Is Vladimir Putin
Felix Dzerzhinsky
With H-Bombs?

by Lubomyr Prytulak
Posted on www.xoxol.org/putin/dzerzhinsky.html 21Oct2014 12:34pm, last revised 24Oct2014 03:25pm

Who can see on the face of an 18-year-old whether he is destined to become an angel or a devil?

Dzerzhinsky as a young man 1895
Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926) in 1895   www.rferl.mobi/~

What he does become will be in part determined by how the world treats him, and the world did not treat Felix Dzerzhinsky well.  For example, what may be taken to be Dzerzhinsky's wry smile in the 1916 mugshot below might in fact be a disfigurement caused by prison beatings:

Moreover, Dzerzhinsky was beaten frequently by the Russian prison guards, which caused the permanent disfigurement of his jaw and mouth.   en.wikipedia.org/~

Three mugshots of Felix Dzerzhinsky: 1909, 1914, and 1916


Perhaps it is because a side view hides the disfigurement of mouth and jaw that this 1919 likeness of Dzerzhinski, now playing the role of Cheka founder, has become the one most often reproduced, as in the poster opposite.


БУДЬТЕ ЗОРКИ И БДИТЕЛЬНЫ! — BE WATCHFUL AND ALERT! — fails to warn the Russian people that the menace most needing to be watched for and prevented is the seizure of state power by monsters.

Another sign left behind by beatings may be the damaged ear apparent in the 1914 mugshot, although this interpretation brings with it the incongruity that the 1914 scar-tissue lines disappear in the 1916 photo:

Felix Dzerzhinsky Right Ear
Felix Dzerzhinsky right ear in 1909   Felix Dzerzhinsky right ear in 1914   Felix Dzerzhinsky right ear in 1916

Perhaps the attributed dates are in error, as is suggested not only by the scar-tissue anachronism, but also by the 1914 mugshots seeming to show Dzerzhinsky at his oldest among the three sets, his facial hair most grizzled, his hairline most receded, and his face most lined.

Although three mugshots might seem like a large number, in fact they fail to convey the full duration of Dzerzhinsky's various incarcerations:

As Flaubert put it, "inside every revolutionary there is a policeman".  Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926), the founding father of the Cheka, was a classic case in point.  By 1917 he had spent the best part of his adult life in jails and penal exile, including the last three in the Orel prison, notorious for its sadistic tortures, where, as the leader of a hunger strike, he was singled out for punishment (his body was said to be covered with scars).  Once installed in power, he was to copy many of these torture methods during the Red Terror.

Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, PIMLICO, London, 1996, p. 124.

But while Dzerzhinsky may have started out merely copying the Tsarist tortures that he had heard of or had himself been subjected to, it did not take him long to surpass them:

The ingenuity of the Cheka's torture methods was matched only by the Spanish Inquisition.  Each local Cheka had its own speciality.  In Kharkov they went in for the "glove trick" — burning the victim's hands in boiling water until the blistered skin could be peeled off: this left the victims with raw and bleeding hands and their torturers with "human gloves".  The Tsaritsyn Cheka sawed the victims' bones in half.  In Voronezh they rolled their naked victims in nail-studded barrels.  In Armavir they crushed their skulls by tightening a leather strap with an iron bolt around their head.  In Kiev they affixed a cage with rats to the victim's torso and heated it so that the enraged rats ate their way through the victim's guts in an effort to escape.  In Odessa they chained their victims to planks and pushed them slowly into a furnace or a tank of boiling water.  A favourite winter torture was to pour water on the naked victims until they became living ice statues.  Many Chekas preferred psychological forms of torture.  One had the victims led off to what they thought was their execution, only to find that a blank had been fired at them.  Another had the victims buried alive, or kept in a coffin with a corpse.  Some Chekas forced their victims to watch their loved ones being tortured, raped or killed.

Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, PIMLICO, London, 1996, p. 646.

