Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (Polish: Feliks Dzierżyński [ˈfɛliɡz dʑɛrˈʐɨj̃skʲi]; Russian: Фе́ликс Эдму́ндович Дзержи́нский; 11 September [O.S. 30 August] 1877 – 20 July 1926), nicknamed "Iron Felix", was a Bolshevik revolutionary and official. Born into Polish nobility, from 1917 until his death in 1926 Dzerzhinsky led the first two Soviet state-security organizations, the Cheka and the OGPU, establishing a secret police for the post-revolutionary Soviet regime. He was one of the architects of the Red Terror and decossackization.
|Director of the OGPU|
15 November 1923 – 20 July 1926
|Preceded by||Himself as the Director of the GPU|
|Succeeded by||Vyacheslav Menzhinsky|
|Director of the GPU|
6 February 1922 – 15 November 1923
|Preceded by||Himself as Director of the Cheka|
|Succeeded by||Himself as Director of the OGPU|
|Director of the Cheka|
20 December 1917 – 6 February 1922
|Preceded by||Office established|
|Succeeded by||Himself as Director of the GPU|
|People's Commissar of VSNKh|
2 February 1924 – 20 July 1926
|Preceded by||Alexei Rykov|
|Succeeded by||Valerian Kuybyshev|
|Candidate member of the 13th, 14th Politburo|
2 June 1924 – 20 July 1926
|Member of the 6th Secretariat|
6 August 1917 – 8 March 1918
11 September [O.S. 30 August] 1877
Ivyanets, Minsk Governorate, Russian Empire
|Died||20 July 1926 (aged 48)|
Moscow, Soviet Union
|Nationality||Polish and Soviet|
|Political party||VKP(b) (1917–26)|
|Spouse(s)||Zofia Sigizmundovna Muszkat|
|Children||Jan Feliksovich Dzerzhinsky|
Felix Dzerzhinsky was born on 11 September 1877 to ethnically Polish parents of noble descent, at the Dzerzhinovo family estate, about 15 km (9.3 mi) from the small town of Ivyanets in the Minsk Governorate of the Russian Empire (now Belarus). In the Russian Empire, his family was of a type known as "column-listed nobility" (ru) (Russian: столбовое дворянство, stolbovoe dvorianstvo), whose nobility was formally acknowledged, but so old that they did not enjoy the privileges of the new nobility. His sister Wanda died at the age of 12, when she was accidentally shot with a hunting rifle on the family estate by one of her brothers. At the time of the incident, there were conflicting claims as to whether Felix or his brother Stanisław was responsible for the accident.
His father, Edmund-Rufin Dzierżyński graduated from the Saint Petersburg Imperial University in 1863 and moved to Vilnius, where he worked as a home teacher for a professor of Saint Petersburg University named Januszewski and eventually married Januszewski's daughter Helena Ignatievna, who also was of Polish origin. In 1868, after a short period in Kherson gymnasium, he worked as a gymnasium teacher of physics and mathematics at the gymnasiums of Taganrog in the Don Host Province, Russia, particularly the Chekhov Gymnasium. In 1875, Edmund Dzierżyński retired due to health conditions and moved with his family to his estate near Ivyanets and Rakaw, Russian Empire. In 1882, Felix's father died from tuberculosis.
As a youngster Dzerzhinsky became fluent in four languages: Polish, Russian, Yiddish, and Latin. He attended the Wilno gymnasium from 1887 to 1895. One of the older students at this gymnasium was his future arch-enemy, Józef Piłsudski. Years later, as Marshal of Poland, Piłsudski recalled that Dzerzhinsky "distinguished himself as a student with delicacy and modesty. He was rather tall, thin and demure, making the impression of an ascetic with the face of an icon... Tormented or not, this is an issue history will clarify; in any case this person did not know how to lie." School documents show that Dzerzhinsky attended his first year in school twice, while his eighth year he was not able to finish. Dzerzhinsky received a school diploma which stated: "Dzerzhinsky Feliks, who is 18 years of age, of Catholic faith, along with a satisfactory attention and satisfactory diligence showed the following successes in sciences, namely: Divine law—"good"; Logic, Latin, Algebra, Geometry, Mathematical geography, Physics, History (of Russia), French—"satisfactory"; Russian and Greek—"unsatisfactory".
