The Ups and Downs of Felix Dzerzhinsky

Felix Dzerzhinsky toppled. Photo credit: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko.

By Peter Galuszka

For three decades, a 15-ton statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky loomed over a square in downtown Moscow. He rose high near the Lubyanka building, a turn of the century, yellow-colored one-time insurance office that served as the national headquarters for the KGB.

“Iron Felix,” born of Polish nobility, is best known as V.I. Lenin’s henchman, the leader of the Red secret police who orchestrated the deaths of hundreds of thousands during the Russian Civil War. He became regarded as the grandfather of various Soviet security agencies, including the MVD, NKVD, KGB and now the FSB and SVR.

Then in August 1991, Soviet hardliners attempted a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the reform-minded Communist Party chief. The coup failed, touching off a storm of retribution.

As many as 1,320 statues of Lenin cross the country came down. Leningrad became St. Petersburg, the Kirov Ballet reverted to its old name, the Mariinsky Ballet, and the city of Moscow ordered the statue of Felix taken down.

In order words, there is a strong similarity between what happened just before the Soviet Union fell apart in December 1991 and what is going on today in this country, especially in Virginia.

In Richmond, statues of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gen. William Carter Wickham and Christopher Columbus have been toppled by angry protestors after the death by police in Minneapolis George Floyd. Robert E. Lee’s memorial has been ordered down by Gov. Ralph Northam and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart are next.

Coming to terms with an evil and bloody past is a rough thing. Slavery affected thousands of African-Americas leaving families torn apart and slaves beaten, raped and murdered.

The Soviet Union was far worse. Stalin killed about 20 million in forced starvation, deaths by disease or beatings in Gulags or simple pistol shots. Many of the executions took place in the basement of Lubyanka in shower-like rooms where drainage pipes could wash the blood away. Sometimes prisoners were lined up three apace, head by head, so one bullet could achieve three kills.

This dark past has affected Russia immensely. Three years after Stalin died, Nikita Khrushchev delivered his “Secret Speech,” denouncing Stalin. That was a major earthquake, although repression continued.

I reported for an American magazine from Moscow for a total of six years in the 1980s and 1990s. Covering the unbroken cycle of repression and reform was fascinating.

Something akin is taking place now in Virginia as the state tries, once again, to come to grips with its dark past. And just like in the Soviet Union, some Virginians are trying to sugar-coat what really happened and pretend that the Confederate memorials are merely vestiges of history.

Never mind that so many schools, roads and public buildings are named for Confederate figures. In their view, if it bothers African-Americans, too bad.

Going through such a societal catharsis can be confusing. For example, in 1993, I was back in Moscow and needed to go to Alma Aty, the former capital of Kazahstan, to report a story about plans to build a major and controversial petroleum pipeline from the giant Tenghiz oil field in western Kazakhstan across the Caspian Sea and on to the Black Sea for transfer to oil tanker ships. Russia wanted the pipeline to go through Russia. Georgia wanted it to go through Georgia, showing once again how pipelines spark global conflict. (Think the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines). I asked an old lady for directions. She said: “It’s not Lenin Street anymore. It’s now Apple Street.”

One danger that now afflicts Russia – and could someday involve Virginia – is a reactionary return to the old symbols. After Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, became president in 2000, supporters started pining away for the past. Putin, a populist and nationalist like Donald Trump in many ways, found this politically expedient.

So, some of the Communist statues are being revived. For example, there was a bust of Dzerzhinsky at 38 Petrovka, the address of the Moscow Police Department. In 1991, police officers took it down. But in November 2005, it went back up.