The Cheka

A pall hangs over the home of my friend Kolya, the tailor. His wife is ill, the children neglected, dirty, and hungry. The plumbing is out of order, and water must be carried from the next street, four flights up. Kolya always performed the heavy work; his absence falls heavily upon the little family.

From time to time the neighbors look in on the sick woman. “Your husband will soon return,” they assure her cheerfully, but I know that all their efforts to find him have proved fruitless. Kolya is in the Cheka.

The workers of the clothing factory where my friend is employed have of late been very discontented. Their main complaint concerns the arbitrary methods of the yatcheika, the little group of Communists within every Soviet institution. Friction between them and the shop committee resulted in the arrest of the latter. In protest the workers declared a strike. Three delegates were sent to the Cheka with the request to release the prisoners, but the men disappeared, and Kolya was among them.

“They call the strikers counterrevolutionists,” Kolya’s sister said. “They have made a list of the ‘opposition’ in the shop, and every day someone is missing.”

“It’s the old Pirro methods,” remarked a neighbor, a young woman in charge of a children’s dining room.

“Pirro methods?” I asked in surprise.

“Don’t you know the Pirro affair? It was of a piece with the usual methods of Latsis, then head of the All-Ukrainian Extraordinary Commission. It was in the summer of 1919, and the Kiev Cheka was working⁠—”

“Working⁠—that’s right, just the proper word,” interrupted her brother.

“Yes, ‘working’ under high pressure,” she continued, “under instructions of Peters, who came from Moscow now and then. His presence in the city was always the signal for renewed arrests and shooting. Well, one day the Soviet papers announced the arrival of Count Pirro, Brazilian Ambassador. I was at the time employed in the Chinese Consulate, which gave a gala dinner in honor of the Count, on which occasion I made his acquaintance. I was surprised to find the Brazilian speaking excellent Russian, but he explained that he had spent many years in our country before the Revolution. He sighed over the old days, and did not in the least disguise his unfriendliness to Bolshevism and its methods.

“Within a few days he began to organize his staff on a large scale. He asked me and my friends to recommend people for work in his consulate. ‘Except Bolsheviki,’ he said. ‘I want only bourgeois and intellectuals who have no sympathy with the Communists. They’ll be safe with me,’ he told us in confidence, hinting at the wholesale destruction of the intelligentsia by the Cheka. Many hastened to offer their services to the Count, eager for the protection offered. Pirro accepted them all, placing some in his offices, while others were put on the waiting list, and their names and addresses, recorded. To be brief, within a short time they were all arrested and most of them shot, among them Mme. Popladskaya, Pirro’s personal secretary, whom he was pretending to help join her husband in Paris. Pirro disappeared, but he was seen to leave town in Peters’ automobile. It soon became known that the alleged Brazilian Count was an agent of the Cheka, a provocateur. Many people in Kiev are positive that it was Peters himself.”

I related to my friend an incident which occurred soon after our Expedition arrived in the city. Early one morning a visitor called at our car, requesting to see the predsedatel. Of commanding stature, well proportioned, and straight as a young pine, he was a fine specimen of physical manhood. He had just returned from the front, he said, as if in explanation of his ridiculously belligerent appearance: two heavy guns hung from his belt, a Circassian dagger between them; at his side he carried a long sword, and a huge alarm whistle, set in silver, was suspended from his neck. His features were clean cut, nose aquiline, the sensuous lips somewhat shaded by a full beard. But the most striking feature were his eyes, the color of steel, cold, sharp, and piercing.

He introduced himself as an army man who had fought on every battlefield in the Ukraine. But he was tired of war and bloodshed, he said; he wanted a rest or at least a more peaceful occupation. The work of our Expedition appealed to him. Could he not be of service to us? Surely a large city like Kiev could not be thoroughly canvassed during our short stay. He would therefore suggest that we appoint a local man as our representative to continue the work after our Expedition should leave. He would consider himself honored to aid our important mission.

There was nothing unusual in his proposal, since it is our practice to leave an authorized person in the larger cities to supply the Museum with documents of current history. We promised to consider his application, and within a few days he called again. I thought he looked strangely animated, perhaps even under the influence of drink. He immediately launched into exaggerated assurances of his fitness as our collaborator. He knew every important Communist in the city, he asserted; he was even on terms of intimacy with most of them. The previous night, he declared, he had spent in the company of high-placed commissars, among whom was also the chief of the Cheka. With that he began a recital of its activities, relating revolting details of torture and execution. He spoke with increasing fervor, and growing excitement. At last he announced himself a commandant. He had shot many counterrevolutionists, he boasted, and he had never felt any qualms about his work. His eyes gleamed with a fierce, savage fire, and suddenly he drew the dagger from his belt. Leaning over close to me and wildly waving the weapon, he cried, “Look at it⁠—it’s bloody to the hilt.” Then he fell back into a chair, exhausted, and with a touch of sentimentality he muttered: “I’ve had enough⁠—I’m tired⁠—I want a rest.”

“To judge from your description,” remarked the young woman, “it must have been X⁠⸺, one of the most notorious executioners of the provincial Cheka. He is given to such escapades, especially when under the influence of drugs, for he is addicted to cocaine. One, of his hobbies is to get himself photographed⁠—like this.”

She rose, searched a moment among her effects, and handed me a small picture. It represented a man entirely nude, gun in hand, in the posture of taking deliberate aim. I recognized our visitor.

⁠—Rumors of Bolshevik reverses are delaying our departure. There are persistent reports of Red Army defeats: Odessa is said to be evacuating, an enemy fleet in the Black Sea attacking the city, and Wrangel marching against it from the Crimea.

Nothing definite is to be ascertained in the general confusion, but from authoritative circles we have learned that Red forces are being concentrated in the vicinity. The new developments, Yossif has informed me, compelled Makhno to retire from the province. To my great regret our plan of meeting the povstantsi leader becomes impracticable for the present. With much anxiety I think of Gallina and her safety in the new turn of affairs.

Our Expedition faces the alternative of returning to Moscow or proceeding further South. In spite of insistent advice to the contrary, we decide to continue according to our schedule, which includes Odessa and the Caucasus.