Political affiliations and arrests
Two months before he expected to graduate, the gymnasium expelled Dzerzhinsky for "revolutionary activity" and for posting signs with communist slogans at the school. He had joined a Marxist group, the Union of Workers (Socjaldemokracja Królestwa Polskiego "SDKP"), in 1895. In late April 1896 he was one of 15 delegates at the first congress of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP). In 1897 he attended the second congress of the LSDP, where it rejected independence in favor of national autonomy. On 18 March 1897 he was sent to Kaunas to take advantage of the arrest of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) branch. He worked in a book-binding factory and set up an illegal press. As an organizer of a shoemakers' strike, Dzerzhinsky was arrested for "criminal agitation among the Kaunas workers"; the police files from this time state: "Felix Dzerzhinsky, considering his views, convictions and personal character, will be very dangerous in the future, capable of any crime." Dzerzhinsky envisioned merging the LSDP with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) and was a follower of Rosa Luxemburg on a national issue.
He was arrested on a denunciation for his revolutionary activities for the first time in 1897, after which he served almost a year in the Kaunas prison. In 1898 Dzerzhinsky was exiled for three years to the Vyatka Governorate (city of Nolinsk) where he worked at a local tobacco factory. There Dzerzhinsky was arrested for agitating for revolutionary activities and was sent 500 versts (330 mi) north to the village of Kaigorod. In August 1899 he returned to Vilnius. Dzerzhinsky subsequently became one of the founders of Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (Polish: Socjaldemokracja Królestwa Polskiego i Litwy, SDKPiL) in 1899. In February 1900 he was arrested again and served his time at first in the Alexander Citadel in Warsaw and later at the Siedlce prison. In 1902 Dzerzhinsky was sent deep into Siberia for the next five years to the remote town of Vilyuysk, while en route being temporarily held at the Alexandrovsk Transitional Prison near Irkutsk. While in exile he escaped on a boat and later emigrated from the country. He traveled to Berlin, where at the SDKPiL conference Dzerzhinsky was elected a secretary of its party committee abroad (Polish: Komitet Zagraniczny, KZ) and met with several prominent leaders of the Polish Social Democratic movement, including Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches. They gained control of the party organization through the creation of a committee called the Komitet Zagraniczny (KZ), which dealt with the party's foreign relations. As secretary of the KZ, Dzerzhinsky was able to dominate the SDKPiL. In Berlin, he organized publication of the newspaper Czerwony Sztandar ("Red Banner"), and transportation of illegal literature from Kraków into Congress Poland. Being a delegate to the IV Congress of SDKPiL in 1903 Dzerzhinsky was elected as a member of its General Board.
Dzerzhinsky visited Switzerland, where his fiancée Julia Goldman, the sister of Boris Gorev, was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. She died in his arms on 4 June 1904. Her illness and death depressed him - in letters to his sister, Dzerzhinsky explained that he no longer saw any meaning for his life. That changed with the Russian Revolution of 1905, as Dzerzhinsky became involved with work again. After the revolution failed he was again jailed in July 1905, this time by the Okhrana. In October he was released on amnesty. As a delegate to the 4th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in Stockholm, Dzerzhinsky entered the central body of the party. From July through September 1906, he lived in Saint Petersburg and then returned to Warsaw, where he was arrested again in December of the same year. In June 1907 Dzerzhinsky was released on bail. At the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, in London in May–June 1907, he was elected in absentia as a member of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party. In April 1908 Dzerzhinsky was arrested once again in Warsaw and again exiled to Siberia (Yeniseysk Governorate) in 1909. As before, Dzerzhinsky managed to escape (by November 1909). In 1910 he reached Italy, where he met Maxim Gorky on Capri; he then returned to Poland.
