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United Press International

Russian liberals rally against KGB statue

September 16, 2002

MOSCOW, Sept. 16 (UPI) -- A Russian liberal party and human rights activists staged a rally Monday in central Moscow to block the return of a statue of Soviet-era secret police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky to its site in front of the FSB security service headquarters.

The Union of Rightist Forces, known by its Russian initials of SPS, began collecting signatures to block the return of the monument, which had been removed from Lubyanka Square in August 1991 after Communist rule crumbled.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov sparked the debate on the future of the statue last week, insisting the 14-ton bronze monument was an outstanding work of art that deserved to regain its prominent place in the heart of Moscow.

Luzhkov said the dismantling of the monument a decade ago was motivated "exclusively by the wave of protest against the existing (Soviet) system, but not against the monument itself."

However, as debate raged among the intelligentsia, politicians representing liberal parties such as Yabloko and the SPS said they were categorically opposed to the return of "Iron Felix," as the founder of what became the KGB is known.

"Dzerzhinsky was a butcher who killed millions of Russians," SPS leader Boris Nemtsov told a crowd of supporters gathered in front of the headquarters of the FSB, formerly the KGB.

Nemtsov said Dzerzhinsky's name alone was a constant reminder of the atrocities committed by the Soviet regime.

"It is not a question of whether this monument is good or bad. It is a symbol of a totalitarian era that ended not so long ago," Nemtsov said.

"Restoring such symbols may bring back totalitarianism, we could see censorship and the violation of democratic freedoms," he said.

Liberal forces have been alarmed by the initiative, laden as it is with symbolism and that follows the return of the Soviet anthem as Russia's national anthem earlier this year.

Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the Yabloko party, said a return of Dzerzhinsky's statue to its central place on Lubyanka Square was "intolerable" because of its symbolic nature.

Vladimir Lukin, a leading member of Yabloko and deputy speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, also condemned the initiative.

"This man (Dzerzhinsky) was directly conducting the 'red terror,' mass terror, he organized collective murders," Lukin said, adding, "He is one of the biggest terrorists of the 20th century."

Memorial, a human rights group created to defend the rights of millions of victims of Stalinist camps and their relatives, said it would fight the return of Dzerzhinsky's statue as it symbolized a regime that created the Gulag, a system of forced labor camps where millions of political prisoners perished during Joseph Stalin's rule.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, another human rights organization, said the mere suggestion that the symbol of Red Terror should be restored was extremely worrying.

Among those to support the return of Iron Felix were the leaders of Communist, nationalist and agrarian parties.

Luzhkov, who had expected a heated debate over the future of the statue, infuriated and astonished many as he had earlier supported the removal of the statue and called for a new monument to replace it.

In 1998, Luzhkov rejected a motion by Communists to restore the statue, but he was a changed man over the weekend, championing the benefits of restoring the "beautiful architectural and artistic composition which was a dominant feature of the square."

Luzhkov said the statue was so fine it was "flawless" and "beyond reproach."

The mayor also tried to whitewash Dzerzhinsky by presenting him as a progressive humanitarian who cared for homeless children and fought crime.

"NKVD, KGB -- that was after Dzerzhinsky. If we put on the scales all the things this man had done, the good will prevail," Luzhkov said, arguing that Dzerzhinsky was associated above all with solving social problems such as vagrancy, restoring Soviet railways and with the progress of Soviet economy.

"I assume, indeed, that this monument, created by outstanding sculptor (Yevgeny) Vuchetich, tells a story of the great (Russian) nation's history," the Moscow mayor said.

In Russian minds, Dzerzhinsky is still most often associated with the brutalities of the Bolshevik regime and the omnipotence of its secret services, which he came to epitomize from the early days of Communist rule.

Dzerzhinsky was the chairman of the notorious Cheka, the first Soviet secret police organization, the precursor of the NVKD and later KGB. A Pole by nationality, Dzerzhinsky also became known for his fanaticism in serving the Soviet regime and ruthless use of terror against all dissenters. After leaving the secret service, he held other important posts in the Soviet government.

Over the years, the monument to Dzerzhinsky, standing in front of the KGB building in Lubyanka Square, came to signify the iron fist of the authoritarian regime that ruled the Soviet empire for more than seven decades.

That explains why it was among the first monuments to Soviet leaders targeted by thousands of Muscovites who spilled onto the city streets in August of 1991 to protest a hard-line coup that aimed to depose reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev.

As the coup failed, crowds rushed to Lubyanka to topple the statue. They screamed with joy and cheered in unison as a crane dismantled it.

Since then, the monument has stood in the backyard of Moscow's Central House of Artists, along with other statues of Communist leaders that were toppled by angry crowds.

Several leading liberals have suggested that Luzhkov may have decided to push ahead with the statue's restoration for political benefits such a move may hold. It is well known that President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, views Dzerzhinsky as a great historical figure and a mentor, and his aides may have hinted to the mayor that it would be nice to have the statue back in its prime position in front of the secret service's headquarters.

See also:
YABLOKO and the Grim Symbols of the Soviet Era

United Press International, September 16, 2002

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