As I was riding my bike home along the Moscow River recently, I stopped in a sculpture park tucked behind the New Tretyakov art museum. On pedestals scattered among the trees, busts of Lenin gazed at me, with the many variations of Vladimir Ilyich’s head seemingly floating in space, wizened and mystical, resembling a character from retro science fiction. His compatriot and successor Stalin lurked in the bushes, but even here, surrounded by the cheerful tableau of picnicking families and skateboarding teen-agers, his visage felt somehow taboo—a short-lived wave of de-Stalinization in the nineteen-fifties and sixties meant that nearly all of his statues had disappeared from public view long before Lenin monuments fell out of favor in the wake of the Soviet collapse, in 1991.
Arguably the most imposing statue, at twenty feet tall, and the one for which the sculpture garden, called Muzeon, is most known, is a bronze likeness of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the fearsome Bolshevik revolutionary, who, in 1917, founded the first iteration of the Soviet secret police, known as the Cheka. Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka gave way to the N.K.V.D., responsible for the bloodletting of the Stalin purges of the thirties; which, after the war, morphed into the K.G.B., the notorious state within a state that embodied the Soviet system’s fundamental illiberalism; today’s F.S.B., modern Russia’s chief security agency, is a direct successor to that tradition.
I’ve visited Muzeon, an open-air gathering place for the sculptural detritus of the Soviet period, several times, going back to my first visits to Moscow in the early two-thousands. Dzerzhinsky’s statue has stood there, unmolested and largely ignored, since 1991, when he was removed from the square in front of K.G.B. headquarters and unceremoniously dumped in what was then an empty plot of land. (The notion of Muzeon as a coherent, looked-after park came together with time, in the course of many years.) Every now and then, some revanchist Communists within the security services make noises of returning the statue to its former home, but that talk never goes anywhere. Standing in front of Dzerzhinsky’s statue—his gaze stern, his hand tucked in the pocket of his flowing trenchcoat—prompted me to think of the statues that have come down in the United States in recent weeks. What might the travels of the Dzerzhinsky monument say not only about Russia’s own unfinished reckoning with its past but also about the role of statues in such processes, whether through their swift disappearance or continued presence?
Dzerzhinsky first appeared on Lubyanka Square, in front of K.G.B. headquarters, in 1958, five years after Stalin’s death. He stood there, a totem of the violence that lay at the root of the Soviet project and a reminder of its potential for capricious and far-reaching brutality, through the final gasps of Soviet power.
In August, 1991, a number of hard-liners from within the military and K.G.B.—Dzerzhinsky’s heirs and protégés—mounted a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policy of perestroika had ushered in reforms and a general atmosphere of openness, along with relative, step-by-step freedoms. The coup plotters acted far too late: the toothpaste of perestroika could not be put back into the tube. (What’s more, the putschists turned out to be a bunch of aged and bumbling drunks, who had no clue what to do with the levers of state power once they had seized them.) After three days, the last-ditch attempt failed. Tens of thousands of pro-reform demonstrators, giddy at their seeming victory, took to the streets of Moscow. They concluded their march in front of the K.G.B. headquarters and gathered around “Iron Felix,” as the Dzerzhinsky statue was known.
“We hadn’t discussed it ahead of time, but it felt natural, obvious even, to end up in front of the K.G.B. building,” Lev Ponomaryov, a longtime democratic activist, who was among those at the head of the column, told me. The crowd, buoyed by the sense that, in some irreparable way, the power to determine the course of events had shifted away from the K.G.B. and toward those on the streets, gathered around the Dzerzhinsky statue. Some read poems and sang the songs of Alexander Galich, an underground mid-century poet, playwright, and singer. Others intimated that they might move on the K.G.B. building itself, leading the more cautious to worry about a counterattack from those K.G.B. officers who eyed the crowd warily from inside their darkened offices. Pro-democracy marchers and Gorbachev supporters addressed the protesters; a vibrant and uncertain energy rippled through the square. “No matter what I said, the crowd roared, thundered with applause,” Alexander Yakovlev, a close adviser to Gorbachev, wrote in his memoirs. “I felt with my skin that a critical minute was coming.”
Attention quickly settled on removing the Dzerzhinsky statue. “He embodied an organization that, no matter how many times it changed its name, killed millions of its own countrymen,” Ponomaryov told me. “The desire in that moment to rid ourselves of his traces was more emotional than rational, but that doesn’t make it any less correct.” A few dozen people from the crowd threw some ropes around the fifteen-ton monument. They tugged, to no avail. Fastening the rope to a heavy truck, which heaved and grunted on the square, didn’t help much either. Ponomaryov feared that if the crowd managed to pull down the statue, it would topple on the heads of those standing underneath it, or even crash through the asphalt and into the metro station below. A Moscow city official named Alexander Muzykantsky rushed off to the mayor’s office to secure an official decree for its removal.