Back in Kraków in 1910, Dzerzhinsky married RSDLP party member Zofia Muszkat, who was already pregnant. A month later she was arrested; she gave birth to their son Janek in Pawiak prison. In 1911 Zofia was sentenced to permanent Siberian exile, and she left the child with her father. Dzerzhinsky saw his son for the first time in March 1912 in Warsaw. In attending the welfare of his child, Dzerzhinsky repeatedly exposed himself to the danger of arrest. On one occasion, Dzerzhinsky narrowly escaped an ambush that the police had prepared at the apartment of his father-in-law.
Dzerzhinsky continued to direct the Social Democratic Party (SDKPiL), while considering his continued freedom "only a game of the Okhrana". The Okhrana, however, was not playing a game; Dzerzhinsky simply was a master of conspiratorial techniques and was therefore extremely difficult to find. A police file from this time says:
"Dzerzhinsky continued to lead the Social Democratic party and at the same time he directed party work in Warsaw, led strikes, published appeals to workers, and traveled on party matters to Łódź and Kraków."
Dzerzhinsky spent the next four-and-a-half years in tsarist prisons, first at the notorious Tenth Pavilion of the Warsaw Citadel. When World War I began in 1914, all political prisoners were relocated from Warsaw into Russia itself. Dzerzhinsky was taken to Oryol Prison. He was very concerned about the fate of his wife and son, with whom he did not have any communication. Moreover, Dzerzhinsky was beaten frequently by the Russian prison guards, which caused permanent disfigurement of his jaw and mouth. In 1916, Dzerzhinsky was moved to the Moscow Butyrka prison, where he was soon hospitalized because the chains that he was forced to wear had caused severe cramps in his legs. Despite the prospects of amputation, Dzerzhinsky recovered and was put to labor sewing military uniforms.
Felix Dzerzhinsky was freed from Butyrka after the February Revolution of 1917. Soon after his release, Dzerzhinsky's goal was to organize Polish refugees in Russia and then go back to Poland and fight for the revolution there, writing to his wife:
"together with these masses we will return to Poland after the war and become one whole with the SDKPiL".
However, he remained in Moscow where he joined the Bolshevik party, writing to his comrades that "the Bolshevik party organization is the only Social Democratic organization of the proletariat, and if we were to stay outside of it, then we would find ourselves outside of the proletarian revolutionary struggle".
Already in April, he entered the Moscow Committee of the Bolsheviks and soon thereafter was elected to the Executive Committee of the Moscow Soviet. Dzerzhinsky endorsed Lenin's April Theses—demanding uncompromising opposition to the Russian Provisional Government, the transfer of all political authority to the Soviets, and the immediate withdrawal of Russia from the war. Dzerzhinsky's brother Stanisław was murdered on the Dzerzhinsky estate by deserting Russian soldiers that same year.
Dzerzhinsky was elected subsequently to the Bolshevik Central Committee at the Sixth Party Congress in late July. He then moved from Moscow to Petrograd to begin his new responsibilities. In Petrograd, Dzerzhinsky participated in the crucial session of the Central Committee in October and he strongly endorsed Lenin's demands for the immediate preparation of a rebellion, after which Felix Dzerzhinsky had an active role with the Military Revolutionary Committee during the October Revolution. With the acquisition of power by the Bolsheviks, Dzerzhinsky eagerly assumed responsibility for making security arrangements at the Smolny Institute where the Bolsheviks had their headquarters.
Director of Cheka
Lenin regarded Felix Dzerzhinsky as a revolutionary hero and appointed him to organize a force to combat internal threats. On 20 December 1917, the Council of People's Commissars officially established the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-revolution and Sabotage—usually known as the Cheka (based on the Russian acronym ВЧК). Dzerzhinsky became its director. The Cheka received extensive resources, and became known for ruthlessly pursuing any perceived counterrevolutionary elements. As the Russian Civil War expanded, Dzerzhinsky also began organizing internal security troops to enforce the Cheka's authority.
