Felix Dzerzhinsky, the son of a Polish landowner, was born in Vilno in 1877. He joined the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party and helped to organize factory workers into trade unions.
Dzerzhinsky was arrested in 1897 but managed to escape from Siberia two years later. He went to Warsaw where he joined the Social Democratic Party of Poland (SDPP) that had been formed by Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches in 1893.
Karl Radek was a fellow leader of the SDPP: "Dzerzhinskycame to be the most beloved of all the Polish leaders. Tall, well built, with ardent eyes, quick, passionate speech, thus I first met him in the autumn of 1903. He won the love and esteem not only of the older workers, but also of the youth then coming into the movement. In their eyes he was surrounded by a halo by reason of his terms in prison and exile and his reputation as Party organizer. His opinion was valued not only by Rosa but even by veteran Tyszka who had great organizational experience and who combined sound Marxian scholarship with wonderful political sensitivity. On all practical questions of the movement Joseph’s opinion was almost decisive. How did he obtain this authority? In fact, what was the personal origin of this energetic revolutionist, so strict towards himself and towards everybody else too, this man able to inspire and lead them all?"
Dzerzhinsky was arrested again and spent another nine years in Siberia until being released as a result of the political amnesty that followed the February Revolution and played an active role in the October Revolution.
In December, 1917, Lenin appointed Dzerzhinsky as Commissar for Internal Affairs and head of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka). As Dzerzhinsky later commented: "In the October Revolution, I was a member of the Military Revolutionary Committee, and then I was entrusted with the task of organizing the Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Sabotage and Counterrevolution I was appointed its Chairman, holding at the same time the post of Commissar for Internal Affairs."
Victor Serge argued: "I believe that the formation of the Chekas was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918 when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads. All evidence indicates that revolutionary tribunals, functioning in the light of day and admitting the right of defence, would have attained the same efficiency with far less abuse and depravity. Was it necessary to revert to the procedures of the Inquisition?"
Dzerzhinsky explained in July 1918: "We stand for organized terror - this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. When confronted with evidence criminals in almost every case confess; and what argument can have greater weight than a criminal's own confession."
On 17th August, 1918, Moisei Uritsky, chief of the Petrograd Secret Police was assassinated. Two weeks later Dora Kaplan shot and severely wounded Lenin. The first person to react to these events, Joseph Stalin, who was in Tsaritsyn at the time, sent a telegram to Yakov Sverdlov suggesting: "having learned about the wicked attempt of capitalist hirelings on the life of the greatest revolutionary, the tested leader and teacher of the proletariat, Comrade Lenin, answer this base attack from ambush with the organization of open and systematic mass terror against the bourgeoisie and its agents."
Felix Dzerzhinsky, on the advice of Stalin, instigated the Red Terror. The Bolshevik newspaper, Krasnaya Gazeta, reported on 1st September, 1918: "We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard, and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will let loose the floodgates of that sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky, Zinovief and Volodarski, let there be floods of the blood of the bourgeois - more blood, as much as possible."
It is estimated that in the next few months 800 socialists were arrested and shot without trial. Dzerzhinsky reported "Our enemies are now suppressed and are in the kingdom of the shadows." Lev Kamenev admitted: "Not a single measure of the Soviet government could have been put through without the help of the Cheka. It is the best example of communist discipline."
By 1921 the Kronstadt sailors had become disillusioned with the Bolshevik government. They were angry about the lack of democracy and the policy of War Communism. On 28th February, 1921, the crew of the battleship, Petropavlovsk, passed a resolution calling for a return of full political freedoms. Lenin denounced the protest as a plot instigated by the White Army and their European supporters. On 6th March, Leon Trotsky announced that he was going to order the Red Army to attack the Kronstadt sailors. However, it was not until the 17th March that government forces were able to take control of Kronstadt. An estimated 8,000 people (sailors and civilians) left Kronstadt and went to live in Finland.
The Cheka was also responsible for dealing with the sailors arrested during the Kronstadt Uprising. Official figures suggest that 527 people were killed and 4,127 were wounded. Historians who have studied the uprising believe that the total number of casualties was much higher than this. According to Victor Serge over 500 sailors at Kronstadt were executed for their part in the rebellion.
Dzerzhinsky was appointed as People's Commissar for Transport in 1921. However, he remained in control of Cheka and in 1922 Dzerzhinsky transformed it into the Government Political Administration (GPU). One Cheka official admitted in 1929: "We have executed some twenty or thirty thousand persons, perhaps fifty thousand. They were all spies, traitors, enemies within our ranks, a very small number in proportion to the persons of this kind then in Russia. We instituted the red terror at a time of war, when the enemy was marching upon us from without and the enemy within was preparing to help him. Scotland Yard executed spies and traitors also in war time."
