Battle for resurrection of chekist 'Iron Felix' in Moscow cancelled as 'too divisive'

While in the West statues are being torn down in culture wars, in Moscow a competition on resurrection started. In 1991 the toppling of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the secret police of the USSR, at Lubyanka Square was the ultimate symbol of the end of communism. But nationalists started a campaign to resurrect the notorious chekist. A referendum was organised, only to be unplugged by the mayor after two days, as it proved 'too divisive'. Or maybe not distracting enough from the headlines on Navalny? 

loebjanka met dzjerzinski foto archief wikicommonsThe KGB Headquarters on Lubyanka Square with its founder Felix Dzerzhinsky in place (photo Archives, Wikicommons)

by Adam Tarasewicz

After repeated petitions over 20 years, in the last few weeks Russian nationalists have come the closest ever to returning the 'Iron Felix' statue to Lubyanka Square in Moscow. Muscovites were given one week to choose who they want in front of the former KGB Headquarters, now the office of the FSB. It was either to return Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the notorious Cheka, or to erect a statue of 13th Century Novgorod Prince Alexander Nevsky.

Developments unfolded incredibly fast: in early February, reported on a petition by an initiative group of Nationalist figures, including Alexander Prokhanov and Zakhar Prilepin, to return the statue. Their appeal cites Dzerzhinsky as a controversial figure, but there are 'just different sides' to Russia’s history, and 'one has to love and accept it as it is'.

Zakhar Prilepin, a prominent nationalist writer, has previously boasted of having 'killed many people' having been the deputy commander of a volunteer battalion that fought on the rebels side in the Donbas conflict. At one time a Putin critic and member of the banned ultranationalist National Bolshevik Party, he became a Kremlin loyalist after the Crimean annexation in 2014.

Alexander Prokhanov founded the ultranationalist newspaper Zavtra (Tomorrow) in the 1990s. Once scathingly critical of Boris Yeltsin, it fuses neo-Stalinist Communist nostalgia and anti-Western far-right nationalism. Like Prilepin, Prokhanov was also a critic of Putin’s early years, branding him a 'continuation of Yeltsin's anti-people politics', only to switch sides after the Crimean annexation. Both of them didn't so much change their views, rather the Kremlin has shifted to meet them.

loebjanka dzerzhinsky toppled in 1991In 1991 the statue of Dzerzhinsky was toppled with a crane (picture unknown)

On the 17th of February Kommersant reported of a discussion on the 'architectural appearance' of Lubyanka Square in the Moscow Public Chamber. Lubyanka Square, an eight-exit roundabout, due to its central position should have some sort of architectural dominant. When a second group of 'Officers of Russia' joined the debate with an appeal that Dzerzhinsky was 'a symbol of statehood and justice', the Chamber’s deputy chair Alexei Venediktov announced that a public referendum was the most appropriate. Dzerzhinsky would compete with Alexander Nevsky and the Moscow City Duma would decide whether to approve the winner.

Venediktov, who has been part of the Civic Chamber since 2016, is the editor-in-chief and part shareholder of opposition radio station Ekho Moskvy. In a 2019 interview, he called himself an 'opponent' of Putin, and said that Putin could 'shut Ekho down with one little finger'. Critical though it is, Ekho is also partly financed by the government and has ties to the Kremlin. 

After just two days of online voting, prince Nevsky had taken a narrow lead among the nearly 320,000 citizens. Then Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin pulled the plug on the vote citing its divisiveness. On the 26th of February, out of the blue, Moscow Mayor Sobyanin wrote on his blog that the vote was becoming a confrontation between people of different beliefs. He judged that 'more people’s consent is required' on the issue and therefore the voting process was stopped. The issue would probably be returned to in the future.

The Issue of commemoration

The potential return of Iron Felix, and memories of Dzerzhinsky’s terror angered many people. Leaders from the Russian Orthodox Church, that suffered tremendously under the atheistic communists and the Cheka, criticised the restoration as 'historical amnesia'.

In an interview with RIA Novosti, Borukh Gorin, spokesman of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, called the restoration a rehabilitation of Dzerzhinsky and Stalinist terror. He advocated for a monument to the repressed, or a fountain symbolising peace.

