Felix Dzerzhinski

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Felix Dzerzhinski.

Felix Dzerzhinski (11th April 1877 - 20th July 1926) was the Polish "Torquemada of Bolshevism" [1], the ruthless and murderous head of the Bolshevik Cheka, or Secret Police, forerunner of the NKVD and KGB, following the Russian Revolution.

Early Years

Felix Dzerzhinski (sometimes spelt Dzierjinski) was born on his parents' 400 acre farm in the district of Oszmiany in the province of Vilna in the Russian Kingdom of Poland. He was one of eight children of Edmund Rufin Dzerzhinski and Helen Januszewska, both Polish and Roman Catholics. Edmund had take a degree in Mathematics and Physics at St Petersburg University in 1863 and for the following 12 years had worked as a physics teacher in the High School at Taganrog in the south of Russia, where he became thoroughly Russianised. Due to a disagreement with the school authorities over his political opinions, Edmund was forced to resign, and returned to work his farm which, in the meantime, had tenants on it. The house, in which Felix was born, was not much larger than the average farm building or peasant's hut.[2]


Felix was initially educated by his father who at one point thought his son might become a priest. When Felix was 11 he and two of his brothers went to board with a Professor Bielow and attended High School or gymnasium in Vilna at the same time that the future Marshal Józef Pilsudsky was in the seventh class. Felix apparently excelled in mathematics and languages, Russian literature and poetry. Whilst at this school, sometime after 1892, he joined a political group which became firstly the foundation of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party and later developed into the Communist Party with contacts with Lenin & Plekhanov and involvement with the Jewish Bund, or League. Dzerzhinski was active in the practical and theoretical work organising the new party and in particular became an agitator among factory workers and he became involved, as a result, in brawls. Speaking Polish at school was forbidden but to a revolutionary this ban was meaningless. Caught out by a Class Master and censured, Dzerzhinski lost his temper and hit him in the face, resulting in his expulsion from school.[3]

Early Political Activity

Dzerzhinski was taken in by workers sympathetic to communism and he devoted all his time organising them and forging political links. He tried to extend the activities of the Party all over Lithuania and traveled extensively. He attended peasants' activities and popular hotel bars spreading the word. In an address to workers outside Goldstein's tanning factory in Vilna he said "We must fight against the Tsar, because the enemies of the workers gain support from him, and because he helps to keep the masses in subjection. The workers of all nations must unite under one standard" [the communist one]. This meeting was broken up by the police but he escaped. In 1896 various party members and leaders in Vilna were arrested, and Dzerzhinski was offered refuge by a Jew, Michael Goldman, and his family, in Bernardynska Street, where he remained until March the following year when the house was searched by police looking for him. [4]


A reward was on his head and finally, on 17th July 1897, he was arrested and thrown into Kovno gaol, for 15 months, where he was often beaten by the warders. He was finally tried on 26th May 1898 and was condemned to three years exile in the Wiatka district in Siberia, arriving there on 27th July. Surprisingly, exile was considered by Russians as a clemency. Dzerzhinski misbehaved from the outset and was placed in solitary confinement for nineteen days upon arrival. He was then escorted upriver to the village of Nolinsk where he was put to work in a cheap tobacco factory. Security here was lax and his movements not closely monitored and he became involved in a conspiracy to murder the provincial governor, Klingenberg. This came to nothing as Dzerzhinski was transferred to the convict settlement of Kajgorod.

Soon after, in September 1895, he escaped and finally reached Moscow, where a Polish lawyer, Lednicki, gave him money to continue his journey to Vilna, by train, and then on to Warsaw where he met up with Leon Goldman, the brother of Michael, his protector at Vilna. Here Dzerzhinski joined in communist activities again and a new party was created by them, the Polish-Lithuanian Social Democrats. In January 1900, at a conference in Minsk, a central committee was appointed which included Dzerzhinski. Immediately afterwards, at a workers' meeting in Powisle, he and others were arrested in thrown into the Warsaw citadel for two months, following which he was sent to a prison in Siedlce. Here he sunk into serious depression and the prison doctors thought he might be mentally unbalanced. On 5th January 1902 Dzerzhinski was condemned to five years exile at Wilujsk in Siberia. He again escaped and on 2nd August 1902 he was back in Warsaw.[5]

Goes West

However, his friends, Leon Goldman and Zygmunt Heryng now persuaded Dzerzhinski to go to the West, due to his depression and dangerous state of health. Soon he was in Berlin engaged with the Jewish Bund where he met Rosa Luxemburg and other communist agitators and joined their committee. Their influence persuaded him to abandon any soft-socialist views he still retained in favour of absolute communism. They decided to print a paper in Krakow (then under Austrian sovereignty) and Dzerzhinski's suggestion for a title, Red Standard was accepted. At the same time they were to publish a fortnightly journal called the Social-Democrat Outlook and Dzerzhinski was to edit both. At this point he was diagnosed with consumption and went to Clarens in Switzerland for a rest.