George Seldes wrote in 1929: "Because of the Cheka, freedom has ceased to exist in Russia. There is no democracy. It is not wanted. Only American apologists for the Soviets have ever pretended there was democracy in Russia.... Freedom, liberty, justice as we know it, democracy, all the fundamental human rights for which the world has been fighting for civilized centuries, have been abolished in Russia in order that the communist experiment might be made. They have been kept suppressed by the Cheka. The Cheka is the instrument of militant Communism. It is a great success. The terror is in the mind and marrow of the present generation and nothing but generations of freedom and liberty will ever root it out."
Felix Dzerzhinsky died of a heart attack on 20th July 1926.
The February Revolution freed me from the central Moscow prison. Until August 1917, I looked in Moscow, and then in that month I was one of the Moscow delegates to the RSDRP. In the October Revolution, I was a member of the Military Revolutionary Committee, and then I was entrusted with the task of organizing the Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Sabotage and Counterrevolution I was appointed its Chairman, holding at the same time the post of Commissar for Internal Affairs.
Since the first massacres of Red prisoners by the Whites, the murders of Volodarsky and Uritsky and the attempt against Lenin (in the summer of 1918), the custom of arresting and, often, executing hostages had become generalized and legal. Already Cheka, which made mass arrests of suspects, the was tending to settle their fate independently, under formal control of the Party, but in reality without anybody's knowledge.
The Party endeavoured to head it with incorruptible men like the former convict Dzerzhinsky, a sincere idealist, ruthless but chivalrous, with the emaciated profile of an Inquisitor: tall forehead, bony nose, untidy goatee, and an expression of weariness and austerity. But the Party had few men of this stamp and many Chekas.
I believe that the formation of the Chekas was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918 when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads. All evidence indicates that revolutionary tribunals, functioning in the light of day and admitting the right of defence, would have attained the same efficiency with far less abuse and depravity. Was it necessary to revert to the procedures of the Inquisition?
By the beginning of 1919, the Chekas had little or no resistance against this psychological perversion and corruption. I know for a fact that Dzerzhinsky judged them to be "half-rotten", and saw no solution to the evil except in shooting the worst Chekists and abolishing the death-penalty as quickly as possible.
We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard, and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will let loose the floodgates of that sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin and Uritsky, Zinovief and Volodarski, let there be floods of the blood of the bourgeois - more blood, as much as possible.
On 20 December 1917, Lenin instructed Dzerzhinsky to organize an Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Speculation. Under the name Cheka, this Soviet secret police soon became the symbol for a system of terror such as the world had never seen. In later years its name was changed to OGPU, NKVD, MVD, KGB, but its purpose remained the same. Dzerzhinsky became the first head of the Cheka.
In his first address as chief of the Soviet secret police Dzerzhinsky declared: "This is no time for speech-making. Our Revolution is in serious danger. We tolerate too good-naturedly what is transpiring around us. The forces of our enemies are organizing. The counter-revolutionaries are at work and are organizing their groups in various sections of the country. The enemy is encamped in Petrograd, at our very hearth! We have indisputable evidence of this and we must send to this front the most stern, energetic, hearty and loyal comrades who are ready to do all to defend the attainments of our Revolution. Do not think that I am on the look-out for forms of revolutionary justice. We have no need for justice now. Now we have need of a battle to the death! I propose, I demand the initiation of the Revolutionary sword which will put an end to all counter-revolutionists. We must act not tomorrow, but today, at once!
Then followed a series of uncovered plots, some true, others fantastic, against the Bolsheviks and conspiracies against the lives of the leaders. In his little room Dzerzhinsky was constantly sharpening the weapon of the Soviet dictatorship. To Dzerzhinsky was brought the mass of undigested rumours from all parts of Petrograd. With the aid of picked squads of Chekists, Dzerzhinsky undertook to purge the city. At night his men moved from the dark streets into apartment houses; towards dawn they returned with i their haul. Few if any challenged the authority of these men. Their password was enough: Cheka, the all-powerful political police.
Little time was wasted sifting evidence and classifying people rounded up in these night raids. Woe to him who did not disarm all suspicion at once. The prisoners were generally hustled to the old police station not far from the Winter Palace. Here, with or without perfunctory interrogation, they were stood up against the courtyard wall and shot. The staccato sounds of death were muffled by the roar of truck motors kept going for the purpose.
Dzerzhinsky furnished the instrument for tearing a new society out of the womb of the old - the instrument of organized, systematic mass terror. For Dzerzhinsky the class struggle meant exterminating "the enemies of the working class". The "enemies of the working class" were all who opposed the Bolshevik dictatorship.