The Cheka became notorious for mass summary executions, performed especially during the Red Terror and the Russian Civil War. The Cheka undertook drastic measures as thousands of political opponents and saboteurs were shot without trial in the basements of prisons and in public places. Dzerzhinsky said: "We represent in ourselves organized terror—this must be said very clearly," and "[The Red Terror involves] the terrorization, arrests and extermination of enemies of the revolution on the basis of their class affiliation or of their pre-revolutionary roles." In 1922, at the end of the Civil War, the Cheka was dissolved and reorganized as the State Political Directorate (Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie, or GPU), a section of the NKVD. With the formation of the Soviet Union later that year, the GPU was again reorganized as the Joint State Political Directorate (Obyedinyonnoye gosudarstvennoye politicheskoye upravleniye, or OGPU), directly under the Council of People's Commissars. These changes did not diminish Dzerzhinsky's power; he was Minister of the Interior, director of the Cheka/GPU/OGPU, Minister for Communications, and director of the Vesenkha (Supreme Council of National Economy) 1921–24. Indeed, while the (O)GPU was theoretically supposed to act with more restraint than the Cheka, in time its de facto powers grew even greater than those of the Cheka.
At his office in Lubyanka, Dzerzhinsky kept a portrait of fellow Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg on the wall.
Besides his leadership of the secret police, Dzerzhinsky also took on a number of other roles; he led the fight against typhus in 1918, was chair of the Commissariat for Internal Affairs from 1919 to 1923, initiated a vast orphanage construction program, chaired the Transport Commissariat, organised the embalming of Lenin's body in 1924 and chaired the Society of Friends of Soviet Cinema.
Dzerzhinsky and Lenin
Dzerzhinsky became a Bolshevik as late as 1917. Therefore, it was wrong to assert (as official Soviet historians did subsequently) that Dzerzhinsky had been one of Lenin's oldest and most reliable comrades, or that Lenin had exercised some sort of spellbinding influence on Dzerzhinsky and the SDKPiL. Lenin and Dzerzhinsky frequently had opposing opinions about many important ideological and political issues of the pre-revolutionary period, and also after the October Revolution. After 1917, Dzerzhinsky would oppose Lenin on such crucial issues as the Brest-Litovsk peace, the trade unions, and Soviet nationality policy. During the April 1917 Party Conference when Lenin accused Dzerzhinsky of Great-Russian chauvinism he replied: "I can reproach him (Lenin) with standing at the point of view of the Polish, Ukrainian and other chauvinists."
From 1917 to his death in 1926, Dzerzhinsky was first and foremost a Russian Communist, and Dzerzhinsky's involvement in the affairs of the Polish Communist Party (which was founded in 1918) was minimal. The energy and dedication that had previously been responsible for the building of the SDKPiL would henceforth be devoted to the priorities of the struggle for Bolshevik power in Russia, to the defense of the revolution during the civil war, and eventually, to the tasks of socialist construction.
Death and legacy
Dzerzhinsky died of a heart attack on 20 July 1926 in Moscow, immediately after a two-hour speech to the Bolshevik Central Committee during which, visibly quite ill, he violently denounced the United Opposition directed by Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev. Upon hearing of his death, Joseph Stalin eulogized Dzerzhinsky as "a devout knight of the proletariat". Dzerzhinsky was succeeded as head of the Cheka by Vyacheslav Menzhinsky.
Dzierżyńszczyzna, one of the two Polish Autonomous Districts in the Soviet Union, was named to commemorate Dzerzhinsky. Located in Belarus, near Minsk and close to the Soviet-Polish border of the time, it was created on 15 March 1932, with the capital at Dzyarzhynsk (Dzerzhynsk, formerly known as Kojdanów), not far from the family estate. (The Dzerzhinsky estate itself remained inside Poland from 1921 to 1939.) The district was disbanded in 1935 at the onset of the Great Purge, and most of its administration was executed.
