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Felix Dzerzhinsky
Iron Felix
Felix Dzerzhinsky 1919.jpg
Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1919
Allegiance Soviet Union
Service Cheka
Born 11 September [O.S. 30 August] 1877
Ivyanets, Russian Empire
Died 20 July 1926 (aged 49)
Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Nationality Polish
Religion Atheist
Residence Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Spouse Sofia Sigizmundovna Dzerzhinskaya
Occupation Founder and head of Cheka

Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (Polish: Feliks Dzierżyński [ˈfɛliks dʑerˈʐɨɲski], Russian: Феликс Эдмундович Дзержинский; 11 September [O.S. 30 August] 1877–July 20, 1926) was a Polish Communist revolutionary, famous as the founder of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, later known by many names during the history of the Soviet Union. The agency became notorious for large-scale human rights abuses, including torture and mass summary executions, carried out especially during the Red Terror and the Russian Civil War.[1][2]


Social Democratic leader in Poland

Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky

Dzierżyński was born into a Polish szlachta (noble) family of the Samson coat of arms in the Dziarzhynava estate near Ivyanets, Russian Empire (today Belarus). He attended the Russian gymnasium at Vilna (now Vilnius). As an irony of history, one of the older students at this gymnasium was his future archenemy Józef Piłsudski. Years later, as Marshal of the interwar Polish state, Piłsudski generously recalled that Dzierżyński "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."[3]

Before being able to graduate, Dzierżyński was expelled from the gymnasium for "revolutionary activity". He had joined a Marxist group—the Union of Workers (SDKP) in 1895, and was subsequently one of the founders of Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) in 1899. He spent a large part of his early life in various prisons. In 1897, as a leader of a shoemaker's strike, Dzierżyński was arrested for "criminal agitation among the Kovno workers" and the police files from this time stated that: "Feliks Dzierżyński, considering his views, convictions and personal character, will be very dangerous in the future, capable of any crime."[4]

He was arrested for his revolutionary activities in 1897 and 1900, sent to Siberia, but escaped both times. He then travelled to Berlin and met with Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches, two prominent leaders of the Polish Social Democratic movement. 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, Dzierżyński was able to dominate the SDKPiL.

Dzierżyński went to Switzerland where his fiancee Julia Goldman was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. She died in his arms on June 4, 1904. Her illness and death crushed him, and in letters to his sister, Dzierżyński explained that he no longer saw any meaning with his life. That changed with the Russian revolution of 1905 as Dzierżyński was consumed by work again. After the revolution failed, he was again jailed, this time by the Okhrana. He later escaped after which he spent much time abroad, while together with Jogiches reorganized the party. In many ways the SDKPiL began to move closer philosophically to the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

Back in Kraków in 1910 Dzierżyński 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 Dzierżyńska was sentenced to permanent Siberian exile, and she left the child with her father. Dzierżyński saw his son for the first time in March 1912 in Warsaw. In attending the welfare of his child, Dzierżyński repeatedly exposed himself to the danger of arrest. On one occasion, Dzierżyński narrowly escaped an ambush that the police had prepared at the flat of his father-in-law.[5]

Dzierżyński remained in Poland to lead the Social Democratic Party, while considering his continued freedom "only a game of the Okhrana". The Okhrana, however, was playing no game; Dzierżyński simply was a master of conspiratorial techniques and was therefore extremely difficult to catch. The police files from this time says: "Dzierżyński continued to lead [the Social Democratic party] and at the same time he directed party work here [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 Dzierżyński until the end of 1912, when they found the apartment where he lived under the name of Władysław Ptasiński.[6]

Becoming a Bolshevik

Dzierżyński would spend the next four and one-half years in tsarist prison, first at the notorious Tenth Pavilion of the Warsaw Citadel. When World War I broke out in 1914, all political prisoners were moved from Poland to Russia proper. Dzierżyński was taken initially to Oryol. He was deeply concerned about the fate of his wife and son, with whom he had no communication. Moreover, Dzierżyński was frequently beaten by the Russian prison guards, which among other things led to the permanent disfigurement of his jaw and mouth. In 1916 Dzierżyński was moved to the Moscow Butyrki 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, Dzierżyński recovered and was put to labor sewing military uniforms.[7]

Feliks Dzierżyński was freed from Butyrki after the February Revolution of 1917. Upon his release, Dzierżyńskis immediate impulse 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 Polish followers 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".