Sergey Stankevich, the deputy mayor, had the same thought—he was at the square and feared for the safety of the crowd—but he also wanted to make sure that Dzerzhinsky left his perch as part of a legal process. The year before, in a free election—another manifestation of perestroika—a new mayor, Gavriil Popov, had been voted into office in Moscow, bringing with him a team of would-be reformers. As Stankevich told me recently, he considered himself and others in Popov’s administration to be the capital’s legitimate authorities, not the secret policemen who had tried to seize power from them. “This was not a rebellion,” he said. “We were the legal authorities, and our job was to defend the principles of rule of law from those who had acted unlawfully. It was important to preserve this difference.” Dzerzhinsky should come down, but the statue shouldn’t be torn asunder by the crowd—that was the Bolshevik way, Stankevich reasoned. (He also thought a legal order would protect the statue from being immediately put back up if the mood changed.)
While Muzykantsky was arguing his case in Popov’s office, Stankevich secured a line from Lubyanka Square and pled his case, too. Popov issued a decree ordering the statue’s removal, calling it a symbol of those organs that played a “criminal role” in Russian history. (It says something about the country’s regression in the years since that it’s impossible to imagine the mayor of Moscow today having the gumption or desire to label Soviet institutions “criminal.”)
A municipal construction crew showed up, and, once they confirmed that the mayor’s decree was legitimate, hoisted Dzerzhinsky up on a crane. He dangled in the air as if from a hangman’s noose, before being laid on a flatbed truck and driven away. “Symbols were broken. An epoch ended,” Muzykantsky wrote in his memoirs. As he explained to me, “It was a change not just in power but of generations, and in mentality. We needed to mark this passage, to draw a line separating one age from the next.” That night, Dzerzhinsky lay sideways in an empty lot by the river, a once mighty figure suddenly rendered impotent and pathetic; four months later, the Soviet Union itself gave way, dissolving with a whimper.
In the early nineteen-nineties, city councils and local officials all over Russia removed some Soviet-era statues, but far more remained in place than were taken away. There was never a cohesive, nationwide attempt to sort through what should be done with the physical legacy of Communism, to figure out the parts of history that the reborn country should ground itself in, and the parts that it should reject. Ponomeryov was one of the founders of Memorial, an organization that sought to excavate the history of Soviet repression and preserve the memory of its many victims. But, in a civic culture that placed more emphasis on forgetting than remembering its more painful moments, Memorial never became part of the mainstream. In 1992, an investigation into the legality of the Communist Party’s actions ended with a whimper. There was never any formal reckoning or judgment on seventy years of Communist rule and those who carried it out.
Four years later, during the 1996 Presidential elections, confusion reigned. The incumbent, Boris Yeltsin, faced a revanchist Communist challenger. The Yeltsin Administration and the media told voters how scary and dangerous the Communists were, that they would lead the country to ruin—yet much of the country lived in cities and towns dotted with statues of famous Communists, and on streets named after Communist heroes. You could forgive people for being confused. There was no great popular affection or enthusiasm for Communism—no one missed the deprivation and many daily humiliations of that life—but, still, the meaning of the history that continued to surround them was never publicly aired or thoroughly discussed. At first, the post-Soviet state was too feckless and distracted to lead this process itself; with time, Kremlin rulers came to think of such a conversation as unnecessary, risky, and best avoided.
For the last two decades, the country has been ruled by one man, Vladimir Putin, a product of the very organs that Dzerzhinsky founded and came to symbolize. Under Putin, the siloviki, the name for powerful figures with backgrounds in the security services, have come to occupy a position of dominance, perhaps eclipsing even the influence once wielded by the K.G.B. under Communism. After all, if the K.G.B was ultimately subordinate to the Party, the siloviki are subject to no such higher authority. They make no secret of how they understand their own heritage: since 1995, just four years after the statue of Dzerzhinsky hung by its neck, the siloviki have celebrated a holiday for officers in the security services, held every December, to commemorate when Lenin ordered Dzerzhinsky to establish the Cheka. As my colleague Masha Gessen recently wrote, at a certain point during the Putin years, Dzerzhinsky’s likeness in Muzeon was lifted up from its horizontal position and made to stand upright again, restoring a sense of honor and dignity to the statue.
“Tearing down the statue felt like the culminating act in the people’s victory over Dzerzhinsky’s Chekists,” Ponomaryov said. “Now, all these years later, I’m afraid it’s the putschists who are victorious, and the Chekists again run the country.” (Or, as Muzykantsky put it, “Something must have gone wrong.”) Perhaps Russia, as Andrew Higgins wrote in the Times earlier this month, “offers a cautionary lesson in the perils and disappointments of toppling monuments.”
It struck me that those on Lubyanka Square thirty years ago were right to rejoice at the sight of Iron Felix being hoisted away by a crane. But even as Dzerzhinsky’s bronze likeness vanished, few bothered to talk about, let alone, process or exorcise, the Dzerzhinsky who continued to inhabit the psyches of millions. And it is that Dzerzhinsky, not the one dumped in Muzeon, who plays a much more important role in the life of the country today. Standing in front of his statue, I was certain that it was good and just that he was here, uncelebrated and unbothered, rather than in his onetime pride of place. But I felt equally sure that the dramatic and historic act of getting him here would remain a partial victory as long as all those miniature Dzerzhinsky’s—far less heavy but no less weighty—remain in place.
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