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Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, also called Iron Felix, was Polish. It is said that his face was disfigured due to the tortures suffered in Russian prisons. In 1916, in prison, he had the risk of a leg amputation due to the form he was tied. Freed after the February Revolution of 1917, he organized the Polish refugees in Russia, attempting to return to Poland to make the revolution. In Moscow, he joined the Bolshevik Party and supported Lenin’s April Theses. He was elected to the Central Committee in the VI Congress, in late July. He defended, alongside Lenin, the immediate seizing of power, and he integrated the Revolutionary Military Committee, which organized the insurrection with Trotsky and the security measures in the Smolny Institute.

By Americo Gomes.

 

He was against signing the Peace in Brest Litovsky but abstained in the final voting, as Trotsky.

When the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission of Combat to the Counter-revolution and Sabotage, Cheka (ВЧК), was formed, he was one of its first chiefs.

He persecuted the counter-revolutionary elements relentlessly. “We represent the organized terror”.[1] However, he also punished the abuse of adventurers who were part of the Commission. He judged the “quite rotted” agents, “he saw no solution for evil except shooting against the worst Chekists.” [2] When the civil war ended, Dzerzhinsky, supported by Lenin and Trotsky, proposed the abolition of death penalty, except in areas of continued military operations.[3]

Incorruptible, in the first year as chief of the Cheka he worked, slept, and ate in his office. He refused any privilege.[4] “The Party made an effort to lead it (Cheka) with incorruptible men like the formerly condemned Dzershinsky, an honest idealist, cruel but gentlemanly, with the emaciated profile of an inquisitor… But the Party had few men of this type and many Chekas.”[5]

“During the Civil War, the Cheka carried out a hard labor… In hundreds of occasions, the party sent protests, statements, and requests for explanations about this or that situation.” But with Dzerzhinsky in the lead, “man of great moral authority, under the orders of the Politburo,” it was “an effective guarantee that the Cheka served as a weapon of the revolutionary dictatorship.”[6]

He allied to Stalin in the political debate on non-Russian nationalities, based on standings he already defended on this subject with Rose Luxemburg, of whom he kept a picture in his desk, in Lubyanka. On December 30, 1922, Lenin wrote, “I also fear that Comrade Dzerzhinsky (…) [has] distinguished himself there by his truly Russian frame of mind (it is common knowledge that people of other nationalities who have become Russified over-do this Russian frame of mind)”.[7]

Dzerzhinsky went to the Caucasus presiding the commission sent by the Central Committee to investigate the case of the “crimes” of the “social-nationals,” but he acted superficially on the physical aggression of Ordzhonikidze to the members. To Lenin, “I think that no provocation or even insult can justify such Russian manhandling and that Comrade Dzerzhinsky was inexcusably guilty in adopting a light-hearted attitude towards it. For all the citizens in the Caucasus Orjonikidze was the authority. Orjonikidze had no right to display that irritability to which he and Dzerzhinsky referred. On the contrary, Orjonikidze should have behaved with a restraint which cannot be demanded of any ordinary citizen, still less of a man accused of a “political” crime. And, to tell the truth, those nationalist-socialists were citizens who were accused of a political crime, and the terms of the accusation were such that it could not be described otherwise.” [8]

And he concludes, “Thirdly, exemplary punishment must be inflicted on Comrade Orjonikidze (I say this all the more regretfully as I am one of his personal friends and have worked with him abroad) and the investigation of all the material which Dzerzhinsky’s commission has collected must be completed or started over again to correct the enormous mass of wrongs and biased judgments which it doubtlessly contains. The political responsibility for all this truly Great-Russian nationalist campaign must, of course, be laid on Stalin and Dzerzhinsky.” [9]

He was in charge of the Kronstadt repression, commented by Trotsky, “Concerning the repressions, as far as I remember, Dzerzhinsky had personal charge of them and Dzerzhinsky could not tolerate anyone’s interference with his functions (and properly so).

Whether there were any needless victims I do not know. On this score, I trust Dzerzhinsky more than his belated critics. For lack of data, I cannot undertake to decide now, a posteriori, who should have been punished and how. Victor Serge’s conclusions on this score – from third hand – have no value in my eyes. But I am ready to recognize that civil war is no school of humanism. Idealists and pacifists always accused the revolution of “excesses”. But the main point is that “excesses” flow from the very nature of revolution which in itself is but an “excess” of history.[10]

By the end of the Civil War, Dzerzhinsky became Minister of Interior, thus supervisor of the GPU/OGPU, which substituted the Cheka, but also begun a vast program of construction of orphanages. He was also the Minister of Communications and presided the Society of Cinema Friends of the Soviet Union.

