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Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (Polish: Feliks Dzierżyński , Russian: Феликс Эдмундович Дзержинский; –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 Unionmarker. 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.

Social Democratic leader in Poland

Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky

Dzierżyński was born into a Polishmarker szlachta (noble) family of the Samson coat of arms in the Dziarzhynava estate near Ivyanetsmarker and Rakawmarker in Western Belarusmarker (in present-day Minsk Voblast), then part of the Russian Empiremarker. He attended the Russian gymnasium at Vilna (now Vilniusmarker). 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."

Before able to graduate, Dzierżyński was expelled from the gymnasium for "revolutionary activity". He had joined a Marxist group—the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (SDKPiL) in 1895, and was himself one of the founders of Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania in 1900. He spent the major part of his early life in various prisons. In 1897, as leader of a shoemaker's strike, Dzierżyński was arrested for "criminal agitation among the Kovnomarker 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."

He was arrested for his revolutionary activities in 1897 and 1900, sent to Siberiamarker, and escaped both times. He then went to Berlinmarker and met with the other main leaders of the Polish Social Democratic movement: Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches. Together with them, he gained control of the party organization through the creation of a Foreign Committee (Komitet Zagraniczny - KZ) which he empowered with wide executive authority. As secretary of the KZ, Dzierżyński dominated the SDKPiL.

Dzierżyński went to Switzerlandmarker 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 reorganizing the party. In many ways the Polish Social Democratic Party now started to move closer to the Bolshevik fraction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

Back in Krakówmarker 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 Pawiakmarker 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.

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 Łódźmarker 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.

Becoming a Bolshevik

Dzierżyński would spend the next four and one-half year in tsarist prison, first at the notorious Tenth Pavilion of the Warsaw Citadelmarker. When World War I broke out in 1914, all political prisoners were moved from Poland to Russia proper. Dzierżyński was taken initially to Oryolmarker. 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 Moscowmarker Butyrki prisonmarker, 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.

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".
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 Petrogradmarker 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 Institutemarker where the Bolsheviks had their headquarters.

Leader of Cheka

Sovietmarker 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 public places throughout Russia — and not only opponents. People who happened to be intellectuals, capitalists and priests were shot simply for who they were. Dzerzhinsky himself boasted that: "We represent in ourselves organized terror -- this must be said very clearly." 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.”

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 Lubyankamarker, Dzierżyński kept a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg on the wall.

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. In fact 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.


Dzerzhinsky died of a heart attack on July 20, 1926 in Moscowmarker, 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. Upon hearing of his death Stalin eulogized Dzerzhinsky as "...a devout knight of the proletariat."

Dzierżyńszczyzna, one of the two Polish Autonomous Districts in the Soviet Unionmarker, was named to commemorate Dzierżyński. Located in Belarus, near Minskmarker and close to the Soviet-Polish border of the time, it was created on March 15, 1932, with the capital at Dzierżyńskmarker (Dzyarzhynskmarker, 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 Unionmarker— 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 Dzyarzhynskmarker. There is also a city of Dzerzhinsk and three cities called Dzerzhinskiy in Russiamarker and two cities in Ukrainemarker called Dzerzhinsk. The Dzerzhinskiy Tractor Works in Stalingradmarker 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 Squaremarker in Moscowmarker, near the KGBmarker 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 Museummarker in Washington, D.C.marker

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 Warsawmarker, was so hated by the population of the Polish capital as a symbol of Sovietmarker 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, Minskmarker, on 26 March 2006.


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