Returns to Poland

Dzerzhinski returned to Krakow in the autumn of 1902, and the first issue of the Red Standard appeared on 2nd November. He now threw all his energies into re-organising the so-called Social-Democrats in Poland and Lithuania and considerable work was done up to the revolutionary year of 1905. During this period it is said that "the romanticism of his youth had evaporated and in its place was an almost animal rancour against the world."[6]

Dzerzhinski was not a nationalist and he considered the Polish communists' plan of obtaining independence by means of an armed struggle with the Tsar as a dangerous delusion. His idea was to unite Poland to Russia and this was put forward by him at the fourth congress of the Polish party in 1903, when he advocated sending delegates to attend the second Russian Congress in London. (It was at this conference that the 'Social-Democrats' split into the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks factions.) In 1906 he personally attended the Congress of 'Social-Democrats' in Stockholm where he proposed the union of the Russian and Polish parties. At the 5th Congress in London, after they had become united, he was elected to the Central Committee of the United Party. By this means he became the head organiser and director of what was already called the Communist International.[7]

On 1st May 1905 Dzerzhinski was a prime mover in the huge demonstrations in Warsaw whipped up by the communists which resulted in severe repression by the police, followed by a General Strike in Warsaw for three days from 4th May. On 17th July, at a meeting of the Polish-Lithuanian Social Democratic Party committee in Nowominsk the police again pounced, arresting Felix and the others, taking them back to Warsaw where he was again imprisoned until the Tsarist Government's Amnesty of October, when he was released. He immediately began agitation again in the streets against the "Tsar's agents", the "Bourgeoisie" and "capitalism which enslaved the simple people." The Social-Democrats and the Jewish Bund worked hand in hand, and strikes and acts of terrorism broke out over the next year. Dzerzhinski was again arrested on 26th December 1906 and imprisoned for five months, and released on 27th May 1907. He continued his subversive activities and agitations and was arrested again on 8th April 1908. This time special restrictions were placed upon him and he became psychotic. On 25th April 1909 he was condemned to exile in Siberia, for life. He was sent to Tasiekewka beyond Jenisiej. Yet within a month he had again escaped and towards the end of December he was back in Warsaw. On 12th September 1912 he was arrested and imprisoned, and on 29th April 1914 he was sentenced to two years hard labour; with the outbreak of The Great War he was removed to Orel. On 18th May 1916 he received a further sentence of six years imprisonment in the Butyrki Prison in Moscow, where he remained until the March 1917 revolution.[8]


Dzerzhinski was released during the Bolshevik Revolution, and Minutes of the Soviet Central Committee of 16th (29th) October 1917 list him already as one of those in the Military Revolutionary Centre, along with Stalin, and others. This Centre supplemented the Military Revolutionary Committee which was headed by Trotsky.[9] Dzerzhinski was entrusted with the duty of "defending the conquests of the revolution" and, in addition, was made a Commissar of the People and put in charge of the political police. He was appointed head of the "Extraordinary Commisssion for Combating Counter-Revolution, Speculation and Sabotage" - the Cheka, following his own proposal to the Military Revolutionary Committee on 7th (20th) December 1917.[10] He received orders to "exterminate the enemies of the revolution and the enemies of the proletariat" and became a close, if not the closest, working colleague of Trotsky[11], "the incarnation of belligerent hate".[12] During 1918 Dzerzhinski's health again began to deteriorate and he found time to spend a month at the 'Janetkova' sanitorium for consumption, outside Orenburg.[13]

The New Regime

NKVD march with Dzershinsky image

The Red Terror

In March 1918 the Cheka had removed its headquarters to 22 Lubyanka Street, Moscow, a name soon to become notorious as one of the most feared prisons in the world. Its first regular unit was a detachment of Latvians, or Letts, as the Russians called them. By the end of 1918 the extension of the Red Terror by Dzerzhinski's Cheka, whose tentacles were covering the entire face of Russia, led one of the Revolutionary Committee to state "There is no sphere of our lives where the Cheka does not have its eagle eye." I. N. Steinberg, the Bolshevik Commissar of Justice, described Dzerzhinski as "a revolutionary who brought into the Revolution an unquenchable hatred of his class enemies....behind his eyes was dry flame of fanaticism gleamed. 'We don't want justice, we want to settle accounts' was one of his favourite expressions." The British agent Bruce Lockhart also said that Dzerzhinski was humourless and that his eyes "blazed with a steady fire of fanaticism."[14]

