Felix Dzerzhinsky is a forgotten figure in the West. However, in the Post-Soviet space, his memory is alive and well.
Dzerzhinsky was born in 1877 in present-day Belarus. He became a member of the Bolshevik Party in 1917, directly after being released from prison in Moscow.
He went on to become the leader of the Cheka (ЧК), the secret police for the burgeoning Soviet Union, and held various synonymous positions until his death in 1926.
So why is he important today?
For the past few years, the Russian government has been weighing its options in returning the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky to its former position in front of the Lubyanka building in Moscow. (Although, it should be noted that the most recent referendum was called off.) And a division of the Russian National Guards was renamed in 2014 and is now called the Dzerzhinsky Division (Дивизия имени Дзержинского), mirroring the name of an old Soviet division.
Dzerzhinsky was, first and foremost, a Bolshevik. He was one of the leading figures of the October Revolution and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. So it might be pertinent to ask why he is now being rehabilitated inside the Russian Federation.
After all, in 1991, as the USSR was being torn asunder by internal and external forces, Dzerzhinsky’s statue (lovingly nicknamed “Iron Felix”) was torn down.
Dzerzhinsky had become, in death, a symbol for all future Soviet state security forces. Under him, the Cheka became the GPU. After his death however, the GPU would become Stalin’s NKVD and the post-Stalin KGB.
The meaning of his name was inextricably tied to state violence and repression, regardless of whether he was associated with it or not.
The meaning of Dzerzhinsky almost immediately after his death took on a life of its own.
Today, in the Russian Federation, Dzerzhinsky is remembered with all sorts of Stalinist decorations. All of this in spite of the fact that Dzerzhinsky died right as Stalin was taking power.
Dzerzhinsky cared most about the unity of the communist party facing the capitalist/counterrevolutionary forces. That is why he made a two-hour-long speech against the United Opposition, after which he immediately died from a heart attack.
What does it tell us that during this renewed period of lionizing Dzerzhinsky and re-accepting his Stalinized image into popular culture, the Russian government continues to repress Lenin?
How is it that Dzerzhinsky has become so totally de-Leninized? Dzerzhinsky no longer stands for revolution (or even revolutionary terror), but rather as some sort of acceptable stand-in for the later “stability” of the Stalin era.
Can we imagine Lenin without Dzerzhinsky? Can we imagine Dzerzhinsky beyond Lenin?
At the moment that talk emerges of re-erecting Iron Felix, the Russian press is also talking about removing Lenin from his mausoleum and burying him, insisting that the majority of Russians want him buried.
The rehabilitation of this specific representation of Dzerzhinsky is notable, because it defends the power of the state apparatus, whereas Lenin still represents state destruction, rather than state reconstitution. In other words, the meaning of Lenin retains its revolutionary edge.
Stalin, however, fits into the new official mythology particularly nicely. His appeals to Russian chauvinism, social conservatism, and nationalism are supported by the worst elements in society today – elements like the LDPR and the Orthodox Church.
Dzerzhinsky can only fit into this system through this Stalinization process.
A Leninized Dzerzhinsky is equally feared, but a Stalinized Dzerzhinsky can be celebrated.
Even Stalin in 1937 criticized Dzerzhinsky as someone who “openly supported Trotsky against Lenin” and “wanted to use the GPU to protect Trotsky”.
Was Dzerzhinsky a Trotskyist or a Stalinist?
Was he revolutionary or counterrevolutionary?
Was he a defender of justice and the poor or simply a brutal mass-murderer?
Since his death, he has been all these things and more – occasionally simultaneously.
It seems to me that the best way to serve his memory and use this memory as a weapon is to re-Leninize him. The meaning of Dzerzhinsky ought to be inscribed with the life he lived.
Undoubtedly today in Russia, he is being heralded by those against whom he would passionately fight. Dzerzhinsky would never celebrate capitalism, especially not the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union. Had he lived longer, he would have certainly been purged by Stalin, along with the rest of the old guard in the Bolshevik party. If he was alive today, he’d probably be rotting in a Russian prison cell, labeled a terrorist.
However, since the 1920s, everyone from Stalin to Putin has successfully twisted and turned his image to suit their own desires.
The man seems to have been lost in the tornado of history.