Monday, February 26, 2018

When a Chekist Planned a Revolt against Soviet Power – and Two Other Little Known Uprisings

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 26 – One of the most unfortunate aspects of Western research on Russia is that most people examining that country have ignored new information on little known events in Soviet times despite the ways in which new reports shed light on how that system operated and on how its successors function as well.

            The last few days have brought articles containing new information about three intriguing events: a planned revolt by an OGPU officer against the system his organization helped maintain, risings by Western Belarusians forced into the ranks of the Soviet Army at the end of World War II, and the largest ever revolt by GULAG political prisoners at Vorkutlag in 1942.

Even a Chekist Can Rebel against the Chekist State

            Any “individual who stands up against the system in a totalitarian state is doomed,” the editors of the Taiga news service say; “but what if this individual is not a simple mortal but an officer of the special services?” That happened in 1933 in the Altay (, using

            In Stalin’s times, Mikhail Kleymyonov, an OGPU officer who was a native of Altay Kray, was so horrified by the fabrication of cases, torture, and mass executions carried out by his colleagues that he began to plan an uprising against Soviet power in the Troitsk and Biisk districts where he had relatives and many friends.  He chose as X hour August 1, 1933.   

            He assembled a small group of people of similar mind; and they began to prepare for an armed uprising. Unfortunately, one of them appears to have been betrayed. And Kleymyonov was forced to flee into China where his OGPU comrades assumed he would stay. But instead, he changed his name and returned to the USSR settling in Alma-Ata.

            Still unhappy with what he saw around him, he decided in 1948 to flee to Iran or Turkey. Unfortunately for him, he was caught by the Ministry for State Security which viewed his arrest as a great victory because they were certain that Kleymyonov has “long ago fled to the Chinese” and was beyond their reach. 

            They dispatched him the GULAG, but he remained alive.  And in 1960, after his release, he appealed for rehabilitation arguing that he was horrified by what Stalinists had done but that he personally had committed no crimes against the Soviet people. Despite Khrushchev being in the midst of his anti-Stalin campaign, Kleymyonov’s request was refused.

            But his case suggests that there were more angry Chekists than the standard histories indicate and that at least some of them were prepared to take things into their own hands.

Belarusians Revolted When Forced into Soviet Army

            In order to fill the depleted ranks of Red Army units in 1945, commanders drafted people from the local population in the western borderlands. Among them were many Western Belarusians who did not want to fight for the USSR and hoped that they could become Poles and Polish soldiers. To that end, some of them revolted against their officers.

            “By the spring of 1945, a significant part of such newly minted soldiers consisted of people from Western Belarus, a territory which during the war was for a long time under the Germans,” Russian historians say, adding that SMERSH concluded that these men did not want to fight for Moscow (

            Many of these people considered themselves to be Poles and “were convinced that Western Belarus should be given to Poland;” and they wanted to serve in the Polish army which was suffering significantly smaller losses than were units of the Red Army nearby.  The center of the revolt was the 34th Division, and its soldiers revolted on March 23.

            They locked up their officers, seized guns, and deserted in large numbers. When the Soviet security services restored order, they concluded that disaffection among the Belarusians was so great that the only solution was to send these soldiers to distant parts of the Soviet Union even though that reduced the size of the Soviet attacking forces.

Political Prisoners Lead a Mass Revolt in Vorkutlag, Make Plans to Seize Entire Region

            The largest revolt in GULAG history was led by political prisoners allied with free workers in the Lesoreid camp in the Komi ASSR in January 1942. They worked closely with a civilian worker named Retyunin for whom the uprising has been named and who was clever enough to get weapons (

            On the first day of the rising, the prisoners led by Retyunin overpowered the guards, cut the camp off from the outside world, and started to march toward civilian facilities like the town and airport.  The security forces didn’t know what happened until after everything began, and they were located in the wrong places to stop things immediately.

            Once it became obvious how serious the revolt was, the Soviet security police brought in heavy weapons and gave battle. Forty-two prisoners and free employees who joined them were killed; but so too were 33 guards. Once the revolt was suppressed, 68 people were charged with violating Soviet laws, and 50 were sentenced to death.

            The point in each of these cases is not that they succeeded but that they acted at all, something many histories of the Stalin period have ignored. Indeed, suggestions that Russians and especially politicals bowed to the authorities at that time abound, even in the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

            Such views were demolished in an important if little known pamphlet published by an émigré writer in 1974. Entitled How We Submitted and written by Yury Srechinsky, he called attention to many cases in which Russians as well as non-Russians revolted even if they were doomed to fail.

            Information about such resistance is becoming more available if not always widely attended to. Recently, Moscow commentator Andrey Illarionov compiled a list of more than 210 revolts by Soviet citizens against Soviet power that were not part of the Civil War (

            Illarionov concedes that even his list is incomplete.  The three cases mentioned here are the tip of a very large iceberg, one that should encourage those who believe that the Russians and non-Russians can resist and rise up even against the most fearful opponents and that should at the same time frighten those who think they can rule by fear and intimidation alone. 

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