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KGB statue shows that Russia hasn’t shaken off the USSR’s ghost

The statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky outside Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. Credit: SVR

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.

Daniel_Kalder

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Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
10 months ago

Anyone else find it funny that the Russians are still treated like commies but the Chinese are treated like capitalists by the West?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I just think of them both as authoritarian regimes.

L Brad
L Brad
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I “find it funny ” that communism was supposed to free workers and end inequality, however it has resulted in even more repression and inequality. It’s not funny that tens of millions of people have been killed by these communist “utopias”, or that there are still people in the West who still think communism could be a good system.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
10 months ago
Reply to  L Brad

The real irony is that the communism of the hard left failed in Russia, and they openly admit it, but the soft left has won throughout most of the West. The ‘long march through the institutions’ smiles.

RM Parker
RM Parker
10 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Deeply, darkly amusing. Unfortunately.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago

Vlad is probably saving the original location for his own statue, which will be roughly the size of the Empire State Building.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
10 months ago

When do we get our statue of Guy Burgess?

John Le Huquet
John Le Huquet
10 months ago

In China the communist party is being used as a tool.of repression, nothing else. Putin wants to turn the clock back to the days of the Soviet Union when the communist party was again used as a method of repression. Don’t even mention North Korea.

martin logan
martin logan
10 months ago
Reply to  John Le Huquet

He wants the Party of Putin to always be in charge this time.
Any Soviet thinking about bettering people’s lives is superfluous, if not abhorrent.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
10 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

Ah, the Russophobe is a disappointed marxist. What groups were you involved in?

martin logan
martin logan
10 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Rather vacuous but understandable response.
Simply a fact that Putin could never allow more than about a 100 oligarchs any economic power. Any more would have been impossible to control/intimidate.
If he had adopted a western model, he would very quickly have lost control both of the economy and then the Duma.
And since Marxism isn’t a valid model for how humans really behave, it’s rather beside the point.
Just a nice myth…

martin logan
martin logan
10 months ago

This is actually unprecedented:
A spy service is in total charge of the Russian govt.
And the great problem for all is that the only thing they know how to do is fight a cold–or warm–war. They have zero understanding of how to make things materially better for Russians. Indeed, a rising middle class is a grave threat to their regime. Putin has cleverly narrowed Russian exports to petro-products, food and weapons. Anything that might actually improve Russian lives is suspect.
So better prepare for endless conflict on various levels. Putin & Co realize that if they ever actually reached a peace deal with the West, however favorable to Russia.
It means the end of their regime.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
10 months ago

The push to a reheated Russian nationalism with imperial ambitions over the last 20 years – ie. to restore the USSR – has aligned with the neoconservative project for a New American Century, suggesting that both sides would concede that the Cold War ended for precisely ten years, or until d**k Cheney’s first visit to Kiev.

RM Parker
RM Parker
10 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

It might be fair to say that the Russians have changed their economic model whilst retaining their political instincts.
My closest friend (English born, of Russian and Ukrainian parentage, and a rather confused lad at present) is never surprised at this, frequently reminding me of the peculiarities of the Russian political mindset. Totalitarian tendencies are never far from expressing themselves; the choice of economic setup is merely a means to an end.

martin logan
martin logan
10 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Like the situation after the 1920s, our 30-year holiday from crises with Russia and China has surely ended.
And the weaker they become economically, the more they will have to rely on brute force.