And Dzerzhinsky also surpassed the Tsarist modus operandi in the arbitrariness with which he selected his victims:

[I]n February 1918, after just two months in power, the Bolsheviks gave the Cheka the formal right to shoot its victims without anyone else's sanction, even without charge or trial.  Power of life and death invigorated the Cheka; it spawned offspring with lightening speed.

Donald Rayfield, Stalin and his hangmen: the tyrant and those who killed for him, Random House, New York, 2004, p. 68.

Cheka official Martin Latsis
Martin Latsis   1888-1938
When interrogating, do not seek material evidence or proof of the accused's words or deeds against Soviet power.  The first question you must ask is: what class does he belong to, what education, upbringing, origin, or profession does he have?  These questions must determine the accused's fate.  This is the sense and essence of red terror....  It doesn't judge the enemy, it strikes him.
Martin Latsis, among whose postings have been Chairman of the All-Ukrainian Cheka and Chairman of Cheka in Kiev Governorate, writing in the Chekist journal The Red Sword, as quoted by Donald Rayfield, Stalin and his hangmen: the tyrant and those who killed for him, Random House, New York, 2004, p. 74.

And Dzerzhinsky also greatly surpassed Tsarist killings in volume:

Executions were the final product of this machinery of terror.  Tens of thousands of summary executions were carried out in courtyards and cellars, or in deserted fields on the edge of towns, during the years of the civil war.  Whole prisons would be "emptied" by the Cheka before a town was abandoned to the Whites.  At night the cities tried to sleep to the sound of people being shot.  The Bolsheviks themselves, however, did not lose much sleep.  In 1919, during a session of Sovnarkom, Lenin wrote a note and passed it to Dzerzhinsky: "How many dangerous counter-revolutionaries do we have in prison?"  Dzerzhinsky scribbled, "About 1,500" and returned the note.  Lenin looked at it, placed the sign of a cross by the figure, and gave it back to the Cheka boss.  That night, 1,500 Moscow prisoners were shot on Dzerzhinsky's orders.  This turned out to be a dreadful mistake.  Lenin had not ordered the execution at all: he always placed a cross by anything he had read to signify that he had done so and taken it into account.  As a result of Dzerzhinsky's simple error 1,500 people lost their lives.

Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, PIMLICO, London, 1996, p. 647.

One attempt to pinpoint the date of the commencement of mass killing places it in September 1918:

The terror began officially on September 5, 1918, after Fanny Kaplan tried to kill Lenin.  On the following day, the Bolsheviks indiscriminately killed five hundred persons and then began to mow down everyone.  They let themselves go to such an extent that [Patriarch] Tikhon called them a satanic herd.  They began to issue a weekly bulletin....  In it, they publish the names of those murdered and shot.

Boris Nemtsov, as quoted by David Satter, It was a long time ago, and it never happened anyway, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2012, p. 311.

It may be the case, however, that the bloodbath was already underway by February 1918:

Isaac Nachman Steinberg Isaac Nachman Steinberg 1888-1957
People's Commissar for Justice of the RSFSR
22 Dec 1917 - 18 Mar 1918

At first, there was some opposition to the terror.  I[saac Nachman] Steinberg, the commissar for justice [...] tried to subordinate Dzerzhinsky's Cheka to the courts.  Following an order in February 1918 calling for summary execution of all "profiteers, hooligans and counter-revolutionaries," he protested to Lenin, "Then why do we bother with a Commissariat of Justice at all?  Let's call it frankly the 'Commissariat for Social Extermination' and be done with it!"  According to his account, Lenin brightened and said, "Well put, that's exactly what it should be; but we can't say that."

David Satter, It was a long time ago, and it never happened anyway, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2012, p. 15.

Although mass killing is the worst of all the Cheka crimes, it wallowed as well in every other, as for example thievery:

[T]he VCheKa/GPU financed its existence with bribes and smuggling and from confiscations during searches and arrests.  This blatant criminality created a climate of corruption that has permeated the security service from its birth up to the present day.  Special commissions for combating smuggling and bribery were used not only for their stated purpose but also to establish "green lines" for smuggled goods and bribes.  Each secret agent was allowed to smuggle up to 200 gold rubles' worth of goods into the country.  In 1921, the VCheKa Administrative-Organizational Department (OAU) was put in charge of coordinating all financial activity (among other duties).  This department supervised cinemas, restaurants, and show business in Moscow and Petrograd and ran its own chain of shops, which sold the belongings of arrested or executed persons.

