Gleb Ivanovich Bokii (Глеб Иванович Бокий, 1879–1937) was an ethnic Ukrainian Communist political activist and revolutionary in the Russian Empire. Following the October Revolution of 1917, Bokii became a leading member of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police.
From 1921 through 1934, Bokii (alternative transliteration, Boky) headed the "special department" of the Soviet secret police apparatus, believed to have been in charge of the Soviet Union's concentration camp system. He remained a top level functionary in the secret police apparatus until his sudden arrest in May 1937 as part of the Great Terror. Following an extended investigation, Bokii was given a summary trial and executed in November of that same year. In 1956, Bokii was posthumously rehabilitated by Soviet authorities.
Gleb Bokii was born July 3, 1879 (June 21 O.S.) into the family of an ethnic Ukrainian teacher in Tiflis, Georgia in 1879. Bokii grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he attended school, graduating from the Petersburg Mining Institute in 1896.
Bokii was a participant in revolutionary student circles from an early age, becoming an adherent of Marxism and joining Georgii Plekhanov's Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class in 1897. Bokii joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) in 1900 and worked in that organization as a professional revolutionary as a party organizer and propagandist. Bokii was a loyalist to the Bolshevik faction of that organization, headed by V.I. Lenin and was elected a member of the governing Petersburg Committee of the RSDLP from 1904 to 1909.
In these early activist years, Bokii was already to show impressive talent in cryptography, a skill which will go on to be evident and ongoing in his later Soviet career.
At the time of World War I, Bokii served as a member of the Central Bureau of the RSDLP from 1914 to 1915 and a member of the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee of the party from 1916 to 1917.
During the course of his revolutionary activities, Bokii was arrested a dozen times, and suffered two terms of political exile to Siberia. He used the party names "Kuzma," "Diadia," and "Maksim Ivanovich" during the Bolshevik Party's underground period.
The February Revolution of 1917 which brought the overthrow of Tsar Nikolai II saw Bokii in a leading position in the Petrograd City Committee, of which he served as Secretary from April 1917 to March 1918. He was also a member of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee during October and November 1917 — the institution which planned and carried out the Bolshevik uprising on November 7.
Bokii was recognized as a supporter of the "Left Communists" headed by Nikolai Bukharin who sought to fight a revolutionary war against German invaders rather than signing a separate peace in the period immediately after the Bolshevik uprising. Together with Stanislav Kosior, Bokii was one of five signatories of a declaration of the Executive Commission of the Petersburg Committee directed at the governing Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party, which warned:
"The political line now being pursued by the Central Committee ... is directed toward conclusion of a so-called 'obscene' peace [which] would result in the abdication of our principles ... and the certain death of our party as a revolutionary vanguard. ...
We have ample grounds for asserting that signing an 'obscene' peace would run counter to the opinion of the majority in our party. ... If our present peace policy continues ... a split threatens our party."
A special party conference to decide the peace question was called for by Bokii and his comrades of the Peterburg Committee. German forces continued their advance on Petrograd in the interim and February and March 1918 saw Bokii take on an additional role organizing the city's defenses as member of the Committee for the Revolutionary Defense of Petrograd.
Ultimately, the German offensive was halted when Lenin and the party Central Committee won the day by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the government of Imperial Germany on March 3, 1918. Territory including a quarter of Russia's population and a quarter of its industry were ceded to the Germans under the onerous terms of the peace.
Secret police activities
On March 13, 1918, Bokii went to work as deputy head of the Extraordinary Commission (Cheka) of the Northern oblast and Petrograd. He remained in this position until the end of August 1918, at which time he was briefly made the head of that same organization following the assassination of his chief, Moisei Uritsky. Bokii was a participant in the Red Terror which was part and parcel of the Civil War which began in the summer of 1918, for example signing a list of 122 prominent hostages published in the Petrograd official newspaper on September 6, threatening their execution if even one more Soviet official was killed by terrorists.
Despite this complicity, historian Alexander Rabinowitch indicates that Bokii was among the more moderate Bolshevik voices on the question of the use of terror in the summer of 1918, siding with Elena Stasova in opposing Grigory Zinoviev's call for a full scale Red Terror at a critical meeting held in the wake of Uritsky's killing.
Whatever his personal views, Bokii as head of the Petrograd Cheka in the days after Uritsky's death was the ultimate authority behind the Red Terror in Petrograd and it was to him that the German government directed its complaints. The German Consul in Petrograd bombarded with letters demanding the release of individuals from countries under German protection who were swept up in the dragnet—over 1000 in all. On September 10, 1918 Bokii responded by forwarding to the Consul the text of a message he had sent to district soviets ordering the release of all citizens of nations under German protection against whom no specific evidence supporting charges of speculation or counterrevolutionary activity could be mustered. Bokii's explicit directive was largely ignored, however, and by the end of the month only about 200 out of the 1000 names provided by the Germans had been freed.
