I have long had an interest in Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926); in 2008 I was photographed standing next to his statue in Minsk, Belarus, then earlier this year standing by his grave at the Kremlin wall near Lenin’s Mausoleum (the plaque marking the final resting place of the remains of Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, is just visible on the left, between the trees). So I was intrigued by the title of a talk, given on 15 November at the University of Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities by Iain Lauchlan of the University of Edinburgh in the series ‘Conspiracy & Democracy’, called ‘Conspiracy in the Kremlin: Who (or what) killed Felix Dzerzhinsky’.
The talk hinged on Dzerzhinsky’s sudden death after a two-hour speech to the Central Committee on 20 July 1926 in which he had been critical of Stalin. The cause given was heart attack. But was it? Could it have been murder, and if so, who could have been responsible? Was this an early move by Stalin to remove possible opposition and consolidate his own grip on power?
‘Iron Felix’ is best known for his role in the Soviet revolutionary government as head of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, better known as the Cheka, though he was also appointed Commissar for Internal Affairs which I suppose would be the equivalent of the British Home Secretary also being head of MI5. Trusted by Lenin, he was ruthless in pursuing counter-revolutionaries and other enemies of the Bolsheviks.
|Minsk, 2008. Photo: Keith Ruffles|
Operating in ways not unlike those of the old Tsarist Okhrana, his approach was not above criticism: Victor Serge argued that a transparent system would have achieved its results as efficiently, but with more justice. Dzerzhinsky on the other hand felt this was a life-or-death struggle and half measures could lead to disaster. As Lauchlan put it in noting how dependable Dzerzhinsky was, if you had to break eggs to make an omelette, Dzerzhinsky was a man who could be relied on to break them honestly. It was a position that could attract a sadist who might go beyond what was necessary whereas he did not like the job so would not use it for personal gratification. His colleagues did not feel his methods were excessive.
Dzerzhinsky died in the Kremlin in mysterious circumstances and rumours swirled around his death immediately, particularly in the foreign and émigré press, his sudden demise used by opponents of the regime to suggest that it was a sign of internal dissension. There was a Russian tradition of violence in the Kremlin, notably Ivan the Terrible killing his son in 1581, and by evoking that murderous history Dzerzhinsky’s death was bound to create conspiracy theories.
|Moscow, 2016. Photo: Karen Ruffles|
The suspicion arose that the regime was encountering its Thermidor, a parallel with the situation in France when the Reign of Terror was brought to an end in 1794 and its leading light, Robespierre, guillotined. By this interpretation Dzerzhinsky was the Soviet Robespierre and his death represented the government, post-Lenin, in crisis (more positively it could have been interpreted as the often arbitrary repression he represented giving way to a considered approach as the government stabilised under the New Economic Policy, but from an anti-Bolshevik perspective it made sense to accentuate negative interpretations).
There were a number of colleagues who could have wanted Dzerzhinsky out of the way, representing a variety of shades of opinion. Suspects included Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin. They had all had areas of disagreement with their late comrade. However, Lauchlan emphasised firstly that Dzerzhinsky argued with both wings, putting him in the middle; and while he disagreed on some things, equally he agreed on others. There was no single aspect of policy which might want someone to have him killed.
Significantly, Stalin was not mentioned at the time as a moving force in a possible murder. Nor did Stalin accuse any of those he eliminated later of having orchestrated Dzerzhinsky’s death when he could easily have done so, though Lauchlan did mention that Stalin had planned to include the possibility of his murder as part of the allegations in the Doctors’ Plot shortly before his own death. Stalin was capable of accusing others of acts he had authorised, so it would have been easy for him to point the finger, even if evidence was lacking or had to be manufactured. Later a rumour circulated that Stalin had had Dzerzhinsky killed because as head of the Cheka the latter had uncovered evidence that Stalin had once been an Okhrana agent, though this turned out to be baseless.
So if accusations of a conspiracy were lacking in 1926, why did they emerge later? Lauchlan argued that it is easy to interpret history backwards, reading motives into events retrospectively because we know what takes place next. Further, history can become a kind of soap opera in which everything occurs for a reason. Properly constructed drama does not allow for random forces, it requires motivated individual acts. From that point of view it is easier to see Dzerzhinsky’s death as part of a wider scheme than acknowledge he just dropped dead from a heart attack.
There were a number of deaths in the senior Soviet hierarchy in the 1920s and 30s which happened at opportune moments, and if one thinks in terms of conspiracies then these could be regarded not as coincidences but acts by the state to purge dissent. However, Lauchlan’s view is that Stalin’s paranoia only developed after the suicide of his wife in 1932, after which he gradually became insular within a limited clique. By the time of Sergei Kirov’s murder in 1934 he was ready to implicate a wide range of rivals, and order purges using the pretext of a widespread conspiracy. The political landscape was entirely different to that of 1926, when Stalin had walked with other leading Bolsheviks behind Dzerzhinsky’s coffin.
Assuming Dzerzhinsky’s death was from natural causes, what more can we say about the man? For Lauchlan this touches on leadership as performance (curiously Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who happened to be in Moscow at the time, attended his funeral). With his distinctive beard and sinister reputation, Dzerzhinsky consciously projected himself as a Mephistophelean character. He admired Robespierre, and saw himself in the same heroic mould.
In pursuit of that image and harbouring a feeling of having a higher purpose, it looks like he had a death wish. He was not averse to putting himself in dangerous situations and despite a history of ill-health, including previous heart attacks, he effectively worked himself into an early grave, ignoring doctors’ advice to slow down. He perhaps saw himself as a secular saint, sacrificing himself for the revolution, and there is a remarkable group photo, suppressed until the 1990s, with him in the centre which echoes The Last Supper; he even appears to have a halo behind his head. It may be relevant that as a youth he had at one point intended to enter a seminary.
Lauchlan outlined a possible cause for this sense Dzerzhinsky possessed that he was somehow destined to martyrdom. He had had tuberculosis in 1901 which inculcated in him the feeling he was between life and death, engaged in a superhuman struggle with the enemy within, just as he struggled against another kind of enemy within as head of the Cheka. He wanted his life to have meaning, but turned the desire in a pathological direction. The irony is that after his death an autopsy, conducted by the foremost authority on TB in the country, revealed no trace of the disease – a conclusion there was no reason to fabricate. Dzerzhinsky had based his approach to life on a false premise.
For all his faults, Dzerzhinsky created an iconic role model that endures today. He is still popular in Russia at both official and public levels as a symbol of integrity, and there is a movement to bring his statue, pulled down in 1991 and currently languishing in the fallen statue park at the Central House of Artists, back to its original position outside the Lubyanka. He is not so popular in Poland (he was an ethnic Pole) and his statue in Dzerzhinsky Square in Warsaw came down in 1989, the square given back its pre-war name. As the existence of a statue in Belarus attests, the authorities there are quite positive towards his legacy.
The lecture’s title was somewhat misleading in emphasising the ‘who’ over the ‘what’. One was expecting a surprise contender for Dzerzhinsky’s assassin, perhaps a name hidden in state archives for decades, so it was a slight anti-climax to learn he did actually die of a heart attack after all. That is an indication of our hankering after conspiracies, life as soap opera. Despite the disappointment it was still an interesting profile, showing that there was more to Dzerzhinsky, and greater nuance, than is suggested by his image as director of the brutal state security apparatus. Dr Lauchlan has a biography in press – Iron Felix: Death, Tyranny & the Pursuit of Happiness in Revolutionary Russia, 1877-1926 – which will be well worth a look.