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The Cheka is well known as an insidious organization that was used during the Russian Revolution to oppress the various peoples of Russia. What many fail to realise, however, is that it was never created with such intent. In fact it all started in response to a simple game.
Humble BeginingsThe Cheka was founded in December of 1917, shortly after the Bolshevik party came to power. Curiously, one of the first decrees of the new regime concerned the simple game of droughts. In the years leading up to 1917 Lenin had become more and more frustrated with the ‘compulsory take’ rule in the game. And finally, after the failed coup in July, Lenin realised that just because it was incredibly obvious that something could and should be taken, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen. He felt that this rule made the game of droughts “fundamentally traitorous to the toiling masses” and declared the rule illegal, mandating that citizens of Russia were allowed to make any move they wanted, “so long as it was not one those bourgeois-capitalist scum would make”. Trotsky would later object to this, noting that during the civil war it was easy to make people take things, all one had to do was line up machine guns in the trench behind them. However, by this stage the Cheka would be too firmly established for his minor qualms to up root.
Now, as previously mentioned, most people think of the Cheka as a mass organization of terror, completely failing to realise that it was actually begun with a mere 23 members, who lacked the authority to do any more than remove a person’s playing board or ration card.* (Please go to foot note 1. I'd make it a link, but I don't know how. Feel free to remedy it!) As a matter of fact the leader of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, is famed for being able to contain all the files for the organisation’s first month of operation within a single brief case. He could actually store them within a folding checkers sets, but only if he removed the pieces, causing him to choose a briefcase instead.
ExpansionThe first major expansion of the Cheka Occurred in February of 1918. A truce had been formed between Germany and Russia to discuss the possibility of peace. At the time the Bolshevik government was split between those who wished to continue the war and those who sought an immediate peace. This left Trotsky, who was in charge of negotiations, in a lurch. So he pursued a course of what he called “neither peace nor war,” everyone else called it “stalling.” He strode around the negotiating table as if the Russians were on the winning side, and would agree to deals that he would then declare unacceptable. He spent his spare time preaching to the German soldiers, encouraging them to both throw off the yolk of oppression and take up ‘гигантские засухи’ (giant checkers). For a short time he proceeded well with both of these goals; protests were flaring up in the German streets, some of which were about the exploitation of the proletariat. Many more however, were about what size a checkers board had to be before it could be deemed ‘riesiges’ (giant). Unfortunately the Kaiser realised what was occurring and moved quickly to counter Trotsky. He built playing boards the likes of which no Russian could dream of, ensuring that no matter what conclusion was made over the size, they would easily fit the bill.
With the internal turmoil of Germany settled, the peace negotiations came to a head. Trotsky was told by the Germans that he was to sign this final draft of the treaty or resume hostilities. Things were looking bleak until Trotsky remembered the 1854 world checkers championship** (As with footnote 1!).He strode into the meeting room, taking the German high command by complete surprise, declared that the war was over and he was therefore not going to sign any peace treaty, and left as abruptly as he had entered. This tactic worked, the Germans did nothing for the two days. Nothing except prepare their army for a renewed war against Russia. It was when their army once again began to advance that Trotsky realised the giant mistake he had made.
In response to this crisis a new decree was enacted, it was called “The Fatherland is in Danger!” and called for the summary execution of all “enemy agents, profiteers, marauders, hooligans, counterrevolutionary agitators and German spies.” In addition, it also banned the playing of riesiges schach (giant chess) and made it compulsory to play two rounds of гигантские засухи (giant checkers) every week. Punishment for these offences was the removal of one’s chess pieces and summary execution respectively. Whilst the treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed mere days later, the Cheka now had a permanent place in Russian society and things would turn around until 1924 when it would be renamed the GPU and then the OGPU a year after that.
ChangesOver the coming years the Cheka would expand even further until, at its peak, it would number 260,000 people, having killed 280,000 and destroying a total of 340,000 checkers boards and nearly a million playing pieces. However, to move beyond the cities, several changes needed to be made. The most important was the campaign slogan of the party. Whilst the Bolshevik party was certainly that which was most associated with the proletariat, gaining strong majority votes in the cities during the election of the Constituent Assembly, it lacked support amongst the peasants (roughly 80% of the population). Out in the countryside it was the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) who held the greatest sway. Previous governments had had difficulties in communicating with the countryside. The vast majority of peasants were illiterate and they had the depressing tendency to tear up new decrees and use them to make cigarettes. Lenin overcame this trouble by providing many old calendars with new decrees, allowing the peasants to save the decrees for at least the couple of days it took to find someone literate. However, this would not prove to be the toughest of the problems the Bolsheviks would encounter. It appeared that at the time many of the peasants had not even discovered the ‘compulsory take’ rule. Lenin was incensed; and when asked why it was so important for the people of Russia to learn droughts, he merely replied that “A good Communist is a good Chekist at the same time.”
