Soviet Spy Chief Is Back -- on a Pedestal

A bust of secret police head Felix Dzerzhinsky goes up, drawing flowers and insults. A full-body statue was toppled by angry crowds in 1991.

By Kim Murphy

Los Angeles Times

November 10, 2005

MOSCOW — He was the founder of the secret police at a time when the word police meant terror. Hundreds of thousands of Russians disappeared into interrogation stations and prison camps of the feared Cheka and its successors, never to emerge alive.

Not surprisingly, as the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, the bronze statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky that towered for years outside KGB headquarters was among the first Soviet relics to go, pulled down by the crowds and eventually hauled off to a statue garden.

But in another sign of Russia's growing flirtation with its turbulent past, "Iron Felix" reappeared in central Moscow this week. Without fanfare or advance notice, the Cheka founder's stern bronze visage was quietly re-erected Tuesday morning at the headquarters of the Interior Ministry, the nation's primary police agency.

It was not the huge, full-body statue that once stood in nearby Lubyanka Square, to be sure; it was a bust. But the receding hairline, flowing mustache and steely eyes were eerily familiar from the Soviet history books. So was the message of the upraised sword engraved in the granite below it.

By Wednesday afternoon, a carpet of red carnations had been strewn at its base.

For much of the last decade, Russia has seen the dark side of the Soviet past — the stifling political climate, the gulag camps, the lines at the food shops — fade into memory amid the failed promises of a market economy. The Cheka was disbanded in 1922, after about four years, but many old enough to remember its successors such as the KGB also talk fondly of a nation that was educated, fed, reasonably healthy and a superpower.

Today, what with stark disparities in wealth, pervasive crime, rampant alcoholism, widespread corruption and persistent terrorism, and with the nation's influence in the world a shadow of what it once was, many Russians applauded President Vladimir V. Putin this year when he declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

For many, even the feared Dzerzhinsky recalls an era when a strong state formed a rampart for its citizens. His image's return has been greeted with dark insults along with the flowers, reflecting the same seeming contradiction that characterizes much of today's political debate here.

Human rights groups and democracy advocates, who in 2002 gathered more than 100,000 signatures opposed to a proposal to resurrect the original, 16-ton statue that stood in Lubyanka Square, are appealing to the government to remove the bust.

In their appeals, they point to the nature of the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage, or Cheka, founded under Dzerzhinsky in 1917, which the following year launched the campaign of arrests and executions known as the Red Terror.

"We will make our hearts cruel, hard and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood," the Bolshevik newspaper Krasnaya Gazeta said of the campaign at the time.

"Law enforcement agencies consider a man … whose name is directly linked with the introduction of arbitrary rule and a system of indiscriminate arrests … who committed mass violations of the law, to be their symbol," Yan Rachinsky of the Memorial human rights organization told Noviye Izvestia newspaper. "And this in fact speaks volumes."

Police officials said they were urged by law enforcement veterans to restore the bust, which had been removed shortly after the Soviet collapse.

"For a majority of the population he remains a hero with a 'cool head, warm heart and clean hands,' " said Viktor Peshkov, a leading ideologist with the Communist Party, quoting Dzerzhinsky's own recipe for a KGB man. "He is an epitome of justice at its purest, if you wish…. The restoration of the old symbol will help to rebuild the image of our security forces, and will help them … try to live up to their old and true symbology."

When advocating the return of the Dzerzhinsky statue three years ago, Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov noted that the worst abuses of the secret police followed the Cheka founder's death in 1926. Dzerzhinsky, he said, should be remembered for his campaigns to combat vagrancy, restore railways and improve the economy. "If we put on the scales all the things this man had done, the good will prevail," he said then.

Outside the tall iron gates of the Interior Ministry headquarters Wednesday, few were paying attention to the new bust. Yet hardly any passersby were unaware of it, either.

"I'm full of indignation. We don't need him, do we?" said Ada Pavlova, a 68-year-old retired design engineer. "A lot of people were repressed. My grandfather was a well-to-do farmer. He was put in prison for 10 years in 1937. He died of starvation in 1942, when he was younger than I am.

"I support Vladimir Putin, please write that down," Pavlova said. "There must be minimal order in the country. But we should say goodbye to that epoch."

Meanwhile, Alexander Nikolayev, a 60-year-old retired police colonel, placed several flowers at the foot of the bust, then stood back and quietly saluted it.

"Dzerzhinsky was my teacher," he said. "I built my life according to his ideology: justice, faith in the future, the upbringing of children, the building of the family of the state. The flowers are a tribute to those who brought him back."

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Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.