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A monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky in Tyumen, Russia

Another Russian city is erecting a monument to the man who paved the way to the KGB

Source: Meduza
A monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky in Tyumen, Russia
A monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky in Tyumen, Russia
Maxim Slutsky / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Earlier this week, the city council of Kirov voted overwhelmingly to erect a new monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police forces. The monument is an initiative by a local group of veterans from the Federal Security Service (FSB), and is being financed with private donations. The veterans argue that Dzerzhinsky, who introduced the phrase “Red Terror,” deserves the monument because “he dedicated all his life to the struggle for mankind’s bright future.” Meduza looks at how Kirov’s city council came to its decision.

On May 31, the Kirov city council endorsed the installation of a Felix Dzerzhinsky monument in the historic part of the city. Twenty-three deputies voted in favor of the initiative, with one against and three abstaining. The monument will appear in the courtyard of the regional veterans’ association, sometime in July or August. The veterans’ building already sports a memorial plaque to Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet Cheka, which became notorious for mass summary executions. These veterans are the same people who proposed the monument in the first place. In their letter to Kirov’s city council, they said the idea to honor Dzerzhinsky emerged in the late 1980s, but a concrete plan materialized only this year, 140 years after the controversial figure was born.

“At first, in the 1990s, a particularly hard time, we pushed back the date. Then there was a learning period in the 2000s. And today, with support from numerous labor collectives and the veterans of Russia’s law enforcement and security agencies, our veterans’ organization supports this idea [of a monument]. Dzerzhinsky made an enormous contribution to the formation and development of our state in difficult times. He dedicated all his life to the struggle for mankind’s bright future,” Viktor Kolpakov, the director of the regional FSB veterans’ association, told Kirov’s city council.

Supporters say Kirov should erect a monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky because he visited the city twice. In 1898, Dzerzhinsky was exiled to Kirov (when it was still known as “Vyatka”) by the Tsarist government for spreading propaganda among students, workers, and tradespersons. He subsequently fled to Warsaw. In 1919, during the Russian Civil War, he visited Vyatka again, while serving as head of the Central Committee Commission and Bolshevik Defense Council. Traveling with Josef Stalin, they came to investigate the Red Army’s defeat in the Perm region. Stalin and Dzerzhinsky stayed in the same building that today houses the FSB veterans’ association.

Dzerzhinsky is considered one of the chief architects of the so-called “Red Terror,” which was directed at anyone who didn’t support the Bolsheviks. The campaign’s goal, according to a decree by the same name, was the “intimidation, arrest, and destruction of the revolution’s enemies on the basis of class affiliation.” Between 1917 and 1922, members of the Cheka extrajudicially executed at least 140,000 people.

Only one city council member publicly supported the Dzerzhinsky monument: United Russia deputy Vladimir Zhuravlev. He said Dzerzhinsky is “part of our history, and history must be valued.” “This person became a symbol of the Cheka, then the KGB, and then the FSB. This service is our people’s main ally. From the people I know, I can say that there are different kinds of people in the police. But the selection process [at the FSB] is very strict. There’s absolutely no corruption there. This is thanks to Dzerzhinsky, and his code remains in force today,” Zhuravlev told Kirov’s city council. 

In an effort to avoid upsetting Dzerzhinsky’s critics, Zhuravlev also proposed erecting a monument to the victims of Soviet political repressions. The city councilman was then informed that such a memorial already exists in Kirov — built in his own district, no less.

Representatives of a local organization for the protection of Soviet repression victims have called the city council’s decision “shocking.” According to Ariadna Kozina, the deputy director of “Vyatka Plus,” there are roughly 1,300 people living in the Kirov area whose families were targeted in Soviet repressions from the 1930s to the 1950s. The monument, Kozina worries, will be a regular reminder of their relatives’ suffering. Vitaly Bramm, a local activist, criticized city council members for spending 30 minutes debating the monument, while devoting no discussion at all to important issues, like the sale of municipal property at a 50-percent discount. “Dzerzhinsky would have had them all shot,” Bramm wrote on the website 7x7.

Already funded with donations and moulded, the monument stands 8 feet, 6 inches (2.6 meters) tall and weighs more than 2 tons. According to the director of Kirov’s city culture department, the statue is currently located outside Moscow. It was created with money raised by the Kirov publishing house “Krepostnov,” an organization that produces collectors’ antiques catalogs and books about the history of the Kirov region. Krepostnov is owned by Anastasia Krepostnova, the daughter of Kirov businessman and philanthropist Valery Krepostnov.

There’s already a monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky in the Kirov region. It was erected in a village called Kai, where Dzerzhinsky spent his exile. In 1938, Kai built a museum dedicated to this “outstanding figure of the Communist Party and the Soviet state,” but the village repurposed the facility in 1995 as a museum dedicated simply to the history of Kai. Two decades later, however, Kai received funding from several large regional enterprises, the FSB veterans’ group, and State Duma deputy Rakhim Azimov to create a new museum complex dedicated to the founder of the Cheka. The new attraction will include Dzerzhinsky’s old house and an exhibit dedicated to his achievements. 

There are monuments to Felix Dzerzhinsky in two dozen cities across Russia, including regional centers as big as Saratov, Volgograd, Smolensk, and Tyumen. Monuments to Dzerzhinsky in Moscow and St. Petersburg were dismantled almost immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991 and 1992.

Russian text by Darya Orlova in Kirov, translation by Kevin Rothrock