Dzyarzhynskaya Hara (the highest point in Belarus), located near Dzyarzhynsk was named after Dzerzhinsky in 1958.
His name and image were used widely throughout the KGB and the Soviet Union and other socialist countries; there were several places named after him. In Russia, there is the city of Dzerzhinsk, a village of Dzerzhinsk, and three other cities called Dzerzhinskiy; in other former Soviet republics, there is a city named for him in Armenia and the aforementioned Dzyarzhynsk in Belarus. To comply with decommunization laws the Ukrainian cities Dzerzhynsk and Dniprodzerzhynsk were renamed Toretsk and Kamianske in February and May 2016. A Ukrainian village in the Zhytomyr Oblast was also named Dzerzhinsk until 2005, when it was renamed to Romaniv. The Dzerzhinskiy Tractor Works in Stalingrad were named in his honor and became a scene of bitter fighting during the Second World War. The FED camera, produced from 1934 to around 1996, is named for him, as was the FD class steam locomotive.
The "Iron Felix"
A 15-ton iron monument of Dzerzhinsky, which once dominated the Lubyanka Square in Moscow, near the KGB headquarters, also became known as "Iron Felix" (Russian: Железный Феликс - Zheleznyj Feliks). Sculpted in 1958 by Yevgeny Vuchetich, it served as a Moscow landmark during late Soviet times. Symbolically, the Memorial society erected a memorial to the victims of the Gulag (using a simple stone from Solovki in the White Sea) beside the Iron Felix statue on 30 October 1990. The Moscow Soviet (Mossovet) had the Dzerzhinsky statue removed to the Fallen Monument Park and laid on its side in August 1991, after the failed coup d'état attempt by hard-line Communist members of the government. A mock-up of the removal of Dzerzhinsky's statue can be found in the entrance hall of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
The figure of Dzerzhinsky remains controversial in Russian society. Between 1999 and 2013, six proposals called for the return of the statue to its plinth. The Monument Art Commission of the Moscow City Duma rejected the proposals due to concerns that the proposed return would cause "unnecessary tension" in society. According to a December 2013 VTsIOM poll, 45% of Russians favor the restoration of the statue to the Lubyanka Square, with 25% unconditionally opposing it. The statue remained in a yard for old Soviet memorials at the Central House of Artists.
In April 2012, the Moscow authorities stated that they would renovate the "Iron Felix" monument in full and put the statue on a list of monuments to be renovated, as well as officially designating it an object of cultural heritage.
A smaller bust of Dzerzhinsky in the courtyard of the Moscow police headquarters at Petrovka 38 was restored in November 2005 (police officers had removed this bust on 22 August 1991).
As it symbolised the Soviet Union and the Soviet influence over Poland, Dzerzhinsky's monument in Dzerzhinsky Square (Polish: Plac Dzierżyńskiego) in the center of Warsaw was toppled in 1989 as the Polish United Workers' Party lost power in the course of the revolutions of 1989. The name of the square soon changed to its pre–Second World War name "Bank Square" (Polish: Plac Bankowy).
A 10-foot bronze replica of the original Iron Felix statue was placed on the grounds of the military academy in Minsk, Belarus, in May 2006.
On January 20, 2017, the People's Public Security Academy in Hanoi, Vietnam inaugurated a Dzerzhinsky statue.
In 2005, the Government of Belarus rebuilt the manor house of Dzerzhinovo, where Dzerzhinsky was born, and established a museum. Annually, the graduating class of the KGB academy holds its swearing-in at the manor. In 1943, the manor had been destroyed and family members (including Dzerzhinsky's brother Kazimierz) were killed by the Germans, because of their support for the Polish Home Army.
- "Dzerzhinsky Division" of the Soviet Internal Troops
- Felix Dzerzhinsky Guards Regiment now defunct military unit of the East German Ministry for State Security (commonly known as the Stasi)
- Monument to F. E. Dzerzhinsky in Taganrog
- Provisional Polish Revolutionary Committee
- Polish Autonomous District
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