Vadim J. Birstein, The perversion of knowledge: The true story of Soviet science, Westview Press, Cambridge MA, 2001, pp. 25-26.

For another example of the Cheka doing something other than impulsively imprisoning and shooting people, it occasionally subjected some of them to show trials:

At the beginning of 1920, the plenipotentiary of the VCheKa Special Department (OO), Yakov Agranov, fabricated the first political show trial [...].  Even though the task of the OO was to combat counterrevolution and spies in the Red Army, this show trial involved many scientists.  In January 1920, the OO was headed by Dzerzhinsky himself [...].

Vadim J. Birstein, The perversion of knowledge: The true story of Soviet science, Westview Press, Cambridge MA, 2001, p. 26.

And a show trial was not always followed by execution.  In some cases the show trial was preceded by execution:

The report included a list of sixty-one participants in the plot and their alleged plan to stage an uprising against the Bolsheviks.  [...]  Also, the PBO supposedly planned to kill some of the Bolshevik leaders.  The case was under the personal control of Dzerzhinsky and Lenin.

However, at the time of the report's publication, these people had already been shot without a trial.  The list included many scientists: geographer Vladimir Tagantsev (1889-1921), chemist Mikhail Tikhvinsky (1886-1921), economist Nikolai Lazarevsky (1868-1921), geologist Viktor Kozlovsky (1883-1921), engineer Grigorii Maksimov (1889-1921), and Nikolai Gumilev (1886-1921), one of the best Russian poets [...].

Vadim J. Birstein, The perversion of knowledge: The true story of Soviet science, Westview Press, Cambridge MA, 2001, p. 29.

Lubyanka Square with Iron Felix statue

Despite Felix Dzerzhinsky's horrific legacy — or perhaps in admiration of Dzerzhinsky's horrific legacy — in 1958 he was honored with a 15-ton "Iron Felix" statue in Moscow's Lubyanka square (at that time called Dzerzhinsky Square), fittingly right in front of KGB headquarters which at that time was housed in the Lubyanka Building shown above.


Government by murder being incompatible with government longevity, 22 Aug 1991 saw a crowd of about fifteen thousand gathered around the Iron Felix statue and writing on its plinth "antichrist", "bloody executioner", and "shit in a leather coat", some among the protestors wanting to go on to storm the KGB building.


The statue's toppling brought hope that the KGB would echo the sentiments of the people by renouncing government by murder. 

However, some observers have been claiming that Vladimir Putin never suspended either his admiration of Felix Dzerzhinsky, or his determination to follow in Dzerzhinsky's footsteps:

Today's secret police, the FSB, take pride in their Cheka ancestry.  They foster the cult of themselves as Dzerzhinsky's samurai, this time protecting the Russian nation, rather than the working class, against its enemies.  [...]  The Russian state in 2004 is ruled by a man [Vladimir Putin] who is, by career and choice, a successor to Iagoda and Beria.  And while Russia's political prisoners number hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, the FSB has taken, in alliance with bandits and extortioners, the commanding heights of the country's government and economic riches, and goes on lying to, and when expedient murdering, its citizens.

Donald Rayfield, Stalin and his hangmen: the tyrant and those who killed for him, Random House, New York, 2004, p. 470.

Vladimir Putin's sympathy for Dzerzhinsky is not without support, as for example the support of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of Russia's Liberal Democratic Party:

Regarding symbols.  You say that there is too much blood connected with the name of Dzerzhinsky.  But there are other considerations.  Today we have the FSB.  The FSB needs something to be proud of.  They celebrate their holiday every year and [the statue of] their founder is somewhere in an empty lot.  Without the FSB, the country cannot develop further.  What should thousands of officers of the FSB do if their founder is considered a criminal?  That means their organization is criminal.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, as quoted by David Satter, It was a long time ago, and it never happened anyway, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2012, p. 311.

