Yesterday’s post alluded to Stalin and his fellow revolutionaries living in the world of konspiratsia, an underground ‘world apart’, as Simon Sebag Montefiore explains in his brilliant book, Young Stalin.

Tsarist spies

The Tsarist police — Gendarmes — and secret police — Okhrana — trailed various radical groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They had a complicated system of spies — agents, double-agents and treble-agents — not unlike other nations do today. Some agents followed suspects. Others infiltrated revolutionary organisations. Another group started their own as false fronts to lure radicals. All of these tactics were designed to make their targets paranoid, which they did (p. 87).

The radicals, whatever group they allied themselves with, followed Sergei Nechaev’s Revolutionary Catechism (p. 85). Lenin did. Stalin did. And so did many others. Nechaev advocated killing police slowly and painfully. The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin advocated cultivating criminals friendly to the cause; they would be fearless and able to murder their enemies, law enforcement officers.

Among others, the Tsar’s agents had dossiers on middle class populist groups. Middle class populists were known as narodniki (narodnik, singular). They envisaged the peasantry ultimately taking over politics and society. One of the most radical of their groups, Land and Freedom, later known as People’s Will, believed that liberation could come only with the assassination of Emperor Alexander II. People’s Will were devout followers of the Revolutionary Catechism.

Lenin, once in power post-Revolution, Montefiore says, used the terror of the Revolutionary Catechism as well as the Okhrana’s spy tactics in his successor organisation — the Cheka (the All Russia Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage). (Stalin took this further with his own NKVD.)

History tells us what a potent, horrifying cocktail that was. Professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University has written several articles about Communism. Of Lenin’s shortlived regime (he died of a stroke in 1924), Caplan points out (emphases mine):

as Zinoviev, another high-ranking Bolshevik put it, “We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia’s inhabitants. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.” As Paul Johnson observes, “There is no essential moral difference between class-warfare and race-warfare, between destroying a class and destroying a race. Thus the modern practice of genocide was born.” (Modern Times)

The work of the Cheka, Russia soon learned, was never done. Censorship was quickly imposed, and it was up to the Cheka to confiscate the literature of dissident workers: “[O]n 17 November the Central Executive Committee passed a decree giving the bolsheviks control over all newsprint and wide powers of closing down newspapers critical of the regime…” (Leonard Shapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union). Workers were re-forming independent soviets; the Cheka broke them up. Independent newspapers criticized Lenin’s government; the Cheka closed them down, until the Bolshevik-controlled Pravda and Izvestia had a monopoly on the supply of news. As Shapiro notes, “The refusal to come to terms with the socialists and the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly led to the logical result that revolutionary terror would now be directed not only against traditional enemies, such as the bourgeoisie or right-wing opponents, but against anyone, be he socialist, worker or peasant, who opposed bolshevik rule.” (The Communist Party of the Soviet Union)

The Cheka soon turned to “taking hostages”; i.e., arresting people who they guessed had anti-Bolshevik feelings, and shooting them if their demands were not met or their decrees disobeyed. For example, Lenin’s government might decree that the peasants in a certain region must deliver food or timber to the government; if the government’s demands were not met, they would shoot some hostages.

Incidentally, it is not easy finding detailed policy descriptions of Lenin’s government online. Most are middling to positive representations which mask the horrifying reality of arbitrariness and death. These detail-deficient summaries encourage people to think that Russian history is boring. Frankly, if I favoured totalitarianism, I, too, would make it sound dry as dust. All the easier to get people to say ‘It doesn’t matter who’s in charge — they’re all the same’ and to sleepwalk into it under the guise of ‘liberation of the oppressed’.

Back to the Okhrana. Montefiore concludes that they were the best secret police of their day and had a remarkably good success rate (pp. 87-88).

They looked ahead to new threats. Montefiore says that the Okhrana were the first to view aircraft as weapons. By 1908, flight times were beginning to lengthen and airplanes could carry a pilot and a passenger. In 1909, the Okhrana became aware that a terrorist group, the Social-Revolutionaries, were planning to fly into the Winter Palace in Petersburg (St Petersburg) in a plane loaded with dynamite. Not only did the Okhrana monitor all flights but also the identities of those taking flying lessons. This was just less than a century before 9/11 — and people still have problems believing that was a terrorist operation!

