MOSCOW (Reuters) – A bronze statue of “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky, the ruthless founder of the Soviet secret police and architect of the Red Terror which followed the 1917 revolution, was unveiled on Monday at the headquarters of Russia’s foreign spy service.
Dzerzhinsky, a Polish noble-turned-revolutionary who helped lay the foundations of the repressive system over which Josef Stalin was to preside, is reviled by dissidents but is a hero to the spies who rule in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
After the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, his statue was toppled to cheers in Poland and as the Soviet Union itself crumbled in 1991 a monument to Dzerzhinsky outside the KGB headquarters on Lubyanka Square in Moscow was toppled amid rejoicing by many.
But now Felix is back among Russia’s spies.
Sergei Naryshkin, the chief of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), successor to the KGB’s famed First Chief Directorate, marked the unveiling of the statue outside its Yasenevo headquarters in southern Moscow.
“Colleagues, the sculpture in front of which we are standing is a somewhat reduced copy of the famous monument to Dzerzhinsky installed on Lubyanka Square in Moscow in 1958,” Naryshkin said on the anniversary of Dzerzhinsky’s birthday.
“His winged words that only a person with a cold head, a warm heart and clean hands can become a security officer have become a significant moral guideline for several generations of employees of the security agencies of our country.”
Dzerzhinsky towered above Naryshkin, Putin’s 68-year-old spy master, who stood with a group of other men – many of them unknown.
The statue at the SVR looks remarkably similar to the one that once stood on Lubyanka Square. In both, Dzerzhinsky stands, staring forward in a long coat, with his hand in one pocket.
For some Russians, the return of Dzerzhinsky to such a public pedestal is an indicator of the repression they say prevails in wartime Russia – and the extent to which the country has abandoned its post-Soviet pivot towards the West.
“Dzerzhinsky is a symbol of repression and lawlessness,” Nikita Petrov, a historian at the Memorial human rights group which won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022 a year after being banned and dissolved in Russia, told Reuters.
“Dzerzhinsky was the head of the first Soviet punitive agency which was guided not by the law but by political will and by a view of the world which divided people into the useful and the harmful.”
As one of Vladimir Lenin’s most loyal lieutenants, Dzerzhinsky helped establish the revolutionary government using ruthless Leninist tactics: the brutal persecution of opponents – or anyone even suspected of being an opponent.
As Lenin’s and then Stalin’s secret police chief from 1917 until his death in 1926, Dzerzhinsky led the campaign of intimidation, arrests, violence and executions which became known as the “Red Terror”.
He founded the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission, known as the Cheka, which instituted a wave of summary executions during the Civil War, before reorganising it into the State Political Directorate (GPU) and then Joint State Political Directorate (OGPU).
The OGPU’s functions were later transferred to the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which carried out the worst of Stalin’s repression.
The KGB, where Putin once worked as a spy, was a successor to those organisations. Today’s Federal Security Service, the KGB’s main successor, traces its history back to Dzerzhinsky.
Such is the enduring influence of “Chekist Number One” that even in modern Russia, some spies still call themselves Chekists – after the Cheka he founded.
“The image of the chairman of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission has become one of the symbols of its time, the standard of crystal honesty, dedication and loyalty to duty,” Naryshkin said.
“He remained faithful to his ideals to the end – the ideals of goodness and justice,” Naryshkin said.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones and Tomasz Janowski)