On 6th July 1918, two Russians produced Cheka passes on behalf of Dzerzhinsky at the German Embassy to see the Ambassador, Count Mirbach, whom they then brutally murdered, causing a diplomatic crisis. The Bolsheviks used this as a pretext to blame the Left-Socialist-Revolutionaries for the incident and during the purge which followed Dzerzhinski was held for a short while, in the confusion, by LSR supporters, without realising who they had. 400 of the LSRs were rounded up. Lenin telegraphed Stalin that they were "liquidating mercilessly" and in a Press conference Dzerzhinski stated "We exist on a basis of organised terror....We counter the enemies of the Soviet Government with terror and extirpate the criminals on the spot.....The Cheka is not a court of justice. It is a defender of the revolution."[15]

On 2nd November 1919 Trotsky formulated his 'hostages policy' for captured Tsarist officers fighting his forces during the Civil War. He told Dzerzhinski that "Families of traitors must be arrested at once. Traitors themselves must be registered in the army's Black Book, so that after the imminent and final triumph of the Revolution, not a single traitor can escape punishment."[16] Lenin too threw in his similar instructions: "The taking of hostages from the bourgeoisie and from officers' families must be stepped up.....arrange matters with Dzerzhinsky."[17] In March 1921 there was a revolt by the once-loyal garrison of Kronstadt against Bolshevik policies. Trotsky, Kamenev and Tukhachevsky signed the order which authorised the brutal and murderous crushing of the revolt. However, later, in an article written by Trotsky entitled Once More on the Suppression of Kronstadt, he said it was actually "Dzerzhinsky who dealt with the repressions, and he never (rightly) permitted any interference in his work."[18] It is argued that "Bolshevism owes its rule and authority mainly to Dzerzhinski, who achieved not only mass slaughter without reason or inquiry, but in addition took the risk of killing exceptionally, publicly, systematically, and cruelly." Dzerzhinski's invention of a crude electric chair, and his vicious indescribable torture and murder of Fania Kaplan, the Jewess who made an attempt on Lenin's life on August 31, 1918, are gruesome examples. he then followed Trotsky and his army into towns captured from the White Armies, with his bands of Chekists introducing all to the Red Terror.[19] Early in 1922 the Cheka reported officially that between 1918 and the end of 1921 it had carried out 12,733 executions, although such official low figures must be viewed sceptically against the many other estimates of what the Terror meant.[20] Well-researched estimates place the figure in excess of 250,000 in this period.[21]

New Post

On April 14, 1920 Dzerzhinski was nominated for the post of leader of the People's Commission for Roads and Communications (NKPS)and he immediately turned his energies into some kind of restoration of the ruined railway system. He began by terrifying people, arranging flying visits to the most distant outposts of the main lines all over Russia. Petrified, staff at all levels worked around the clock to try and improve matters. By the end of 1922 there was some progress.[22] On February 8, 1922 the Cheka became the GPU which was incorporated in the Internal Affairs Commissariat (NKVD). Decrees of August and October 1922 gave the GPU the power to exile, imprison and, in some cases, execute counter-revolutionaries, 'bandits' and certain categories of criminal.[23]

Lenin's Death

Dzerzhinski was still in charge and he carried on with his Cheka Terror. On 12th December 1922 he and Lenin spent some considerable time conferring in Lenin's office. [24] Amongst other things, Dzerzhinsky had offended Lenin by supporting Stalin and using violent bullying tactics to bring the Bolshevik government in Georgia into line.[25] The following day Lenin suffered two apparent minor strokes.[26] (The Cheka became the GPU in 1923). They were followed by another stroke in the following March and on January 24, 1924, in Gorki, Lenin died.[27] Stalin was chosen by the Party to replace Lenin.

New Agriculture Post

On March 11, 1924, without losing his previous positions, Dzerzhinsky became leader of the Higher Council of National Agriculture. So began the famous "Five Year Plan". Dzerzhinsky, realising the value of some "fundamental capital" and a certain amount of trade and commercial activity had to exist, now came into conflict with Trotsky who loathed anything even vaguely resembling capitalism. In the Spring of 1925 capital, however was absent. The Imperial Crown Jewels were sent abroad for auction. In the winter of 1925-6 he cracked down on corruption, holidays, bureaucracy etc., while writing his book, Trade in the U.S.S.R.. The growing disagreements between Trotsky and Stalin were never far below the surface and Dzerzhinsky kept them both at a distance.[28]


