September 16, 2023 - 8:00am

Earlier this week, a monument to “Iron” Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, was unveiled outside the HQ of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) in Moscow. The press coverage contained the now standard laments about Russia embracing repression, drifting further from the West and glorifying a Soviet past. The question that came to my mind, however, was: what took them so long? 

The rehabilitation of Russia’s secret police began almost immediately after Putin was first elected, 23 years ago. It was around then that Yuri Andropov, a spy chief-turned-Soviet leader, received a plaque on the Lubyanka building, HQ of the KGB for many decades. I once took the metro there to get a photo of it, but you had to walk up the steps to get close, and that didn’t seem like a good idea.  

In 2005, the “KGB were heroes” narrative took a leap forward when a monument to Dzerzhinsky was restored to the courtyard of Petrovka 38, headquarters of the Moscow police. At the time I was shocked, because I thought the report referred to the enormous statue of Dzerzhinsky toppled by protestors in 1991 that had stood in a park of obsolete monuments ever since. 

However, it turned out that the monument in question was a modest bust that had been removed after the failed pro-communist coup of August 1991. It was behind iron railings and was not easy to see from the street. Even so, it was an unnerving development, especially as it coincided with the campaign to rehabilitate Stalin as a great military leader. 

A year later, Vladimir Sorokin published his eerily prescient novel Day of the Oprichnik, a dark satire in which a future Tsar beholden to China defends his corrupt nationalist regime through a reign of terror enforced by his “oprichniks”, or secret policemen. 

The Oprichnina is the name of Russia’s original secret police, a special bodyguard founded by Ivan the Terrible 500 years ago to torture and kill his enemies as required. In Sorokin’s novel the oprichniks express themselves in a pathetically pompous tone, and when I read extracts from the speech made at the unveiling of the Dzerzhinsky monument it sounded like a passage straight from the novel: 

The image of the chairman of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission has become one of the symbols of its time, the standard of crystal honesty, dedication and loyalty to duty […] He remained faithful to his ideals to the end — the ideals of goodness and justice.
- SVR chief Sergei Naryshkin

It’s surprising that the authorities settled for erecting a reduced version of the old Dzerzhinsky monument in a southern suburb, when they could have restored the original to its rightful place between the Lubyanka and the Children’s World toy shop. 

The optimistic take would be that placing a giant secret policeman in the centre of the capital is a Rubicon the Putin regime is as yet unwilling to cross. On the other hand, whereas in Soviet times there was only one big statue of Iron Felix in Moscow, now there are two. Whatever you call that, it isn’t progress.  

Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.