Dzerzhinsky as the Sword of Revolution cartoon by Nikolai Bukharin, 1925
Statue of Dzerzhinsky in Saratov

Already in April he entered the Moscow Committee of the Bolsheviks and shortly thereafter was elected to the Executive Committee of the Moscow Soviet. Dzierżyński gave his support to Lenin's April Theses - uncompromising opposition to the Provisional Government, the transfer of all political authority to the Soviets, and the immediate withdrawal of Russia from the war.

Dzierżyński subsequently rose to the top of the Bolshevik ranks and was elected to the Bolshevik Central Committee at the Sixth Party Congress in late July. He then moved from Moscow to Petrograd to take up his new responsibilities. In Petrograd, Dzierżyński participated in the crucial session of the Central Committee in October and he strongly supported Lenin's demands for the immediate preparation of an armed uprising, after which Dzierżyński played an active role in the Military Revolutionary Committee during the October Revolution. With the Bolshevik take over, Dzierżyński eagerly assumed responsibility for making security arrangements at the Smolny Institute where the Bolsheviks had their headquarters.[8]

Leader of Cheka

Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin regarded Dzierżyński as a revolutionary hero, and appointed him to organize a force to combat internal political threats. On December 20, 1917, the Council of People's Commissars officially established the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-revolution and Sabotage - usually called the Cheka (based on the Russian acronym ВЧК). Dzierżyński became its head. The Cheka received a large amount of resources, and became known for ruthlessly pursuing any perceived counterrevolutionary elements. As the Russian Civil War expanded, Dzierżyński also began organizing internal security troops to enforce the Cheka's authority.

As the Russian Civil War went on, the Cheka took drastic measures. Tens of thousands of political opponents were shot without trial in the basements of prisons and in public places throughout Russia[9] — and not only opponents. People who happened to be intellectuals, capitalists and priests were shot simply for who they were.[10] Dzerzhinsky himself boasted that: "We represent in ourselves organized terror -- this must be said very clearly."[11] 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.”[12]

At the end of the Civil War in 1922 , the Cheka was changed into the GPU (State Political Directorate), a section of the NKVD, but this did not diminish Dzierżyński's power: from 1921-24, he was Minister of the Interior, head of the Cheka/GPU/OGPU, Minister for Communications, and head of the Vesenkha (Supreme Council of National Economy).

At his office in Lubyanka, Dzierżyński kept a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg on the wall.[13]

Dzerzhinsky and Lenin

Dzerzhinsky carries Lenin's coffin in 1924

Feliks Dzierżyński-Felix Dzerzhinsky became a Bolshevik as late as in 1917. Therefore it is 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 held opposing views on 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.

Dzerzhinsky therefore did not rise to the top of the Soviet power structure because he was a "yes man". What brought Dzerzhinsky and Lenin together in 1917 was a common commitment to the revolution. Subsequently, it was Dzerzhinsky's creative organizational ability and willingness to take on unwelcome and difficult tasks that earned him a place among the Bolshevik leadership. His niche in the SDKPiL had been that of grass-roots organizer and political leader of a conspiratorial party; in the Soviet Union it became, especially after 1921, state administrator.

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.[14]


Picture of Dzerzhinsky during a parade in Moscow Red Square in 1936

Dzerzhinsky died of a heart attack on July 20, 1926 in Moscow, immediately after a two-hour long speech to the Bolshevik Central Committee in which, visibly quite ill, he violently denounced the United Opposition led by Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev[15]. Upon hearing of his death Stalin eulogized Dzerzhinsky as "...a devout knight of the proletariat."[16]

Dzierżyńszczyzna, one of the two Polish Autonomous Districts in the Soviet Union, was named to commemorate Dzierżyński. Located in Belarus, near Minsk and close to the Soviet-Polish border of the time, it was created on March 15, 1932, with the capital at Dzierżyńsk (Dzyarzhynsk, Dzerzhynsk, formerly known as Kojdanów). The district was disbanded in 1935 at the onset of the Great Purge and most of their administration was executed.

