Dzerzhinsky, Feliks Edmundovich

Dzerzhinsky, Feliks Edmundovich
   Born into a family of Polish landowners, Dzerzhinsky joined the Socialist Democratic Party of Poland and Lithuania while a student. As a political activist, he was arrested and imprisoned by the tsarist authorities on several occasions, and the February 1917 revolution found him in a Moscow prison cell. As a revolutionary and a prisoner, Dzerzhinsky took great interest in operational tradecraft and the counterintelligence operations of the tsarist secret service, Okhrana. Dzerzhinsky specialized in ferreting out informers from among revolutionaries.
   Following the Bolshevik coup of 7 November 1917, Vladimir Lenin asked Dzerzhinsky to form a security service, which took the name All Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage (Chrevzuychanaya komissiya po borbe s kontrarevolutsei i sabotazhem). Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka—as it was referred to by most citizens—became a secret police empire responsible for the security of the state and the party. Dzerzhinsky described the Cheka as “the party’s fighting detachment.” Most of his deputies were not Russians but came from the Polish, Latvian, and Jewish minorities. Many had served in the Bolshevik underground in and outside the tsarist state.
   During the Russian civil war, Dzerzhinsky often traveled as the party’s representative to various military fronts as a troubleshooter, and he was instrumental in ordering and managing the Red Terror in 1918 that followed the attempted assassination of Lenin. On the first day of the terror, the Cheka executed without trial more than 500 men and women. During its short existence, the Cheka executed close to 150,000 Soviet citizens and imprisoned tens of thousands in forced labor camps. Dzerzhinsky publicly noted that the Cheka stood for terror, and regretfully that sometimes the sword of the revolution fell on the innocent as well as the guilty.
   Given his long political apprenticeship outside the Bolshevik Party, Dzerzhinsky kept out of party politics as long as Lenin was alive. However, following Lenin’s death in 1924, Dzerzhinsky supported Joseph Stalin in his struggle with Leon Trotsky. As a result, the Cheka, which Dzerzhinsky created, became the Stalinist NKVD, a weapon that the leadership could use against dissidents within the party. The interrogators who had destroyed countless intellectuals, clergy, and refractory peasants showed little disinclination a decade later to purge the party of enemies.
   In 1922, as part of the New Economic Policy (NEP), the Cheka was folded into the new GPU (State Political Administration). The GPU lost none of the power of the Cheka. Moreover, Dzerzhinsky was rewarded for his work in building the security service by being made chair of the Council of the National Economy. This appointment led to greater participation by the security service in the Soviet economy, and the employment of thousands of prisoners in logging, gold mining, and manufacturing. Dzerzhinsky died in 1926 following a speech to a party meeting. He was remembered by security professionals as a knight of the revolution. His statue at the service headquarters at Lubyanka was torn down immediately following the failed 1991 August putsch but recently has been placed back in its position of honor.
   Following Dzerzhinsky’s death, an admirer noted that his two most striking qualities were fanaticism and mercilessness. Dzerzhinsky was an aesthetic and workaholic who lived in his office the first year he managed the Cheka, subsisting on the meager rations fed his troops in the field. He sought to mold a service of revolutionary priests, describing his Chekist colleagues as having “clean hands and warm hearts.” He was also a formidable manager who controlled a security service with a staff of 250,000. He had little real interest in foreign intelligence, and the foreign intelligence section was mainly directed at the penetration of émigré movements. Under Dzerzhinsky’s leadership, the Cheka organized the Trust operation to lure émigrés to return to the Soviet Union. By the time of his death, the security service had eliminated the threat of émigré political action against the infant Soviet state.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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