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Women Spies in the Russian Secret Police: Brutality, Gender, and the Bolshevik Utopia

Image of Jenny FinstineJenny Findsen is a master’s student at Central Washington University. She is currently studying Late Imperial Russia/Soviet history and completing her thesis on women’s roles in Russian military and defense.

“Among the growing numbers of Chekists [secret police formed in 1917 under Vladimir Lenin] were women. They became officers and spies to help unearth any opposition to the Bolsheviks. The White Movement and foreign media often portrayed these women as vicious and bloodthirsty. Perhaps they were. Historian Barbara Clements put forth that it is more likely that ‘their reputations grew from a horrified reaction to women being implicated in the atrocious cruelty of civil war.’ Tatiana Varsher added, ‘The Bolsheviks went much further along the road to women’s equality: not only did they give women their “place in Parliament,” as well as some of the highest positions in the republic--they also gave them the job of executioner.’

Several women became notorious Chekists, well-known for their brutality throughout Russia. Nevertheless, these women were no more brutal than their male counterparts. Sometimes Chekist women tried to restrain dealing out terror and death, as was in the case of Elena Stasova. Hearing reports of many deaths and horrendous terror tactics used on civilians, Stasova asked to be assigned to the Petrograd Cheka to check the onslaught. Unfortunately, information on Chekist women is scarce and often unreliable.

Nevertheless, one cannot doubt these women were as devoted to the Bolshevik utopia as Lenin or Dzerzhinski. Perhaps their dream included gender equality. Just as female soldiers fought alongside men, eager to prove they were worthy of full citizenship, Chekists women strove for the same. Instead of fighting on the frontlines against outside forces, they worked as spies, agents, and leaders fighting against an internal threat.”

Jenny will defend her thesis in May. After graduation she plans to earn her Ph.D. in history with a specialization in Russian Chinese relations.


Media Contact: Kindra Martin, College of Arts and Humanities administrative assistant

Published: 4/19/2021

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