As the United Nations debated what to do about Saddam Hussein, history was being remade in Russia. The popularly elected mayor of Moscow, Yuri M. Luzhkov, in an apparent change of heart, announced his approval for the resurrection of one of the most compelling symbols of evil of the Soviet state: an imposing statue of the founder of the dreaded KGB, Felix Dzerzhinsky.
President Bush has said that he looked into the soul of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and liked what he saw. But as Bush and his national security team speak with Putin and with Russia’s foreign and defense ministers, they should be mindful of what the return of “Iron Felix” might mean for Russia’s still fragile democracy and future as a friend to the U.S.
Like Hussein, Dzerzhinsky effectively waged war on his own people. Historians estimate that his secret police were responsible for thousands of deaths in the years after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. The institution he founded was directly responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens.
A 30-foot iron statue of Dzerzhinsky was erected in 1958 outside the Lubyanka prison, headquarters of the KGB. “Iron Felix” stood in the middle of Lubyanka Square, an unwavering symbol of the power of the Soviet state and its repressive apparatus, until it was torn down in 1991.
The fall of Iron Felix was a bold declaration that KGB repression would have no role in Russia’s democratic future.
Given that Luzhkov has twice before declared that the statue would never again find a place of honor in the new Russia, it is hard not to see Putin’s hand in the resurrection of Iron Felix. After all, prior to ascending to the presidency of Russia, Putin briefly served as head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the post-Soviet KGB. And before the demise of the Soviet Union, he was a KGB spy.
A close reading of Putin’s autobiography, “First Person,” reveals that even while deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, he was still informing for the KGB. As recently as 1999, Putin was rumored to have a small bust of Dzerzhinsky on his desk.
Putin has encouraged Russians to think that not all of Soviet history was bad. He has tried to establish a new, healthy Russian nationalism in the wake of a decade of difficult transition that has thrown about a third of his post-communist comrades into poverty.
But in turning to Iron Felix, Putin’s Russia is appealing to exactly the wrong elements of the Soviet past.
At a time when political pluralism, freedom of the press and freedom of expression are in serious doubt in Russia, the possible resurrection of Iron Felix does great damage to concepts and values that should be at the heart of Russian democracy: equality before the law, the presumption of innocence and even freedom of speech.
These are all freedoms and values that Dzerzhinsky, and the KGB he built, violently and brutally opposed.
Reviving Iron Felix, then, is not only an insult to the memories of the millions of victims of the KGB but also a challenge to the very legitimacy of Russia’s new democracy. When Bush peered into Putin’s soul, did he see this?