Polishing a symbol of Soviet terror

Moscow's mayor proposes restoring statue of feared founder of secret police

September 17, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - At a time when Russia has pledged to aid the global fight against terrorism, Moscow's mayor seems eager to pay homage to a man for whom state-supported terror was a much-loved tool.

Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, one of Russia's most influential politicians, has reversed his previous opposition and now says he wants to restore the bronze statue of Felix E. Dzerzhinsky, the founder and first director of the Soviet secret police, to its former place of honor in Lubyanka Square.

It had been unceremoniously dislodged after the unsuccessful coup of 1991, to the cheers of a gleeful crowd.

While admitting that Dzerzhinsky had committed "excesses," Luzhkov said he now sees the man known as "Iron Felix" as a civic-minded leader and his statue as an important piece of public art.

His foes assert that Luzhkov's change of heart followed the rise of Vladimir V. Putin, a former KGB agent, to the presidency. Restoring the statue, they say, would insult the memory of the millions who died as victims of Soviet terror.

As if to remind that the past is never distant here, the mayor's proposal came just as one of Russia's leading human rights organizations announced it had located what might be the largest mass grave of Stalin's victims ever found in Russia.

Irina Flige of the Memorial human rights society said in a phone interview from St. Petersburg yesterday that 30,000 of those murdered in the great purges of the 1930s might be buried at an artillery test range about 20 miles north of that city.

Opponents of the move to restore the statue, including several members of Russia's parliament, the Duma, staged an impromptu march on Lubyanka Square yesterday and gathered more than 300 signatures on a hastily drafted petition.

"I am adamant against the restoration of the Dzerzhinsky monument," said Boris Nemtsov, a Duma deputy and leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces, in a statement issued after he addressed a small rally in the square. "The monument to Dzerzhinsky is a symbol of the epoch of totalitarianism and the period of repression started by `Iron Felix.'"

As the 50th anniversary of Josef Stalin's death approaches next March, Russians still seem undecided about whether the Bolsheviks should be remembered as having ushered in a golden age of Russian and Soviet prestige and power or seven decades of bloody repression.

News of the discovery of the mass grave received little attention in the Russian media. Many here seem weary of hearing of Soviet atrocities.

"In Germany the tragedy of the past is consciously acknowledged, and always on the surface," said Yan Rachinsky, director of information projects in Memorial's Moscow office. "But here, in this country, this subject is somewhere outside the general discussion."

After the Bolshevik revolution, Dzerzhinsky set up the headquarters of the Cheka in a former insurance company building on Lubyanka Square in downtown Moscow. Over the decades, the Cheka became the NKVD, the KGB and, most recently, the Federal Security Service, or FSB. All have operated out of the brooding building facing the square and, beyond it, the Kremlin.

The towering statue of Dzerzhinsky was erected in the square in 1958, the depths of the Cold War. In what some saw as a watershed in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the statue and its pedestal were hauled down to the cheers of a crowd of 15,000 after the failed hard-line Communist coup in August 1991.

By returning the statue to the square, Luzhkov in some sense would rehabilitate Dzerzhinsky. As Nemtsov pointed out yesterday, symbols matter here.

"Russia is a mystical country, and with the revival of this symbol, the epoch can revive too," he warned. "We will do our best not to allow this to happen."

Four years ago, Communist-led legislators tried to return the 15-ton statue from its exile in a field littered with Soviet-era statuary at the Central House of Artists on the Moscow River. But Luzhkov opposed the effort, and it failed. A similar move two years ago likewise collapsed.

This time, though, Luzhkov - perhaps the most influential political figure in Russia after Putin - is leading the effort. At a meeting of the city's construction committee Friday, Luzhkov unexpectedly announced that the Dzerzhinsky statue was "an excellent monument" and "the highlight" of Lubyanka Square, Interfax reported.

On Saturday, Luzhkov praised the Bolshevik leader, not just his larger-than-life likeness.

"We should remember that he solved the problem of homeless children and bailed out the railroads in a period of devastation," said Luzhkov, according to the Interfax news agency.

The mayor admitted Dzerzhinsky - described by the author Alexander Solzhenitsyn as having a "long, burning zealot's face" - had committed terror. But, Luzhkov added, "if all the useful things Dzerzhinsky did were taken into account, it would be worthy of making the decision to return the statue to Lubyanka."

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