Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (Russian: Фе́ликс Эдму́ндович Дзержи́нский; Polish: Feliks Dzierżyński [ˈfɛlʲiks dʑerˈʐɨɲskʲi]; 11 September [O.S. 30 August] 1877 – 20 July 1926), nicknamed Iron Felix, was a Polish and Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and a Soviet statesman. His party pseudonyms were Yatsek, Yakub, Pereplyotchik (meaning "bookbinder"), Franek, Astronom, Yuzef and Domanski.
He was a member of several revolutionary committees such as the Polish Revkom as well as several Russian and Soviet official positions. Dzerzhinsky is best known for establishing and developing the Soviet secret police forces, serving as their director from 1917 to 1926. Later he was a member of the Soviet government heading several commissariats, while being the chief of the Soviet secret police. The Cheka soon became notorious for mass summary executions, performed especially during the Red Terror and the Russian Civil War.
Felix Dzerzhinsky was born on 11 September 1877 at the Dzerzhinovo family estate, about 15 km (9.3 mi) away from a small town of Ivyanets, in the Minsk Region, a part of the Russian Empire (today Belarus). His aristocratic family belonged to the former Polish szlachta (nobility), of the Sulima coat of arms. As a child, before taking to Marxist ideology, Felix considered becoming a Jesuit priest. 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 the 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 University in 1863 and moved to Wilno, where he worked as a home teacher for a professor of Saint Petersburg University named Januszewski and eventually married Januszewski's daughter Helena Ignatievna. In 1868, after a short stint in Kherson gymnasium, he worked as a gymnasium teacher of physics and mathematics at the gymnasiums of Taganrog, 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 graduating, Dzerzhinsky was expelled from the gymnasium for "revolutionary activity". 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 shoemaker's strike, Dzerzhinsky was arrested for "criminal agitation among the Kaunas workers" and the police files from this time state that: "Felix Dzerzhinsky, considering his views, convictions and personal character, will be very dangerous in the future, capable of any crime." Dzerzhinsky envisioned merging of the LSDP with the 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 sent for three years to the Vyatka Governorate (city of Nolinsk) where he worked at a local tobacco factory. There Dzerzhinsky was caught for conducting agitation for revolutionary activities and was sent out 500 versts (330 mi) north to the village of Kaigorodskoye. In August 1899, he ran from there back to Wilno. Dzerzhinsky subsequently became one of the founders of Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (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 in a remote town of Vilyuysk, while en route being temporarily held at the Alexandrovsk Transitional Prison near Irkutsk. To the place of exile he ran on a boat and later emigrated out of the country. He then traveled to Berlin where at the SDKPiL conference Dzerzhinsky was elected a secretary of its party committee abroad (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 "Czerwony Sztandar", and transportation of illegal literature from Kraków to the Congress Poland. Being a delegate to the IV Congress of SDKPiL in 1903 Dzerzhinsky was elected as a member of its General Board.
Dzerzhinsky went to Switzerland where his fiancée Julia Goldman was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. She died in his arms on 4 June 1904. Her illness and death depressed him and, 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 was 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, Dzerzhinsky entered the central body of the party. From July through September 1906, he stayed 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, 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 in 1909 he was exiled to Siberia again (Yeniseysk Governorate). As before Dzerzhinsky managed to escape by November 1909 to Maxim Gorky on Capri and then back to Poland in 1910.
Back in Kraków in 1910, Dzerzhinsky married party member Zofia Muszkat, who was already pregnant. A month later, she was arrested and 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 remained to direct the Social Democratic Party, 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, he led strikes, he published appeals to workers ... and he traveled on party matters to Łódź and Kraków". The police however were unable to arrest Dzerzhinsky until the end of 1912, when they found the apartment where he lived, in the name of Władysław Ptasiński.
Dzerzhinsky would spend the next four and one-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 proper. 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 the 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. Ironically, Dzerzhinsky's brother, Stanislaw, 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 a large number of 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 undertook drastic measures during the Russian Civil War. Tens of thousands of political opponents 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 renamed as the GPU (State Political Directorate), a section of the NKVD. This 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.
At his office in Lubyanka, Dzerzhinsky kept a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg on the wall.
Besides his leadership of the Cheka, 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 claim, as the official Soviet historians later did, 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." He had creative organizational ability and was willing to perform unwelcome and difficult tasks.
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 proletarian 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 heart attack on 20 July 1926 in Moscow, immediately after a two-hour-long 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". Nicholas Roerich and his son George were waiting in the Cheka office to see Dzerzhinsky when they heard of Dzerzhinsky's death. Dzerzhinsky was succeeded as head of the Cheka by fellow ethnic Pole 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.
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. In order 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 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 1990, 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 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 domination of 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.
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 KDB 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.