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Russian society split in two over monument to Soviet initiator of mass terror

February 11, 2014, 16:38 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila
© ITAR-TASS Archive / Anatoly Sergeyev-Vasiliev

MOSCOW, February 11. /ITAR-TASS/. Lenin called that man, son of an impoverished Polish noble, “a proletarian Jacobean”, and put him in charge of fighting counter-revolution. Felix Dzerzhinsky was appointed first head of the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-revolution and Sabotage, reorganized into the State Political Directorate — a section of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs — the then Soviet equivalent of the Interior Ministry) in 1922. Described by his Bolshevist comrades as the “Iron Felix”, he initiated massive terror and repressions, hostage-taking and other methods to “defend the Revolution”.

After an abortive coup against the USSR’s first and last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, in August 1991, the first thing jubilant Muscovites did was to remove the monument to Dzerzhinsky off the plinth. This work of famous sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich, had been in the centre of the square, called after the first KGB chief, in front of the secret service headquarters for decades. A year earlier, months before the breakup of the Soviet Union, a huge stone from the Solovki islands, used in the first Soviet years as a prison for political opponents, had been placed near the Polytechnic Museum. The square itself was renamed to Lubyanka Square.

This gesture, commemorating all victims of political repression, was then perceived as the final farewell to the darkest pages of the Soviet past. Yet now some are eager to bring the monument back to the square again. The issue lists among the twelve questions the Communist Party’s Moscow branch referred to the Moscow election commission requesting a citywide referendum. The commission will rule on the feasibility of resolving such issues via a referendum on February 20.

There has also been a personal initiative of a group of individuals, lodged with the Moscow Duma’s commission on monumental art, for renovating the monument and returning it to its original place from Muzeon Park, where Dzershinsky’s statue can be seen alongside other Soviet era monuments. Interestingly, this is an eighth appeal for the Iron Felix statue’s return since 2001. This is rather unlikely to happen, though, since it also requires the government’s approval. The statue is a monument of federal importance. But the issue has already provoked heated discussions in the society.

In the meantime, a large-scale program is now on across the country for erecting monuments to some heroes of World War I. The upcoming ones are monuments to Admiral Alexander Kolchak, generals Nikolai Denisov and Anton Denikin, later leaders of the White Guard movement, the Bolshevik’s arch foes.

One can only wonder at how Russians are still concerned about the events of almost one hundred years ago — the Revolution and the Civil War. The war between the Reds and the Whites seems to be going on — in many people’s minds. Although eliminating monuments of any epoch, however cruel it may have been, is by no means the best possible way to assert justice, some symbolical personalities in Soviet history invariably split the people in two implacable camps. The personalities on top of that list are Lenin, Stalin and Dzerzhinsky.

Each time someone says Lenin’s embalmed body now lying inside the Mausoleum in Red Square should be buried, the Communists and their allies stand up in Lenin’s defense, whereas the authorities evade the issue for fear of a flare-up of social tensions. Any event, which the liberal community sees as exoneration of Stalin and his policy of repression, causes uproars in the media. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that attempts to bring the monument back have caused such a tumult again. Should we be ashamed of our history, should we demolish or restore monuments?

“If the monument to the Iron Felix comes back, this place will become the scene of an open-ended rally against it, and I am determined to partake,” said Russian human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin.

“Dzerzhinsky was simply a butcher of his own people. He executed the Red Terror policy. He has no other achievements in the eyes of our people — if it is to be considered an achievement, of course” believes the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alexeyeva.

“The issue of bringing Felix Dzerzhinsky’s monument back to Lubyanka square cannot be viewed from the purely artistic perspective, in terms of the city’s appearance, of restoring the square’s historical face and so on,” a member of the human rights organization Memorial, Oleg Orlov, is quoted by the Novyie Izvestia daily as saying. “One could then indulge in similar speculations about restoring the way some Germany cities looked in the 1930s. Some may say Hitler’s monument stood here once, so why not bringing it back irrespective of what we think about this personality? Such reasoning is possible, but it would be absolutely blasphemous and unacceptable.”

Yet, some voice other views. The leader of A Just Russia party, former speaker of the upper house of parliament, Sergey Mironov, has spoken in favour of the monument’s comeback.

“I think such issues are to be voted on by the people of Moscow in a city referendum, and if I took part in such a voting, I would vote for bringing the monument back,” Mironov said. “I am concerned about the fact we have such an easy attitude towards our monuments, we should not be ashamed of our history.

 

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