Furthermore, Dzerzhinsky was conscious that terror was perhaps the only means of making "proletarian dictatorship" prevail in peasant Russia. In a conversation with Abramovich, in August 1917, he expressed impatience with the conventional socialist view that the correlation of real political and social forces in a country could only change through the process of economic and political development, the evolution of new forms of economy, rise of new social classes, and so on. "Couldn't this correlation be altered?" Dzerzhinsky asked. "Say, through the subjection or extermination of some classes of society?"
Dzerzhinsky was the man who directed the actual operations of the Cheka, but Lenin assumed full responsibility for the terror. On 8 January 1918, the Council of People's Commissars set up battalions of bourgeois men and women to dig trenches. The Red Guards stationed as their 'surveillance' received the order to shoot anyone who resisted. A month later the All-Russian Cheka declared that "counter-revolutionary agitators" and also "all those trying to escape to the Don region in order to join the counter-revolutionary troops... will he shot on the spot by the Cheka squads".
The same punishment was ordered for those found distributing or posting anti-government leaflets. Not only political crimes were dealt with in this fashion. In Briansk the death penalty by shooting was ordered for drunkenness, and in Viatka the same was ordered for violators of the eight-o'clock curfew. In Rybinsk "shooting without warning" followed any congregation of people on the streets, and in the Kaluga province those failing to meet military levies in time were likewise ordered to be shot. The same "crime" was punished in Zmyev by drowning the victim in the Dniester River "with a stone around his neck".
We stand for organized terror - this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. When confronted with evidence criminals in almost every case confess; and what argument can have greater weight than a criminal's own confession.
The final assault was unleashed by Tukhacevsky on 17 March, and culminated in a daring victory over the impediment of the ice. Lacking any qualified officers, the Kronstadt sailors did not know how to employ their artillery; there was, it is true, a former officer named Kozlovsky among them, but he did little and exercised no authority. Some of the rebels managed to reach Finland. Others put up a furious resistance, fort to fort and street to street; they stood and were shot crying, "Long live the world revolution! Hundreds of prisoners were taken away to Petrograd and handed to the Cheka; months later they were still being shot in small batches, a senseless and criminal agony. Those defeated sailors belonged body and soul to the Revolution; they had voiced the suffering and the will of the Russian people. This protracted massacre was either supervised or permitted by Dzerzhinsky.
The Social-Democratic Party of Poland grew out of the great strikes that swept the industrial areas of Poland during the nineties... One might say that this party was the predecessor of the Communist Party of Poland as a mass party, and was the child of Felix Dzerzhinski’s indefatigable efforts and endless labour. ‘Joseph’ – it was by this name that he was known among the masses of Polish workers – came to be the most beloved of all the Polish leaders.
Tall, well built, with ardent eyes, quick, passionate speech, thus I first met him in the autumn of 1903, when he came to Gracow for a time to hide from tsarist detectives and at the same time to improve the apparatus for circulating Polish Social-Democratic literature, the publication of which had been resumed largely due to his initiative. He won the love and esteem not only of the older workers, but also of the youth then coming into the movement. In their eyes he was surrounded by a halo by reason of his terms in prison and exile and his reputation as Party organizer. His opinion was valued not only by Rosa but even by veteran Tyszka who had great organizational experience and who combined sound Marxian scholarship with wonderful political sensitivity. On all practical questions of the movement Joseph’s opinion was almost decisive. How did he obtain this authority? In fact, what was the personal origin of this energetic revolutionist, so strict towards himself and towards everybody else too, this man able to inspire and lead them all?
He was born in Lithuania, in the Ossmiansk district, in the family of a small Polish landowner. It was in that district that Joseph Pilsudski was born, several years earlier. Lithuania was at that time cowed by memories of ‘ hangman’ Muraviov – of the punishments meted out by tsarism for the year 1863. The homes of the gentry were alive with thought of those whom the tsarist satrap had executed, or had exiled into penal servitude for participation in the uprising. The youth of the intelligentsia cherished thoughts of the struggle against tsarism for independence of the country. The leaders of the Polish Socialist Party, organized in the last decade of the nineteenth -century, for the most part came from the younger generation of these Polish landowner families. One of the few who rejected the road of nationalism and went over without hesitation to the camp of the international labour movement, was Dzerzhinski. His action is probably to be explained by the fact that being of a comparatively poor family he had seen the Lithuanian peasant masses at closer quarters and was also familiar with the life of the craftsmen of the small towns, and found he was nearer them than to the nobility and its ideals.
