versions of how best to help the working man. The former two dealt in empathy and practical measures, while the latter dealt with abstractions of the working man and a revolutionary class war, and thus all of the spilled blood deemed necessary.


RAWSON, D. (1984). THE DEATH PENALTY IN LATE TSARIST RUSSIA: AN INVESTIGATION OF JUDICIAL PROCEDURES. Russian History, 11(1), 29-52. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/24652643

Ward, A. (2014) “The Okhrana and the Cheka: Continuity and Change” College of Arts and Sciences of Ohio University https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=ohiou1398772391 Accessed July 24, 2020.

Sources on the Red Terror:


Sources on Individuals:

Tidmarsh, Kyril. “The Zubatov Idea.” American Slavic and East European Review, vol. 19, no. 3, 1960, pp. 335–346. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3001003. Accessed 23 July 2020.