His name and image were widely used throughout the KGB and the Soviet Union— and her satellite states: there were six towns named after him. The town Kojdanava, which is not very far from the estate, was renamed to Dzyarzhynsk. There is also a city of Dzerzhinsk and three cities called Dzerzhinskiy in Russia and two cities in Ukraine called Dzerzhinsk. The Dzerzhinskiy Tractor Works in Stalingrad were named in his honor and became a scene of bitter fighting during the Second World War. There is a museum dedicated to him in his birth place in Belarus. He was held in high regard by the government of the People's Republic of Poland, with many squares, streets and the like named in his honor. Following the fall of communism in Poland, these name places and his statues were removed due to his unpopularity with the Polish people, in spite of his Polish nationality.

Iron Felix

Iron Felix in Moscow

Iron Felix also refers to his 15-ton iron monument, which once dominated the Lubyanka Square in Moscow, near the KGB headquarters. It was erected in 1958 by sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich and was a Moscow landmark in Soviet times. Symbolically, the Memorial to the Victims of the Gulag (a simple stone from Solovki) was erected beside the Iron Felix and the latter was removed in August 1991, after the failed coup of hard-line Communist members of government. The memorial to Dzerzhinsky was toppled by a cheering crowd with the help of a crane. The event symbolized the end of repression. 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.

In 2002, Moscow mayor Yuriy Luzhkov proposed returning the statue to its plinth, but the plan was dropped after opposition from liberals and the Kremlin. The statue remained in the graveyard of fallen Soviet memorials at the Central House of Artists, although a smaller bust of Dzerzhinsky in the courtyard of the Moscow police headquarters at Petrovka 38 was restored in November 2005 (this bust had been removed by the police officers on 22 August 1991).

His monument in "Dzerzhinsky Square" (pl. Plac Dzierżyńskiego), in the center of Warsaw, was so hated by the population of the Polish capital as a symbol of Soviet oppression that it was toppled in 1989, as soon as the PZPR started losing power. The name of the square was soon changed to its pre-Second World War name, "Bank Square" (pl: Plac Bankowy).

A new statue of Iron Felix was unveiled in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on 26 March 2006.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Robert Gellately. Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. Knopf, 2007. ISBN 1400040051 pp. 46-48
  2. ^ George Leggett, The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police. Oxford University Press, 1987, ISBN 0198228627 pp. 197-201
  3. ^ Robert Blobaum. Feliks Dzierzynski and the SDKPiL: A study of the origins of Polish Communism. 1984. ISBN 0880330465 p. 30.
  4. ^ Robert Blobaum. Feliks Dzierzynski and the SDKPiL: A study of the origins of Polish Communism. 1984. ISBN 0880330465 p. 46.
  5. ^ Robert Blobaum. Feliks Dzierzynski and the SDKPiL: A study of the origins of Polish Communism. 1984. ISBN 0880330465 p. 199-200.
  6. ^ Robert Blobaum. Feliks Dzierzynski and the SDKPiL: A study of the origins of Polish Communism. 1984. ISBN 0880330465 p. 212-213.
  7. ^ Robert Blobaum. Feliks Dzierzynski and the SDKPiL: A study of the origins of Polish Communism. 1984. ISBN 0880330465 p. 213-217.
  8. ^ Robert Blobaum. Feliks Dzierzynski and the SDKPiL: A study of the origins of Polish Communism. 1984. ISBN 0880330465 p. 213-222.
  9. ^ Orlando Figes. A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891 — 1924. Penguin Books, 1997 ISBN 0198228627 p. 647
  10. ^ The Road to Revolution BBC, November 7, 1997
  11. ^ J. Michael Waller Secret Empire: The KGB in Russia Today., Westview Press. Boulder, CO., 1994., ISBN 0-813323-231
  12. ^ George Leggett, The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police. Oxford University Press, 1987, ISBN 0198228627 p. 114
  13. ^ Robert Blobaum. Feliks Dzierzynski and the SDKPiL: A study of the origins of Polish Communism. 1984. ISBN 0880330465 p. 231.
  14. ^ Robert Blobaum. Feliks Dzierzynski and the SDKPiL: A study of the origins of Polish Communism. 1984. ISBN 0880330465 p. 230-231.
  15. ^ Isaac Deutscher. The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921 — 1929. Oxford University Press, 1959, ISBN 1859844464 p. 279
  16. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2003 ISBN I842127268 p. 76

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