Bokii's moderation with respect to the use of terror brought him into conflict with Zinoviev, who in mid-September 1918 was advancing the idea of distributing arms to the Petrograd workers and allowing them to administer mob justice against their perceived class enemies as they saw fit. Stasova seems to have felt that her ally Bokii was in physical danger if he remained in Petrograd without protection and she appealed to Yakov Sverdlov for his transfer to Moscow, outside of Zinoviev's fief. According to a biography of Bokii published in the last years of the Soviet Union, Bokii was successfully removed as head of the Petrograd Cheka by Zinoviev by the end of that month.
Other sources indicate that Bokii remained as the head of the Petrograd secret police until November 1918, at which time he was made a member of the collegium of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) of Soviet Russia. Bokii continued in that capacity until the middle of September 1919, when he was dispatched to the Eastern Front to head the special detachment of the Cheka there.
In October 1919, Bokii was sent by Cheka head Felix Dzerzhinsky to Tashkent to head the operations of the Cheka the Turkestan Front. He remained there in that capacity until the effective end of the Russian Civil War in August 1920. During this interval he was also a member of the Turkestan Commission of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee and the Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom).
Bokii was shaken by the terror he played significant roles in. Regarding Kronstadt, Bokii later stated, "The Kronstadt events produced an indelible impression on me. I could not reconcile myself to the idea that the very sailors who took part in the October Revolution revolted against our party and our power." His further ideological disillusionment or frustration lead to his dwelling into esoteric mysticism in the 1920s.
Bokii became head of the "special department" of the All-Union Extraordinary Commission in the last days of January 1921. Bokii has been said to have been "one of the most active creators of the Gulag system" and labelled by another historian as "the OGPU boss in charge of concentration camps" in the early 1920s. Such claims may tend to hyperbole, however, as he figures in the account of Alexander Solzhenitsyn only as the head of the Moscow troika rather than as architect or chief of the camp system itself.
Bokii remained as head of the "special department" of the secret police apparatus through its various incarnations as the BChK, the GPU, and the OGPU until July 10, 1934. He was also a member of the collegium of the OGPU through this same date.
Arrest and execution
On May 16, 1937, Bokii was suddenly arrested by the secret police and charged with conspiratorial activity. Following a lengthy investigation, Bokii was brought before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Soviet on November 15, 1937, and sentenced to death. He was shot that same day.
Inspired by Theosophical lore and several visiting Mongol lamas, Bokii along with his writer friend Alexander Barchenko, embarked on a quest for Shambhala, in an attempt to merge Kalachakra-tantra and ideas of Communism in the 1920s. Among other things, in a secret laboratory affiliated with the secret police, Bokii and Barchenko experimented with Buddhist spiritual techniques to try to find a key for engineering perfect communist human beings. They contemplated a special expedition to Inner Asia to retrieve the wisdom of Shambhala – the project fell through as a result of intrigues within the Soviet intelligence service, as well as rival efforts of the Soviet Foreign Commissariat that sent its own expedition to Tibet in 1924.
Posthumous rehabilitation and legacy
Bokii's fellow bureaucratic NKVD foes had conjured up fictions of his being as a sort of Dracula-like human blood drinker. On June 27, 1956, as part of the Thaw sponsored by new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Gleb Bokii's case was reviewed by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Soviet and he was posthumously rehabilitated, enabling his family members to receive social benefits which had been previously denied to them by the state.
- George Leggett, The Cheka: Lenin's Political Police. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1981; pg. 446.
- N.V. Petrov and K.V. Skorkin, Кто руководил НКВД, 1934–1941: Справочник (Who Directed the NKVD, 1934–1941: Guidebook). Moscow: Zven'ia, 1999; pg. 114.
- Znamenski, Andrei (2011). Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia. Quest Books. p. 71.
- V. Brychkina, "G.I. Bokii,” In Geroi Oktiabria (Heroes of October), vol. 1. Leningrad, 1967.
- Executive Commission of the Petersburg Committee to the Central Committee of the RSDLP, January 15, 1918, quoted in Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007; pg. 148–149.
- John Keegan, The First World War New York: Vintage Books, 2000; pg. 342.
- Leggett, The Cheka, pg. 111.
- Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power, pp. 331–332.
- Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power, pg. 340.
- Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power, pg. 342.
- T. Alekseeva and N. Matveev, Доверно защищать революцию: О Г.И. Бокии (Trusted to Defend the Revolution: On G.I. Bokii). Moscow: 1987; pp. 218–219. Quoted in Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks in Power, pg. 342.
- Leggett, The Cheka, pg. 225.
- K.A. Zalesskii, Империя Сталина: Биографический энциклопедический словарь (Stalin's Emipire: Biographical Encyclopedic Dictionary). Moscow: Veche, 2000; pp. 65–66.
- Anne Appelbaum, Gulag: A History. New York: Doubleday, 2003; pg. 38.
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation: III–IV. [Volume 2]. Thomas P. Whitney, trans. New York: Harper and Row, 1975; pg. 40. The short biography attached to this volume has Bokii only as "Secret police official; member of Supreme Court after 1927; arrested in 1937." (Ibid., pg. 680).
- Znamenski, Andrei. (2011). Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia. Quest Books, Wheaton, IL (2011) ISBN 978-0-8356-0891-6.