In a statement, the anti-stalinist ngo Memorial dismissed the choice between the repressive Dzerzhinsky and the entirely unrelated Nevsky as something that could only have occurred to a person 'devoid of conscience'. The historically appropriate choice would be to return the original fountain, or otherwise an open ballot for the people to truly choose a new statue. 'Any decision' on the chosen grounds, Memorial aptly predicted, 'will be reversed in the not-too-distant future'.

loebjanka return of the names pciture evan gershkovichThe yearly commemoration of Stalin's victims at Memorial's monument on Lubyanka Square (picture Evan Gershkovich)

It was Memorial, founded by dissident Andrei Sakharov in 1989, that filled the vacuum on Lubyanka Square long ago. Not far from the spot where Dzerzhinsky stood, a simple boulder taken from the first gulag camp on the nordic Solovetsky Isles, was erected as a monument for the victims of Stalinism. Every year on the 29th of October (human rights day) it serves as the location of a day long ceremony, called the 'Returning of the Names'. An endless line of people wait for their turn to read the names, ages, and occupations of 30-40,000 Muscovites who were executed during Stalin’s purges.

It was one of the only non-official commemorations left untouched under Putin. But Memorial in 2012 as one of the first ngo's has been stigmatized as a 'foreign agent' and is actively persecuted by the authorities. In 2018, only public outcry prevented the city council moving the ceremony to the newly constructed 'Wall of Grief', citing the unexpected urgent need of reconstruction on Lubyanka Square. Opposition politician Grigory Yavlinsky denounced the decision as part of the 'rehabilitation of Stalin’s image'.

Writer Dmitry Glukhovsky, author of Metro 2033, called campaigners Prilepin and Prokhanov 'political provocateurs to a much greater extent than cultural figures', further describing Prokhanov as 'an old hooligan'.

Alexander Prokhanov had previously dismissed the divisiveness of Iron Felix as 'there is simply nowhere to divide society further'. He argued for the return, emphasising that that the KGB building is full of portraits to Dzerzhinsky anyway.

Zakhar Prilepin called the statue’s return a 'symbolic act of colossal significance' showing Russia was 'ready to overcome the chaos and decay of 1991'. 

Stalin in Muzeon Park

The statue of Iron Felix was erected in 1958 at a ceremony attended by then First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, and his future successor Leonid Brezhnev. After the failed August coup of 1991 it was toppled by a crowd with the help of a crane. A symbolic end to his repression at the beginning of a new era for Russia, journalist Fiona Clark describes how 'there was a palpable sense of optimism and euphoria in the air'. The statue found a home in Muzeon park, created in 1992 by the Mayor of Moscow.

Muzeon Park describes itself as 'a place for saving historical artifacts', as well as a platform for exhibitions, music and theatre, and education. Part of Gorky Park since 2015, it hosts a collection of over 1000 sculptures, including many of famous Soviet figures. Dzerzhinsky and Stalin are there.

Talking to NPR last year, park guide Artyom Golbin considers the statues an 'important reminder of Soviet times'. Russia, like every country 'has different periods, some of them bad, some of them good'. Political analyst Masha Lipman believes that the mixture of contemporary fairy tale characters and abstract pieces has 'deprived' the political figures of their symbolism. It might be an appropriate compromise between preserving historical monuments and taking them down from celebration on public display.

Iron Felix and Soviet Memory

Born to Polish aristocracy in 1877, Dzerzhinsky joined a local Marxist group in 1895, and spent 11 years in prison as a member of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. He was freed after the 1917 February Revolution, and tasked by Lenin with forming the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-revolution and Sabotage. This was better known as the Cheka, a pre-cursor of the KGB, and now FSB.

The Cheka became notorious for their 'troika' groups acting as judge, juror, and executioner who dealt with counterrevolutionaries, and ruthless expropriation of grain from starving rural communities to send to the cities. The Cheka under Dzerzhinsky were central to the 'Red Terror', during which anywhere from 50,000 to a million were killed according to various estimates. Journalist and historian Leonid Mlechin believes Dzerzhinsky 'considered himself free of any moral norms'.

