KGB's founder back on his plinth in Russia

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The Independent Online

Thirteen years ago, democracy-hungry Russians yelped with joy as a statue to one of the Soviet Union's most brutal secret policemen was toppled. Yesterday, in a potent symbol of the new Putinised Russia, a new statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of what was later to become the KGB, was erected.

Thirteen years ago, democracy-hungry Russians yelped with joy as a statue to one of the Soviet Union's most brutal secret policemen was toppled. Yesterday, in a potent symbol of the new Putinised Russia, a new statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of what was later to become the KGB, was erected.

Brushing aside the fact that "Iron Felix" presided over Lenin's Red Terror and had the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on his hands, a monument to him was unveiled yesterday in the town which bears his name - Dzerzhinsky - just outside Moscow. The statue was erected to commemorate what would have been his 127th birthday, and its unveiling was reportedly attended by some 300 schoolchildren and officials.

The toppling of the original Dzerzhinsky statue in August 1991 from its plinth in Lubyanka Square in front of the KGB's headquarters was an epoch-defining moment. The 14-ton bronze statue was so solid that it had to be toppled by a crane, purportedly supplied by the US embassy in Moscow. Thousands cheered as it came down and reformers said it was a sign that Russia wanted to put its bloody past behind it and neuter the Soviet security apparatus Dzerzhinsky helped set up.

That statue has languished in a park near Moscow's main modern art museum among other fallen Soviet idols ever since, but it too may make a return to centre stage. Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's powerful mayor, has said he is minded to re-erect it, arguing that it is aesthetically superb and that Dzerzhinsky did a lot for the country's homeless and railways.

But Dzerzhinsky, a Pole by birth, is better remembered for his ruthlessness, his unswerving brutality and for his many victims. A member of Lenin's inner cabinet, the goatee-bearded leather-jacket-wearing Bolshevik founded the Cheka secret police, the precursor to the KGB, and openly stated that "organised terror" was essential if the revolution was to survive.

In the six years after 1917 when the Communists seized power it is estimated that at least half a million people were executed by Dzerzhinsky's agents, who often claimed their victims in the dead of the night, knocking on their victims' doors. Political opponents, priests, aristocrats and capitalists were all shot - without trial - merely for who they were and what they represented.

Dzerzhinsky also set up the first Soviet labour camps, later to become known as the gulags, on the remote Solovetsky Islands south of the Arctic Circle. In short, he established the system of terror which Stalin inherited, and indeed backed his bid to replace Lenin.

Known among liberals as "the shame of Russia", a new statue to him is unlikely to be well received among those who thought they had seen the last of his likeness in 1991.

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