Dzerzhinsky, Felix Edmundovich

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(18771926), Polish revolutionary; first head of the Soviet political police.

Felix Dzerzhinsky descended from a Polish noble family of long standing, with known paternal roots in seventeenth-century historic Lithuania. His father Edmund taught physics and mathematics at the male gymnasium in Taganrog before retiring to the family estate located in present-day Belarus. His mother, Helena Januszewska, came from a well-connected aristocratic family. After Edmund's death in 1882, she raised Felix in a devout Roman Catholic and Polish patriotic environment. A sheltered child, Dzerzhinsky was earmarked by his mother for the priesthood, but his participation in a series of progressively radical student circles in Vilnius led to his expulsion from the gymnasium two months before graduation in 1896. His subsequent involvement

with the fledgling Lithuanian Social Democratic Party ended with his arrest in Kaunas in 1897, the first of six arrests in his revolutionary career.

Dzerzhinsky was exiled to and escaped from Siberia on three different occasions. Following his first escape in 1899, he resurfaced in Warsaw, where he founded the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) by merging remnants of previously existing social democratic organizations in Warsaw and Vilnius. Over the next dozen years, despite long periods of confinement, Dzerzhinsky constructed the apparatus of a conspiratorial organization that guided the SDKPiL through and beyond the revolutionary turmoil of 19051907. An ideological disciple of Rosa Luxemburg, Dzerzhinsky was a permanent fixture on the party's executive committee and played a principal role in defining the SDKPiL's relations with the Menshevik and Bolshevik factions of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDRP). Following the SDKPiL's formal unification with the Russian party in 1906, Dzerzhinsky represented the former on the RSDRP Central Committee and editorial board.

Dzerzhinsky's final arrest in Warsaw in 1912 resulted in successive sentences to hard labor. He was released from the Moscow Butyrki prison by the March 1917 revolution. Dzerzhinsky was soon caught up in the Russian revolutionary whirlwind, first in Moscow, then in Petrograd, at which time he entered the Bolshevik Central Committee. Dzerzhinsky played a key role in the Military Revolutionary Committee that carried out the October 1917 coup d'état, and he assumed responsibility for security of the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute. From there it was a logical step for Dzerzhinsky to head an extraordinary commission, the Cheka, to act as the shield and sword of the Bolshevik regime against its enemies and opponents. Under Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka became more than a political police force and instrument of terror. Instead, Dzerzhinsky's obsessive personality and dynamic organizational talents drove the Cheka into almost every area of Soviet life, from disease control and social philanthropy to labor mobilization and management of the railroads. Following the civil war, Dzerzhinsky aligned himself with Bukharin's faction and, as Chairman of the Supreme Economic Council, became a vigorous proponent of the New Economic Policy. Physically weakened by years spent in various prisons, Dzerzhinsky collapsed and died in July 1926 following an impassioned public defense of the policies of the existing Politburo majority.

See also: new economic policy; red terror; state security, organs of


Blobaum, Robert. (1984). Feliks Dzierzynski and the SD KPiL: A Study of the Origins of Polish Communism. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs (dist. Columbia University Press).

Gerson, Leonard D. (1976). The Secret Police in Lenin's Russia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Leggett, George. (1981). The Cheka: Lenin's Political Police. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Robert E. Blobaum

Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky

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Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky

The Soviet politician Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926) participated in the Polish and Russian revolutionary movements. He was the organizer and first administrator of the Soviet internal security apparatus.

Felix Dzerzhinsky was born in Poland of a landholding family. While still a student, he became involved in antigovernment politics, and on completion of his secondary education he embarked upon a career as a revolutionary political leader. Between 1897 and 1917 he was arrested and imprisoned or exiled five times. Although most of his actual political work was in Poland, he became more deeply involved with the Russian Social Democratic party than with the Social Democratic party of Poland and Lithuania; he was ultimately identified with the Leninist (Bolshevik) faction of the Russian revolutionary movement.

It was only after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 that Dzerzhinsky's talents began to be fully exploited. In December 1917 he accepted appointment as chairman of the All Russian Extraordinary Commission, subsequently known by its Russian initials, Cheka. This organization was responsible for enforcing obedience to party and state decisions during the early days of the Revolution. The Cheka is generally regarded as the principal instrument of "Red terror" during the course of the civil war.

Although his opinions on policy frequently varied from those of Lenin, Dzerzhinsky's obedience to established policy seems to have been complete, and he held a large number and range of offices during the unsettled postrevolutionary days. In the summer of 1920 he was appointed head of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD); the following spring he became commissar of the Peoples' Commissariat of Ways and Communications; and in February 1924 he was named president of the Supreme Council of National Economy (Vesenkha).

Throughout this period Dzerzhinsky supported the stated policy of the party with increasing vigor, while rejecting all alternative views. In particular he stood on the side of centralization as the Central Control Commission, originally founded to ensure that the center reflected the wishes of the party rank and file, became an agency for placing supporters of Stalin's policies in positions of power.

After the death of Lenin in 1924, the struggle for power between Stalin and his opponents sharpened, and Dzerzhinsky increasingly played the role of an apologist of both party unity and Stalin. During a particularly acute Central Committee confrontation in 1926 Dzerzhinsky, vigorously defending Stalin, suffered a fatal heart attack.

Further Reading

There is a translation of Dzerzhinsky's early work in his Prison Diary and Letters (1959). Although there is an extensive literature on Dzerzhinsky in periodicals, there are few full-length works. The best known of these in English are B. Jaxa-Ronikier, The Red Executioner Dzierjinski (trans. 1935), and Bernard Bromage, Man of Terror: Dzherzhynski (1956). Background material on the police apparatus can be found in Simon Wolin and Robert Slusser, eds., The Soviet Secret Police (1957).

Additional Sources

Felix Dzerzhinsky: a biography, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1988. □