The Rehabilitation of Felix Dzerzhinsky

We forget everything.

— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 1

The failure to memorialize the victims of Communist terror has contributed to the moral corrosion of Russian society.

— David Satter, It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past

In September President Vladimir Putin restored the title “Dzerzhinsky Division” to an elite Moscow police unit. So what, you say? Well, that’s the point. As the novelist Martin Amis put it in Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, “Everybody knows of Himmler and Eichmann. Nobody knows of Yezhov and Dzerzhinsky.”

Born in 1877, Felix Dzerzhinsky was a revolutionary who spent 11 years in czarist prisons, three of them in a hard labor camp. A Bolshevik and a murderous fanatic, Dzerzhinsky founded the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. He had a “long burning zealot’s face,” dressed in high hunting boots and simple tunic, and lived a spartan life at his headquarters in the Lubyanka, waging what he called his “fight to the finish.” He kept a little black notebook to enter the names of “enemies” he came across as he did his job. “In 1918–1919, ten thousand persons were shot on the basis of decisions that Dzerzhinsky signed personally,” says David Satter in his It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway, a superb account of the dire consequences for post-Soviet Russia of the failure to face up to its Communist past.

As early as February 1919, Dzerzhinsky was keen for the new labor camps to re-educate “those gentleman who live without any occupations” and “those working in Soviet institutions who demonstrate unconscientious attitudes to work.” He oversaw the “first camp of the Gulag,” the Solovetsky, where, according to Anne Applebaum’s magisterial Gulag: A History, “the OGPU [the reorganized Cheka] first learned how to use slave labor for profit.” Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago records how brutal (and corrupt, despite the myth) Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka was. “He didn’t shirk from dirty work,” as Stalin put it.

Dzerzhinsky died in late 1926, shortly after ranting out an anti-Trotskyist speech. A cult developed around his memory, complete with an effigy to venerate in the OGPU officers club. The futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky even wrote this poem:

To a young lad
                                     Into meditation
After whom
                        To model his life
                                     Just commencing
I would say
                        Without hesitation
Model it
                        On Comrade Dzerzhinsky

In 1958, after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, a huge statute of Dzerzhinsky was erected in Lubyanka Square, near the KGB headquarters, answering the need for a public symbol of revolutionary incorruptibility.

I remember passing the statute myself on a miserable, freezing, gray and rainy Moscow day in January 1984. Little did I know that two years later Gorbachev would become the general secretary of the Communist Party and his policy of glasnost would sweep away the Dzerzhinsky myth. It wasn’t just that Dzerzhinsky prepared the deportation of the intellectuals who Lenin decided were “counter-revolutionaries” (a story told in Lesley Chamberlain’s book The Philosophy Steamer). No, as the archives opened, it was all laid bare: murderous fanaticism, summary executions, killing of children in front of their parents, taking wives hostage, binding prisoners in barbed wire and drowning them, and so on. Sergei Melgunov’s The Red Terror in Russia (pdf) told the basic truths. Boris Nemtsov dug in the state archives and told viewers of the TV program Mirror that Dzerzhinsky wrote “Kill without investigation, so that they will be afraid.” Satter records the depraved methods employed by Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka, drawing on Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy. Satter records that “In Kharkov a victim’s hands were submerged in boiling water until his skin peeled off. In Tsaritsyn a victim’s bones were sawn in half. In Voronezh the victims were rolled naked in nail-studded barrels. In Kiev the Chekist torturers attached a cage with rats to the victims torso and heated the cage so that the rats would devour him alive” (p. 312, n. 28). And so on and so on. 

And so, on August 22, 1991, the Communist hard-liners coup having failed, the 15-ton statute of Dzerzhinsky was removed (though not before someone scrawled “shit in a leather coat” on the plinth). But the Russians have not been allowed to face up to their past. Perhaps not enough of them really wanted to. There were no equivalents to the Nuremberg Trials and—the shame of it—almost no memorials to the millions of victims. Instead there was a curious lingering love in some quarters, a nostalgia for order amidst economic collapse in others, and, everywhere, repression—excused by a resurgence of the old religion: state worship and scorn for the individual.

In short order, the new rulers drove Memorial, the Russian human rights organization, from the public square and destroyed its work.

Since August 1999, when a former head of the FSB, the successor organization to Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka, became prime minister, there has been a creeping erosion of liberal democracy, as mapped by the journalist Anna Politkovskaya before her murder by state agents. The rehabilitation of Felix Dzerzhinsky has proceeded in lockstep with this long semi-forced march from memory into myth.  

In 2000, politician Nikolai Kharitonov, a Communist-aligned deputy in the State Duma, said that without the return of the statute “Lubyanka Square is defenseless and the agents of the KGB and FSB are defenseless.” Back then, the efforts to rehabilitate Dzerzhinsky were beaten back by protests. “It would be the same as a monument to Himmler in Germany,” said Memorial. “[He was] one of the organizers of the genocide of the Russian Orthodox Church,” raged the Union of Orthodox Citizens. Although 56 percent of the Russian public were in favor, the Kremlin—less sure of itself then than it is today—backed off, calling the proposal “untimely.”

But in 2005, without any official explanation, a bronze bust of Dzerzhinsky returned to the courtyard of the Moscow police headquarters at 38 Petrovka Street. Interviewed by a reporter from Novye Izvestia one police officer said something which, inadvertently, captured the meaning of the rehabilitation of Felix Dzerzhinsky and of the repression of the historical memory of Communism: “Of course we were all surprised” said the officer, “but, as you know, the decisions of the bosses are not discussed.”

Indeed. And now Putin has hinted that Dzerzhinsky’s statute is coming back; a great big 50-ton symbol of the new-old country Putin is creating, where the bosses decide and the people are decided upon.

Photo Credit: RIA Novosti archive, image #11720 / Valeriy Shustov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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