Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky was the ardently Catholic scion of an aristocratic Polish-Lithuanian family, who wanted to become a Jesuit priest. Instead, he became known as Iron Felix, the head of the infamous Cheka Soviet secret police and then the OGPU. Different name, same thing.
Felix was no dummy. His father was a university graduate, as were his mother's parents. He was fluent in Polish, Russian, Yiddish, and Latin. But in his youth, at the age of eighteen, he began agitating and joined a Marxist union in 1887. One early arrest record presciently notes that “Felix Dzerzhinsky, considering his views, convictions and personal character, will be very dangerous in the future, capable of any crime.”
That was right on the money...
Life is struggle
A persistent rumor tells us that when asked the question “What is life?”, Karl Marx replied “Life is struggle.” Apocryphal as it may be, that idea can also be realistically applied to Felix Dzerzhinsky.
His first love died in his arms of tuberculosis, the same disease that took his father. His second wife left him with a child to take care of all alone, because she was sent to permanent exile in Siberia soon after giving birth. He seemed to have a knack for evading the Czarist police, but his luck eventually ran out and he then spent four and a half years in Czarist prisons. There, he got beaten so badly and frequently by jailers that he was permanently disfigured. Also, the irons permanently attached to his legs in jail caused him terrible cramps and he was faced with the prospect of amputation, but recovered. Then, freed from prison by the advent of the February revolution, Felix went right back to his political activities. He joined the Bolshevik party and participated in the October revolution, and then quickly became a high ranking member of the communist party security apparatus.
Head of the Cheka
As we have seen in our recent article, the Cheka was a blueprint for all the horrors that followed in the twentieth century.
It was a big killing machine and here Felix, this once fanatical Christian who wanted to become a priest, came into his own. The Cheka's HQ, first in Saint Petersburg (then named Petrograd) and then in Moscow's infamous Lubyanka building, operated 24/7. He rarely left the building because he liked to take part in the interrogations and was indifferent to mass killings. He initiated the labor camps and organized the Red Terror, a campaign of summary arrests, torture and executions.
Once, Felix was in a meeting and he got a note from Lenin asking how many prisoners were held by his Cheka. Felix answered in writing that he had 1,500 prisoners. Lenin sent back the note after having put a cross next to the number. The cross simply meant that Lenin had read the information, but Felix mistakenly thought it meant 'kill', so he immediately left the meeting and got all the 1,500 prisoners killed. This particular 'amusing' tidbit comes from RT, an organism that has often been accused of spreading Russia-oriented propaganda and disinformation and had to register as a foreign agent in the USA. Since this information does nothing to uplift one's perception of Russia, one might safely deduct that it is historically correct.
The Cheka declared war on the peasantry, demanding that they sell their excess grain to the state at a fixed price. Since inflation soon made this price next to worthless, the peasants rebelled in what is now called the Bread War. As a result, whole families were mercilessly executed, whole villages were razed by Dzerzhinsky's Cheka.
“The arrests didn’t stop at deserters and rioting workers. Anyone could fall under Cheka’s suspicion based on religious beliefs or social standing.”
- RT Russiapedia
One night in 1926, following a long and fiery speech denouncing a progressive thinking coalition led by, amazingly, Joseph Stalin ; Felix Dzerzhinsky suffered a massive heart attack. After learning that he was really, really, never-ever-coming-back dead, everyone in government exhaled a massive sigh of relief and then went tripping over each other to laud his character and rehabilitate his image as a “devout knight of the proletariat”. They named multiple towns, a camera, a locomotive, a tractor works and more after him. Statues popped up, memorials abounded. The house where he was born was rebuild and transformed into a museum. While acquaintances remembered him as a terrible, murderous, inhumane creep with a dead-fish stare, his personality was officially described only in the most glowing of terms.
In front of the dreaded Lubyanka building in Moscow, his old HQ, there was a square named after him and in this square sat a 15 ton statue of him. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, this statue was removed to the 'Fallen Monuments Park' and a simple monument to the victims of the gulags he created replaced it.
Since his ascent to Russia's presidency in 2000, Vladimir Putin has slowly, patiently been working behind the scenes to rehabilitate all those Soviet 'heroes' that were discredited after 1990. He had Dzerzhinsky's statue renovated and there are plans to move it back to where it used to be, in front of the Lubyanka building.
Dzerzhinsky himself was no stranger to resuscitating or rehabilitating the dead. He was one of the principal reasons why Lenin's body was embalmed and displayed. Even today, you can visit his mausoleum in Red Square to see his mummy.
Yes, Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky can best be remembered for his boss' mummy.