Mixed remembrance

In spite of his troubling history, modern Russia has a mixed remembrance of Dzerzhinsky. In 2015 polling by the Levada Centre, 49% of Russians reacted positively to the idea of returning the Iron Felix statue, with the number up to 51% in Moscow specifically. Of those responding positively across Russia, 29% reasoned that 'Whoever Dzerzhinsky may be, it is a monument to an era of Russian history that we cannot reject'.

Dzerzhinsky is not the most controversial historical figure seeing a comeback. In 2019, the Moscow Times reported that 70% of Russians approved of Stalin’s role in their country’s history, which was a record high after a shift from his portrayal as a 'bloody autocrat' has been replaced with one of an 'outstanding leader' under Putin. The same year, in spite of protests that led to multiple changes of proposed location, the Communist Party in Novosibirsk erected a bust of Stalin at their party headquarters. Only a year earlier, nearly half of Russians aged 18-24 appeared never to have heard of the Stalin-era purges.

stalin buste novosibirsk foto eva hartogIn May 2019 a Stalin bust was erected in Novosibirsk (picture Eva Hartog)

Analyst Pavel Aptekar considers that Putin seeks for a 'proper and consistent concept of the past'. Criticism of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky would not fit with this consistency. He likens the current situation to policy under the Chinese Communist Party, where both Deng and Mao said that even when the emperor committed the gravest of errors, he was still 70% right. 

Competitor Alexander Nevsky

Dzerzhinsky’s competitor was Alexander Nevsky, prince of Novgorod who defeated invading German Teutonic Knights in 1242. A figure of patriotism, Carnegie analyst Andrei Kolesnikov sees him as a symbol of modern Russian conservatism. 'Dzerzhinsky symbolizes the return of the secret police’s power, and Nevsky the victory over Western invaders'. 

Alexander Nevsky Poster

Nevsky is no more relevant than Dzerzhinsky to the young generation. They do not find him on TikTok. Still analyst Matvey Ganapolsky calls him the far off 'fairytale' choice. He fought off the invader and can be more easily detached from the deaths he caused than the chekist Dzerzhinsky.

Diverting attention from Navalny

For the Russian government it appears that priority in the first place may have been diverting attention from the recent Navalny protests and an approval rating for Putin that is at its lowest for ten years. A Kremlin source of BBC Russia claims that the government was keen to 'offer society some other agenda' as a result of the recent attention on protests and Navalny’s documentary on Putin’s Palace.

Theories on the political intentions of the referendum abound. While the Kremlin seemed ambivalent in the build up to the vote, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment. Het considered it a matter for the Moscow authorities, as they allowed a situation to develop where Iron Felix was closer than ever to being returned.

Analyst Mark Galeotti suggests that the government may have been swayed by the nationalists who told that the statue would be a message of warning to the recent pro-Navalny protesters. He points to the significance that 'Putin increasingly depends on his security apparatus'.

Alternatively, Olga Malinova of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics told The Moscow Times that the Kremlin does not excuse the legacy of Dzerzhinsky’s terror. 'Putin and his inner circle are not Stalinists', she claims, arguing that the original decision to hold a referendum may have been meant to finally put the issue to bed, ending the cycle of petitions calling for the statue’s return.

In spite of the denials of Peskov, asked by the BBC, Venediktov claimed that the powers in Russia had their favourites. He believes that all claims of 'counter-programming' for Navalny are 'stupid', and that it was more a matter of 'revenge or restoration' after the constitution was amended. A former FSB officer told the BBC that the secret service had been calling for the return of the statue for years, yet Venediktov believes Putin would have preferred Nevsky to win. 'He [Putin] is not a Bolshevik', but an 'imperial'.

While it seems Nevsky would have won had voting continued, the referendum appears to have had far from the desired effect. The vote did not interest the 'opposition-minded youth', but rather split opinion among pro-Putin circles, such as the Orthodox Church, security officials, and those nostalgic of the past. A source of press agency Meduza believes that the mayor’s office had overestimated its power to sway the vote in Nevsky’s favour, and underestimated the solidarity that security officials would show for Dzerzhinsky.

Whatever the rationale behind the vote, it has resolved nothing.


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