In 1924, when Lenin died, he organized the embalming of his body and carried his box.

He practically became one of the main adversaries of the opposition organizations. But, despite his political support to Stalin ( a personal friend of his,) Dzerzhinsky maintained the Cheka as a defender of the Soviet State; unlike Yagoda, Yezhov, and Beria, who used it to terrorize the Soviet working class and the left opposition, and to guarantee a despotic State for a privileged cast. He was personally opposed to the growing arrogance of bureaucracy.

He died of a heart attack on July 20, 1926, after two hours of speech in the Central Committee, where he denounced the “Reign of the Opposition,” led at the time by Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev.[11] In the same speech, he said, “When I look at our apparatus, our organization system, our unbelievable bureaucracy, and our complete disorder, filled with all conceivable types of bureaucracy, I am literally horrified.” [12]

His political standings at the end of his life did not stop Trotsky from highlighting, at the moment of his death, “Let us present the last salutations to Dzerzhinsky’s grave. His life ended satisfied by his heroic personality… Accompanied by a noxious hatred of enemies and an even more dazzling love of millions, he left his post entering history forever… If he was asked to choose a second life, Dzerzhinsky would have undoubtedly chosen exactly the same one, with his revolutionary idealism, prisons, banishments, forced labor, relentless blows on the enemies, [and] first joys in the building of socialism. However, no one could grant him a second life. May we, in our pain, find comfort with Dzerzhinsky’s single life.”

The man that the party entrusted with the mission “to be vigilant, severe, and use terror in service of the proletariat” died at 41 years old. Revolutionary since 18, imprisoned 5 times, deported, 3 times fugitive, and condemned to 10 years of forced labor.

The GPU

Dzerzhinsky’s successor was Viacheslav Menjinsky, fluent in twelve languages, intellectual of great academic broadness, with knowledge of physics, chemistry, astronomy, and mathematics. However, without Dzerzhinsky’s political and moral authority, he got involved in Stalin’s intrigues. Menzhinsky produced reports involving Trotsky and Zinoviev with counter-revolutionary provocateurs. He died under mysterious circumstances in 1934.

“Menshinski in the GPU is not a man but a man’s shadow. In the GPU, Yagoda fulfills the main role. A despicable social climber tied his destiny to Stalin and willing to do what is ordered without thinking or asking.”[13]

The control of the GPU went to the hands of Henrikh Yagoda. He had initially supported Bukharin in the internal struggle. He was a brute and social climber, efficient, energetic, and ambitious. With him, the ‘professionals’ of espionage, linked to stealing and homicides, climbed in the hierarchy, and some White police came “in search of a ticket back”.

**

Translation: Alejandra Ramírez.

Notes:

[1] J. Michael Waller Secret Empire: The KGB in Russia Today. Westview Press. Boulder, CO, 1994

[2] Victor Serge, Memórias de um Revolucionário (1945) [Memoirs of a Revolutionary – Our translation]

[3] Ibidem.

[4] KGB: The Inside Story, Christopher Andrew & Oleg Gordievsky [Our translation]

[5] Victor Serge [Memoirs of a Revolutionary – Our translation]

[6] Os stalinistas atiraram em Jakob Blumkin, January 4 of 1930, Escritos [Stalinists shoot Yakov Blumkin – Our translation]

[7] Last Testament of Lenin (1922) – The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation” https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/dec/testamnt/autonomy.htm

[8] Ibidem.

[9] Ibidem.

[10] Leon Trotsky – More on the Suppression of Kronstadt (1938) – https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/07/kronstadt2.htm

[11] Isaac Deutscher. The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921–1929. https://rosswolfe.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/isaac-deutscher-the-prophet-unarmed-trotsky-1921-1929.pdf

[12] Stalin: Aperçu historique du Bolchevisme, Boris Souvarine [Our translation]

[13] Os stalinistas atiraram em Jakob Blumkin,January 4 of 1930, Escritos [Stalinists shoot Yakov Blumkin – Our translation]