Tsarist death sentences

Speaking of Lenin — born Vladimir Illich Ulyanov — his brother Alexander was executed under the Tsar’s regime for conspiring against the Tsar (p. 86). This encouraged Lenin to avenge his brother’s death through Marxism and Bolshevism.

Montefiore doesn’t elaborate on Alexander Ulyanov’s crime, however, he does say that death sentences were rare under Tsarist rule and normally related to assassins or would-be assassins of the Romanovs and their political ministers.

Hard labour — katorga — was also rare and reserved for the most serious of crimes.


The usual penalties were imprisonment for a few months to a few years depending on the crime or ‘administrative exile’ which could last for a maximum of five years.

Stalin was imprisoned in 1902 for having started a series of disturbances when he worked in Batumi (on the southwest coast of Georgia). The Tsarist regime was lenient, comparable to Western prison systems today (p. 106). In between exercise and meals, prisoners could read books and write letters.

Stalin and the more intelligent prisoners took full advantage of these privileges. One day Stalin was reading Communist Manifesto aloud to a fellow prisoner in a nearby cell in Batumi Prison. He stopped when he heard the guard’s footsteps. The guard told him to carry on reading and continued his rounds.

Stalin was also able to extract certain favours from the guards, such as travelling without handcuffs during his transfer to Kutaisi Prison from Batumi after having started a prison riot.  When he found out his lady friend at the time was also being transferred, he had the guards arrange for a small carriage to pick her up and take her to the railway station where she would continue on her journey. He also demanded a cart for their belongings. All requests were granted (p. 108).

Therefore, it’s interesting that during his Great Terror of 1937, Stalin criticised the Tsarist prisons, branding them ‘rest homes’ (p. 108). He recalled his many privileges and the fact that prisoners could also receive post and parcels. He would have none of that — and those who know their history understand how brutal he, his NKVD (successor to the Cheka), police and prison guards were, not to mention the extended sentences and daily horrors in the gulags.


Stalin also ended up serving a sentence in exile in Siberia. Again, under the Tsar, where you went depended on the severity of your crime. The more severe your crime, the colder and/or more remote the region.

Lenin and Trotsky (Leon Bronstein) also spent time in exile. Trotsky later remembered living it large (p. 114) and how marvellous it was when prisoners and/or locals fell in love — a common occurrence (p. 115).

Montefiore describes journeys which sometimes took several days; it was normal for prisoners to spend a few nights in prisons en route to remote villages where they served their sentences.

However, once they reached their appointed villages, they were allowed to find their own lodgings (a network of homeowners rented to exiles). They lived with families who prepared their meals and did their laundry; often the exiles shared in these chores. Local police ‘minders’ frequently allowed the men to use rifles and hunt for game with the locals. Men spent their evenings at the village tavern. Some houses rented to exiles had copious libraries and stationery. Exiles took turns going to the post office to collect or send mail and parcels.

Lenin found Siberian exile a productive time. He was able to read books and write essays with few interruptions. He enjoyed it so much that he sent for his wife and mother-in-law. He even hired a cleaning lady (p. 114).

The Tsar’s leniency

Those in exile often had a good thing going. Montefiore explains that the Tsarist government actually paid stipends to exiles.

There was a pecking order for stipends from the Tsar. Lenin — a nobleman, by the way — received 12 roubles for clothes, rent and meals as did his fellow nobles. Those with higher education — such as Molotov — received 11 roubles. Stalin was classified as a peasant and received eight roubles.

Exiles could also receive funding from their families. Trotsky’s father — a gentleman farmer — subsidised his son’s exile.

However, families had to be careful not to exceed the private funding threshold, otherwise the Tsar’s stipends would stop.


Trotsky described the exile system as a ‘sieve’ (p. 117). Obtaining false papers was expensive, approximately 100 roubles, but thousands of exiles managed to raise the money. Family members sometimes sent the appropriate clothing to match the fake identity papers.

As for prisoners, Montefiore writes that Stalin’s criminally insane friend Kamo Ter-Petrossian considered escaping from prison in a coffin until he was told that the prison guards smashed each corpse’s skull with a hammer. That prospect dissuaded even the fearless Kamo.

In conclusion, the Tsarist regime was a much different universe than either Lenin’s or Stalin’s. It’s ironic that both stamped out the freedom the emperors granted the people of Russia and the republics.

We learned in history classes how oppressive the Romanovs were. Were they? After reading Young Stalin I no longer think so. They weren’t perfect but, at least where much of their law enforcement was concerned, they seem quite modern on the whole — even today.