Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (Polish: Feliks Edmundowicz Dzierżyński, Russian: Феликс Эдмундович Дзержинский, Belarusian: Фелікс Эдмундавіч Дзяржынскі; 11 September, 1877–July 20, 1926) was a Polish Communist revolutionary, famous as the founder of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, later known by many names during the history of the Soviet Union. The agency became notorious for large-scale human rights abuses, including torture and mass summary executions, carried out during the Red Terror and the Russian Civil War.
Dzerzhinsky was born into a Polish szlachta family of the Samson coat of arms in the Dziarzhynava estate near Ivianets and Rakau in Western Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. He was expelled from school in Vilnius for "revolutionary activity". He joined a Marxist group—the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party in 1895, and was one of the founders of Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania in 1900. He spent the major part of his early life in various prisons. He was arrested for his revolutionary activities in 1897 and 1900, sent to Siberia, and escaped both times. He then went to Berlin, before returning to participate in the failed 1905 revolution, after which he was again jailed, this time by the Okhrana. After being released in 1912, he was quickly rearrested for revolutionary activity and jailed in Moscow.
In March, 1917, he was released (although Pravda usually asserts that he escaped, and indeed the facts are uncertain), along with many others, from the jail he had been imprisoned in since 1912 . His first act was to join the Bolshevik Party. His honest and incorruptible character, combined with his complete devotion to the cause, gained him swift recognition and the nickname "Iron Felix".
Lenin regarded Dzerzhinsky as a revolutionary hero, and appointed him to organize a force to combat internal political threats. On December 20, 1917, the Council of People's Commissars officially established the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-revolution and Sabotage - usually called the Cheka (based on the Russian acronym ВЧК). The Cheka received a large amount of resources, and became known for ruthlessly pursuing any perceived counterrevolutionary elements. As the Russian Civil War expanded, Dzerzhinsky also began organising internal security troops to enforce the Cheka's authority. Lenin gave the organization tremendous powers to combat the opposition.
Tens of thousands of political opponents were shot without trial in the basements of prisons and public places throughout Russia — and not only opponents. People who happened to be intellectuals, capitalists and priests were shot simply for who they were. Dzerzhinsky himself boasted that: “[The Red Terror involves] the terrorization, arrests and extermination of enemies of the revolution on the basis of their class affiliation or of their pre-revolutionary roles.”
At the end of the Civil War in 1922 , the Cheka was changed into the GPU (State Political Directorate), a section of the NKVD, but this did not diminish Dzerzhinsky's power: from 1921-24, he was Minister of the Interior, head of the Cheka/GPU/OGPU, Minister for Communications, and head of the Vesenkha (Supreme Council of National Economy).
Dzerzhinsky died of a heart attack on July 20 1926 in Moscow, immediately after a two-hour long speech to the Bolshevik Central Committee in which, visibly quite ill, he violently denounced the United Opposition led by Leon Trotsky, Gregory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev. His name and image were widely used throughout the KGB and the Soviet Union— and her satellite states: there were six towns named after him. The town Kojdanava, which is not very far from the estate, was renamed to Dzyarzhynsk. There is also a city of Dzerzhinsk and three cities called Dzerzhinskiy in Russia and two cities in Ukraine called Dzerzhinsk. The Dzerzhinskiy Tractor Works in Stalingrad were named in his honour and became a scene of bitter fighting during the Second World War. There is a museum dedicated to him in his birth place in Belarus.
Iron Felix also refers to his 15-ton bronze monument which once dominated the Lubyanka Square in Moscow, near the KGB headquarters. It was erected in 1958 by sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich and was a Moscow landmark in Soviet times. Symbolically, the Memorial to the Victims of the Gulag (a simple stone from Solovki) was erected beside the Iron Felix and the latter was removed in August, 1991, after the failed coup of conservative members of government. The memorial to Dzerzhinsky was toppled by a cheering crowd with the help of a crane. The event symbolized the end of repression. A mock-up of the removal of Dzerzhinsky's statue can be found in the entrance hall of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
In 2002, Moscow mayor Yuriy Luzhkov proposed returning the statue to its plinth, but the plan was dropped after opposition from liberals and the Kremlin. The statue remained in the graveyard of fallen Soviet memorials at the Central House of Artists, although a smaller bust of Dzerzhinsky in the courtyard of the Moscow police headquarters at Petrovka 38 was restored in November, 2005 (this bust had been removed by the police officers on 22 August 1991).
His monument in "Dzerzhinsky Square" (pl. Plac Dzierżyńskiego), in the center of Warsaw, was hated by the population of the Polish capital as a symbol of Soviet oppression and was toppled in 1989, as soon as the PZPR started losing power. The name of the square was soon changed to its pre-Second World War name, "Bank Square" (pl. Plac Bankowy).
In 2006, a new statue of Iron Felix was unveiled in the Belarusian capital Minsk on 26 March. The Belarusian KGB chief was present at the ceremony and said that the Belarusian KGB should follow the example of Dzerzhinsky in its activities.