However, in response to this crisis the Bolsheviks were once again forced to change their campaign to gain the peasant vote. As in 1917, where the nationalisation of land had become the equal distribution of land; in 1920 the removal of the compulsory take became the removal of the ability to king (or Tsar). Instead, a ‘revolution’ was said to occur, and the piece was then removed from the board. Some argued that the name of the King (Tsar) could be changed, but Lenin had argued that Alexander III had been just as bad as Nicholas II, and anyone who said otherwise would have to answer to Dzerzhinsky. Debate on the subject soon ceased. The new rule went down better with the peasantry, or was at least better understood by the peasantry, and the slogan “Король мертв!” (The King is dead!), soon spread across the whole country.
The End of the Cheka
In March of 1921, the sailors of the Krondstadt Naval base, which Lenin had previously called “the reddest of the red,” mutinied against the one party regime the Bolsheviks had become. 5,000 sailors and 15,000 Bolshevik soldiers were killed before the rebellion was quashed. The people of Krondstadt despised the grain requisitions, workers control and ‘the revolution’ rule in checkers. Trouble had been brewing for quite some time, particularly since the end of the civil war. The general population of Russia had put up with (if not actually supported) the extremist measures set in place by the Bolsheviks during the war. However, once the war ended few could see why such measures should continue. Yet many of the party leaders supported the extremist actions, after all, ‘war communism’ was seen as an actual form of communism, many leading figures wish for the country to continue its break neck pace towards Marxist-Leninism. This desire for speed began to reflect negatively on the Russian game of checkers, as without motivation to move one’s pieces to the end of the board the games came to practical stand still.
A curious figure of the time was Nikolai Bukharin. Previously he had been a proponent of the extreme left, yet after the civil war he came forward to support more moderate views. He believed that the new rules in checkers added more strategy to the game and that the slower pace did not necessarily make the game any less exciting or any less of the spectator sport it had previously been. He said that the game “will move at a snail’s pace, but it will move none the less.” This stumped his opponents as it was true that they could not imagine how it would be possible for checkers to become any less of a spectator sport. Bukharin also supported the slow development of communism and is famed for being one of the few communists in history to encourage people to “enrich yourselves!”
The Krondstadt rebellion had been a warning: if the Bolsheviks pursued their course through to its conclusion, then it would be a conclusion filled with blood. It was at the tenth party congress, also in March, that grain requisitioning was ended and the New Economic Policy was enacted. However, it wasn’t until 1922 that the Cheka was ended. By this time its force consisted of 143,000 persons and whilst the Cheka itself would disappear, secret police would have a large place in Russian society for many years to come; with the Cheka being replaced by the GPU, then the OGPU, the KGB and finally the FSB, which exists today and still contains within its charter the words: “ничего принудительно” (nothing is compulsory).
*Foot Note 1
The former punishment is little heard of today, due to the fact it proved to be an ineffective deterrent to offenders. The reasons for this inefficiency are still hotly debated amongst historians today. One groups argues that people were not afraid to have their checkers boards removed due to the more than adequate supply on the black market. Another group argues that the reason for the Cheka’s reluctance to confiscate playing boards was that they themselves considered it such a heinous crime that they were unable to bring themselves to enact this punishment. Both schools of thought do acknowledge, however, that the Cheka did carry out this punishment at least several times and it was enough for the people of Russia created a solution: they used leftover junk lying around the factories and famrs to create improvised checkers sets. Due to the varying sizes of objects that could be acquired, often larger than a standard droughts set, this game became known as гигантские контролеры (giant checkers). These ‘giant’ playing boards would later spread to Germany post World War One, where it would be developed into riesiges Schach (giant chess). Come 1939 this would sweep through Europe.
A third small (yet vocal) minority, argue that this is just a load of s%&#.
**Foot Note 2
André De Voulin, the reigning French champion, had been in a bad position against the up-and-coming American David Lee Smith. Suddenly, after a half-hour considering his position De Voulin stormed out of the room, declaring “c'est connerie”. Unfortunately, due to the ruling of 1462 (where Vlad ‘the crusher’ Isengorph had won the championship by stabbing his opponent and claiming he had forfeited), it was necessary to have the opponent’s agreement to officially count a forfeit. This then became one of only eleven drawn checkers world championships recorded.