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Feliks Dzerzhinsky returns

Last update - Sunday, December 1, 2013, 15:02 By Panu Höglund

It was a piece of news that frightened anybody knowledgeable of Russian and Soviet history: the City Council of Moscow decided to restore the statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky – or DzierżyÅ„ski, as his name is written in Polish – on Lubyanka Square.

The name Dzerzhinsky is to Soviet history what Himmler is to Nazi Germany, for it was he who led the Cheka, the first ‘security’ service to terrorise the people of Soviet Russia. And the name Lubyanka has a bitter tinge, too, for it was there the security services had their headquarters.
What does ‘Cheka’ mean? As many other new words in Russian introduced after the Bolshevik revolution, it is an abbreviation. ‘Che’ and ‘Ka’ are two letters in the Russian alphabet, and they stand for the words ‘Chrezvychaynaya Komissiya’ (the extraordinary commission). The true name of the commission was much longer: ‘The all-Russian extraordinary commission for fighting counter-revolution and sabotage.’ The agents of the commission were called ‘Chekists’, and that’s what security service agents are still dubbed in Russia.
It was the Chekists’ job to extend the power of the Bolsheviks to the whole of the country, and the ways available to them were torture and mass executions. To give the Bolsheviks their due, it must be admitted that Russia was torn by civil war at the time, with all kinds of armed militias running wild most everywhere. In this sense it’s possible to say that the Cheka and its atrocities were part of the then-rampant lawlessness. It is another story, though, that no rule of law was ever substituted for this lawlessness when the Soviet Union reached political stability. The methods preferred by the Cheka weren’t abolished by the authorities that came about after the Cheka.
In 1922, the GPU – the State Political Directorate – took the helm from the Cheka, and in the next year its name was changed to OGPU, or the United State Political Directorate. Even these authorities were led by Dzerzhinsky until his death in 1926. By origins he was a Polish nobleman, something you wouldn’t expect a Soviet leader to be, and indeed the authority he created was to kill or imprison lots of Poles living in the Soviet Union.
In a way, the fact that Dzerzhinsky was a Pole impeded internal discussion in post-Soviet Russia about the relationship of Soviet tyranny and Russian culture. Russian nationalists often state that communism and Bolshevism were entirely non-Russian things smuggled in by western agents. Part of this propaganda is emphasising the non-Russian roots of some Bolshevik leaders, so that the question of Russian guilt is avoided: the difficult question whether there were particular cultural reasons why left-wing extremists were able to seize power in Russia rather than in any other European state during the post-World War I crisis.
After the demise of the Soviet Union, the communist vision of a just world was discarded in Russia. However, it seems that the dark side of communism – dictatorship, mass murder of political dissenters and forced-labour camps – weren’t discarded in the same way. Quite the opposite. An ex-Chekist is now the President of Russia, and accordingly, the Cheka is about to be rehabilitated. That is a bad sign to the people of Russia and the whole world.

Panu Höglund is a Finnish writer who studied Russian culture.

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