Dzerzhinsky was constantly involved in disagreements and conspiracies of every kind in his closing years. Some even felt that he was losing his mind. In addition many others in the Bolshevik hierarchy felt that he now had to go. In July 1926 he felt he could no longer work and dreaded people, even the sight of them. On the 19th of that month an attempt was made to poison Dzerzhinsky, but this failed when he forced the cook to eat what he had brought him. The cook, of course, died. On the 20th he attended the annual meeting of the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party in the Kremlin palace. He addressed the gathering with a fiery speech, full of bitterness and anger attacking just about everyone. The Communist Party hierarchy was offended and infuriated, describing him as a "lunatic". Arrangements were being made to have him liquidated but in fact during that night his heart failed and he died. He was found dead in bed the following morning. Stalin heard the news calmly, only surprised that Dzerzhinsky's luck had lasted to the very end. Publicly, he heaped praise upon the dead executioner. Feliz Dzerzhinsky's body was exposed to public view, laid in the throne room of the Tsars[29]. His funeral was Trotsky's last official appearance in Russia (although he spoke at Adolf Yoffe's funeral, in an unofficial capacity, in November 1927).[30]

He was replaced as head of the Soviet secret police by another Pole, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky.

Remembering the Executioner

An effigy of Dzerzhinski, incorporating death masks of his face and hands, and wearing his uniform, was placed in a glass coffin as an object of veneration (similar to Lenin's embalmed remains) in a conference room at the KGB Officers' Club. On the Cheka's twentieth anniversary in December 1937 Dzerzhinski was eulogised as "the indefatigable Bolshevik and steadfast knight of the Revolution". But as the Stalin period progressed, portraits of Dzerzhinski became smaller and fewer. Shortly after the Second World War his effigy was thrown out of the KGB Officers' Club and apparently destroyed.[31]

With de-Stalinisation there was a revival and expansion of the Dzerzhinsky cult, and in the late 1950s a huge statue of him was unveiled outside KGB headquarters in Dzerzhinsky Square. Inside KGB HQ is a large bust of Dzerzhinsky on a marble pedestal constantly surrounded by fresh flowers. All young officers at some stage in their early careers must lay flowers or wreaths before their founder's bust and stand silent for a moment with head bowed.[32]

In Poland there was a large monument to Dzerzhinsky (being Polish) in Dzerzhinsky Square (Polish: Plac Dzierżyńskiego) in the center of Warsaw. It was not taken down until 1989. The name of the square was changed back to its pre–Second World War name, "Bank Square" (Polish: Plac Bankowy).


  1. Jaxa-Ronikier, Count Bogdan Marian Vincent, The Red Executioner Dzierjinski, London, 1935, p.115.
  2. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, p.43.
  3. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, pps:45,49 & 55-7.
  4. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, pps:59-62.
  5. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, pps:63-73 & 78-85
  6. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, pps:85-6
  7. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, p.87.
  8. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, pps:91-114.
  9. Pravda, 2nd November 1927, carried a precise extract of the Minutes.
  10. Clark, Ronald W., Lenin: The Man Behind the Mask, London, 1988, p.300-1. ISBN 0-571-13904-3
  11. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, pps:132-4.
  12. Lockhart, R.H. Bruce, Memoirs of a British Agent, London, Nov 1932, p.256.
  13. Ashbee, F., "The Carricks of St. Petersburg", in The Caledonian Phalanx - Scots in Russia, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1987, p.102-4.
  14. Lockhart, 1932, p.257.
  15. Clark, 1988, pps:368-370
  16. Volkogonov, Dmitri, Trotsky - The Eternal Revolutionary, London, 1996, p.179, ISBN 0-00-255272-8
  17. Clark, 1988, p.418
  18. Volkogonov, 1996, pps:130 and 393.
  19. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, pps:134; 198-9; 202-5.
  20. Clark, 1988, pps: 300-1, 351, 356.
  21. Andrew, Christopher & Gordievsky, Oleg, KGB - from Lenin to Gorbachev, London, 1990, p.41. ISBN 0-340-48561-2
  22. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, pps: 222-232.
  23. Andrew & Gordievsky, 1990, p.41.
  24. Clark, 1988, p.469.
  25. Volkogonov, 1996, p.242n.
  26. Clark, 1988, pps: 469 and 478-9
  27. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, p.242-7.
  28. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, pps: 254-266.
  29. Jaxa-Ronikier, 1935, pps: 298-309.
  30. Deutscher, Issac, The Great Purges, Oxford, UK, 1984, p.45-7.
  31. Andrew & Gordievsky, 1990, p.23.
  32. Andrew & Gordievsky, 1990, p.23.