Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Despite Current Dominance of Chekists, Dzerzhinsky Day Passed More Quietly This Year

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Sept. 18 – Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, remains both a unifying and divisive figure among Russians, and that appears to explain three trends in Russian memorialization: the modesty of the celebration of his day, the rise of statues outside the major cities rather than in them, and the conflation of his image with that of imperial heroes.

            Dina Khapayeva, a commentator for Novaya gazeta, suggests that the relative modesty of commemorations of Dzerzhinsky today reflects his dual reputation. On the one hand, few in the current leadership want him demoted but on the other want him embedded in the Russian state tradition rather than a destroyer of it (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/09/17/ivan-dzerzhinskii).

            For many Russians, the demolition of Dzerzhinsky’s statue in front of KGB headquarters in Moscow remains the symbol of the defeat of the August coup. Thus, in the capital, there has been great reluctance to bring back statues of “Iron Felix.” Instead, those have appeared elsewhere in places like Tyumen and Kirov.

            Outside of the capital, Eurasianists and others who welcome the combination of Sovietism and the Russian state tradition have faced less opposition from those who may be willing to see a revival of the latter but still remain deeply opposed to any unmixed restoration of the former.

            When an effort was made to promote the restoration of the statue of Dzerzinsky in Moscow, officials faced such opposition that they were forced to hold a referendum that included two other names as well, Alexander Nevsky and, somewhat unexpectedly, Ivan III, the grandfather of Ivan the Terrible.

            While this was going on, the Officers of Russia appealed to the government for a decision on the removal of the statue in 1991. The Moscow procuracy held that this was “illegal,” a move with potentially far-reaching consequences because if taking down the statue was illegal, then does that mean the suppression of the coup was?

            More than that, this decision raises questions about the legality of Dzerzhinsky’s statue being put up in the first place in 1958 – and, perhaps most important, Khapayeva concludes, the question of questions: “who has the right to decide what symbols of the past and which of the future should stand in the capital of Russia?”

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