In Democratic Vote, Moscow Looks to Restore Soviet Symbol

Muscovites will debate the restoration of their own contentious symbol -- the statue of a feared Soviet police chief.

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Even as South Carolina agonizes over the prospect of taking down a controversial symbol of its past, Russia’s capital may decide to put one back up. At issue is a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, notorious leader of the Cheka — the Soviet secret police agency that would later become the KGB. In a contentious vote in the Moscow city council on Thursday, legislators approved a referendum question submitted by the city’s Communist Party: Should the Dzerzhinsky statue be restored to its pedestal in front of the KGB building?

The statue was toppled during the last days of the Soviet Union by demonstrators for whom Dzerzhinsky, the architect of the Gulag, represented terror and repression — the relic of an era that was ending before their eyes. The statue’s downfall came just days after a hard-line putsch, which threatened to undo Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms, was defeated by ordinary Muscovites. Change was in the air, and anything seemed possible.

Nearly 24 years later, “Iron Felix” may return to his pedestal in a very different Russia. The security service is now called the FSB, but it still operates out of the same building on Lubyanskaya Square. And as Putin’s reign grows longer in the tooth, it is once again cracking down on dissidents, journalists, human rights activists, and other internal enemies. Does the statue’s potential restoration — or even fact that the question is being asked — signify Russians’ acceptance of such methods?

On first glance, Dzerzhinsky’s rehabilitation seems to fit with the times. Amid confrontation with the West — and a growing economic price for his aggression in Ukraine — Putin has rallied Russians around their country’s heritage, emphasizing the Soviet Union’s economic achievements and military victories in everything from textbooks to TV programs to massive military parades. Russia’s confrontation with the West has heightened the country’s perennial feelings of insecurity, noted Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general who now lives in the United States. The restoration, he said, would fit with efforts to “restore the old glory from when the Soviets were strong and moving forward.” And he didn’t discount the possibility that Putin himself may be involved. “A strong man wants other strong men restored,” Kalugin said.

But, as usual, the question is not so simple. Like the Confederate flag in the United States, Russia’s Dzerzhinsky statue represents a particular, and particularly contentious, interpretation of the country’s history. And as in the United States, this interpretation is championed by a specific political force with a specific agenda. And again, as in the United States, this conservative force has an ambiguous relationship with the political establishment, which sometimes likes to harness its potential to mobilize the masses, and other times views any association with embarrassment.

Though Putin and his closest supporters may be sympathetic to evocations of Soviet glory, they are certainly no Communists. Alexander Baunov, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, notes that the reigning ideology in the capital is more imperial than Soviet. “It’s telling,” he said, “that it’s the Communists, and not [Putin’s ruling party] United Russia, who have moved this forward.” If the issue heats up, it may also prove to be a key opportunity for the Communist opposition to motivate its supporters and distinguish itself from the ruling party. At the same time, Baunov noted, Putin abhors any whiff of popular disorder, and the memory of Dzerzhinsky toppling from his pedestal in 1991 is all too reminiscent of more recent events in Kiev. Putting him back may evoke a welcome restoration of stability. “Putin and the people at the top,” Baunov said, “are all divided on this issue.”

As the Moscow Times points out, if the referendum goes ahead, it will be Muscovites’ first experience with direct democracy since the fall of the Soviet Union. What will they have to say? Liberals, of course, are outraged, with Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the 87-year-old head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, threatening to “splash [the statue] with red paint, the color of blood that bloodsucker spilled.” Meanwhile, the main reaction in the social media so far has been outrage — at the referendum’s projected cost. The Kremlin has not commented. Is the issue dead in the water?

Baunov isn’t so sure. While Moscow has the image of a progressive city, he pointed out, it’s also full of civil servants, security service employees and their families, and other “beneficiaries of the regime.” Russia’s confrontation with the West is being trumpeted in the state television day in and day out. It’s possible that memories of Dzerzhinsky, who, the Communists emphasize, also fought against the motherland’s enemies, may in time assume a positive cast.

There are still several hurdles to clear. In order for the referendum to go ahead, the Communist Party must collect nearly 150,000 signatures in its support within 30 days. In addition, the city council’s initiation of the process was questioned by some observers, who pointed out legal and procedural irregularities. Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin — who is seeking to build a reputation of technocratic competence — will probably find the issue an unwelcome distraction, and may seek to quash the project on technical grounds.

But if the referendum moves forward, and Muscovites do get a chance to have their say about Felix Dzerzhinsky, the world will see what 21st century Russians think of their own lost cause.

In the photo, a Communist Party supporter demonstrates near a replica of the Dzerzhinsky statue in central Moscow.
Photo credit: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images

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