There was no factory proletariat in Lithuania. There were Polish and Jewish craftsmen, and it was among them that sixteen-year-old Dzerzhinski began his work. The necessity of working among Polish and Jewish apprentices in a country where the majority of the peasantry was Lithuanian may explain the international trend of Dzerzhinski’s feeling and thought. Lie studied socialism through Polish and Russian works, and for the sake of his work among the Jewish workers he studied Yiddish. Later it was a great joke to us that at the head-quarters of Polish Social-Democracy, which contained quite a number of Jews, only Dzerzhinski, former gentleman of Poland, and Catholic, could read Yiddish. The frequent imprisonments of Dzerzhinski gave him time to study most of the available literature on socialism and he joined the Polish movement with a thoroughly worked-out conception of life. The literature of Polish Social-Democracy, including its organ Sprazca Robotnicza (‘Labour Affairs’), published in Paris in 1894-1895, reached him only later when on the basis of his own experience and thinking, he had already, in the main, come to the same conclusions as our theorists had. The basis for his views had been given by Russian Marxist literature. You might say that he was an expression of the identity of the Polish and Russian labour movements.
His value to the movement was not only in the firmness of his views, but also in the unshakable revolutionary decisiveness he brought into the movement. The Polish nobility of the borders, which had grown up in struggles with the Tartars, and later with the Lithuanian and Ukrainian peasantry, had been distinguished from time immemorial by great energy. It was the most resolute type of Polish society. Dzerzhinski had absorbed ideas foreign to this medium, but defended them with the same energy with which the Polish border landed class had defended their class interests. Dzerzhinski did not recognize difficulties or defeats any more than the Skszetuskis, the Wolodyjewskis and other heroes of the Polish frontier landowners famed in Polish historical novels had done. Dangers existed only to be overcome, defeats only to discover one’s errors and learn by them, and reforge one’s sword for further battles. Most of the landed class who came over to the side of the revolutionary classes were of the ‘penitent nobleman’ type. But Dzerzhinski’s mastery of revolutionary thought enabled him fully to identify himself with the working class, and to feel himself an inseparable part of it. He was not a man who idealized the working class from a distance. In the course of his long illegal activities he had lived with workers, eaten with them from a common platter, shared their beds, known them intimately with all the failings resulting from their history, but also with all that is great in them, pregnant with socialism. In all moments of danger he was confident he could find workers who would not give him away, that with them and by their assistance he would be able once again to build up the shattered organization, that they would muster a military detachment prepared afresh to go into struggle, fearing neither hunger nor cold, nor afraid to leave wife and children, nor afraid of long years of solitude in the Akatui prison or the faraway swamps of Siberia. In the course of this life among the Working class the raw iron of his proletarian idea was tempered to supple steel, and this is the quality that Felix Dzerzhinski brought into the Polish Social-Democratic movement. In the illegal work preceding 1905 this young revolutionist became a leader. When the October Manifesto released him from his imprisonment in the tenth division of the Warsaw-fortress where he had been incarcerated in July, 1905, following a mass Party conference called by him in the Dobia Woods near Warsaw, nobody had the slightest doubt that he, Dzerzhinski, was the leader of Social-Democracy. During the few months of mass movement up to his arrest in July he was a flame inspiring the whole party. Who can forget the days when Marcin Kasprzak was being tried by court martial? Kasprzak was a worker, one of the founders of the Party, on trial for armed resistance to arrest, in the spring of 1904, in a secret printing-works. The city was filled with troops, there were mass arrests. On a new press Dzerzhinski and Ganecki ran off proclamations calling for a general strike. Dzerzhinski personally went through the lines of gendarmes meant to isolate the working-class districts, and carried copies of the proclamations round his waist. Tall, strapping, head high, he passed through the ranks of soldiers and gendarmes who were searching every passer-by. He looked bravely into the eyes of a gendarme, who could not make up his mind to stop him. He remained in the memory of the Warsaw workers for long years, as a legend of a resolute revolutionist. When he was caught in Dobia Woods he made the comrades give him all the papers which it was impossible to destroy in order to take all the responsibility upon himself. In Dobia all those arrested were kept under the convoy of the Cossacks, but Dzerzhinski immediately started propaganda among them. Had there not been a change of guard he would have succeeded in organizing an escape.
Now that Soviet communism has vaulted over a quarter-century of Stalin dominance to rest its claim to legitimate succession on Lenin alone, there is a tendency to romanticize his character. It is argued, even by some opponents of communism, that he was humane, idealistic, and so on. Yet there is little that Stalin did, except in its scale, that was not done first by Lenin. Stalin simply carried to insane extremes the crimes first sanctified by Lenin.
It was Lenin, it should not be forgotten, who devised the first terror machine, the Cheka, and put a sanctimonious sadist, Felix Dzerzhinsky, at its head. It was Lenin who ordered the murder of thousands of innocent "hostages"; dispersed the first and only democratically elected legislative body after the Bolshevik seizure of power, the Constituent Assembly; crushed the Kronstadt revolt of his own Red sailors; raised lies and falsification to prime virtues in his system.