Five pieces of evidence that Vladimir Putin may indeed be worshipful of Felix Dzerzhinsky:

(1)  Vladimir Putin has not destroyed the toppled Iron Felix statue, instead keeping it ready in Moscow's Fallen Monuments Park, even while neglecting to paint-over its disrespectful graffiti better than perfunctorily:

Dzerzhinsky statue 2007 2.bp.blogspot.com/~

(2)  13 Sep 2002, with Putin calling the shots as president, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov proposes restoring the Iron Felix statue to Lubyanka Square.  Opponents of the proposal collect the signatures of 114,000 Moscow residents.

Yury Luzhkov, Moscow Mayor
Yury Luzhkov, Moscow Mayor 6 Jun 1992 – 28 Sep 2010

In the opinion of a number of newspapers (Moskovsky Komsomolets, Vremya-MN, Vremya Novostei, and others), Luzhkov was simply trying to curry favor with a new [Putin] regime that, "for well-known reasons," had a positive attitude toward the return of the monument to the "first Chekist."

Human rights organizations raised the issue of Dzerzhinsky's crimes.  On September 16, [...] Boris Nemtsov [...] described Dzerzhinsky as "a hangman who destroyed several million of his fellow countrymen."  Protestors from Memorial said that a monument to Dzerzhinsky in Russia was "the same as a monument to Himmler in Germany."  The Union of Orthodox Citizens [...] greeted with "bewilderment" Luzhkov's proposal to return to the square the statue of "one of the organizers of the genocide of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian people."

David Satter, It was a long time ago, and it never happened anyway, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2012, p. 13.

(3)  08 November 2005:  Vladimir Putin restores, to the inner courtyard of the Moscow Police Headquarters, the Felix Dzerzhinsky bust that had been removed from there on 22 Aug 1991.

Dzerzhinsky bust Moscow Police Headquarters

(4)  11 September 2014:  Possibly to test public sentiment in preparation for erecting on Lubyanka Square a 50-ton Dzerzhinsky statue which would dwarf the 15-ton Iron Felix original that had been removed in 1991, Vladimir Putin gets Russia's Communist Party to celebrate the 137th anniversary of Dzerzhinsky's birth by erecting a smallish Dzerzhinsky statue (which with plinth reaches maybe five feet) on the exact location of the original Iron Felix, as has been videod:

PLAY VIDEO for Felix Dzerzhinsky miniature statue planted on Lubyanka Square

Dzerzhinsky Division shoulder patch

(5)  23 September 2014:  Vladimir Putin restores the title of "Dzerzhinsky Division" to an elite police unit whose members can be recognized by their shoulder patch.
Dzerzhinsky Division

Perhaps in the early stages of their careers, Dzerzhinsky Division members carry no more guilt than Felix himself did in the photograph of him at the age of 18 at the top of the instant page.  If they are guilty of any sin today, it may be only the lesser sin of failing to anticipate the killing that Vladimir Putin will be commanding them to perform in his struggle to stop the people from demanding that he return what he has stolen.

It may be wondered whether Vladimir Putin regards the Dzerzhinsky Division with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, he may be heartened to dream of how many opponents of his regime might be mown down by the Division's guns; on the other hand, he may lose sleep foreseeing that when Division members learn of Felix Dzerzhinsky's maniacal past, and also see photographs of the twenty Putin palaces, they will turn their guns not on regime opponents but on the regime leader.

Vladimir Putin's Black Sea Castle
One of Vladimir Putin's possessions — his Black Sea Palace

What Vladimir Putin prays the young recruits photographed above will never realize is that when he sends them into battle, he expects them to give their lives so that he can keep his palaces.

World Affairs logo      The Rehabilitation of Felix Dzerzhinsky

Alan Johnson      by Alan Johnson     World Affairs     14 October 2014     http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/alan-johnson/rehabilitation-felix-dzerzhinsky

Lubyanka Square still featuring Iron Felix statue

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 statue 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 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