Dzerzhinska, Sofia (1882–1968)

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Dzerzhinska, Sofia (1882–1968)

Polish-born Russian revolutionary leader who survived both tsarism and Stalinism, publishing her memoirs when she was in her 80s. Name variations: Zofia Dzierzynska; Sofia Dzerzhinskaia; Zosia Dzerzhinskaya. Born Sofia Sigizmundovna Muszkat in Warsaw, Russian Poland, on December 4, 1882 (or November 22 in the Julian calendar still in use in Russian Poland); died in Moscow on February 27, 1968; daughter of Zygmunt Muszkat; married FeliksDzerzhinsky (a close associate of V.I. Lenin and founder of the Cheka—the Soviet secret police); children: son, Jan.

Born into an assimilated family of the Polish-Jewish bourgeoisie in Warsaw on December 4, 1882, Sofia Muszkat was drawn in her early years into progressive and revolutionary circles. Harsh Russification measures and repression of both the Polish nationalist and labor movements by tsarist officials only strengthened the determination of the Polish intellectual classes to struggle against the forces of foreign oppression. A gifted music student at the Warsaw Conservatory, Sofia spent much of her time working for the most important Marxist revolutionary organization in Russian Poland, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL). In 1905, Sofia, known to her SDKPiL comrades as "Zosia," met Feliks Dzerzhinsky, a veteran of the revolutionary movement, and was soon attracted to him. Born into a family of the Polish gentry (szlachta), Dzerzhinsky had been a full-time member of the anti-Russian underground since his late teens. A figure like those found on the pages of Russian novels, young Feliks was dedicated to the goals of national liberation and social revolution and was the embodiment of Lenin's ideal of the professional revolutionary. He had devoted his life to the joint causes of freeing Poland from tsarist oppression and the workers from the fetters of capitalism.

In the real world, however, the overwhelming power of a Russian officialdom that had crushed many Polish uprisings in the previous century made only too clear that the hopes of young revolutionaries like Sofia and Feliks were fragile indeed. As part of a Russian crackdown, she and Feliks were arrested in 1906. Both were incarcerated in Warsaw's notorious Ratusz municipal prison. In the female section of Ratusz, Sofia Muszkat found herself in an overcrowded, filthy situation, with over 100 criminals and prostitutes as well as political prisoners like herself confined to cells originally meant to accommodate no more than 30 women. After her release, an undeterred Sofia returned to her illegal work in a number of Polish cities, but in 1909 she was once again arrested in Warsaw. After three months of imprisonment, she was expelled from Russian Poland. Settling in Austrian Poland, she continued her revolutionary activities in the ancient city of Cracow. Here she again met Feliks Dzerzhinsky, who had recently returned from exile in Siberia.

Feliks and Sofia worked together in Cracow, strengthening the party organization. They spent long hours copying materials sent from Berlin where the SDKPiL executive committee was headquartered. Sofia often went on dangerous trips carrying contraband documents from Cracow to Warsaw, where they would eventually appear in the SDKPiL illegal newspaper Czerwony Sztandar (Red Banner), which was printed at an underground printing press. Sofia's work was highly regarded in the party, not only by Feliks Dzerzhinsky. But in time their relationship became more than a comradely one, and in August 1910 they were married. The couple spent a short honeymoon in the Tatra mountains, away from secret police and internal party squabbles. Soon after, in November 1910, Sofia Dzerzhinska was sent by the party to carry out underground work in Warsaw. Within a few weeks, in December of that year, she was arrested.

Although she was pregnant at the time of her arrest, Sofia Dzerzhinska remained in prison and in June 1911 she gave birth to her only child, a son named Jan. Born prematurely, Jan almost died of convulsions soon after his birth and was sickly during his infancy. For the first eight months of his life, Jan—affectionately called "Janek" (Johnny) by his mother—remained with his mother in her cell in the women's (called by its inmates the "Serbian") section of Warsaw's Pawiak prison. After Sofia Dzerzhinska was sentenced in November 1911 to a life of exile in Siberia, she decided that Janek would not survive being with her. Janek, whose health remained fragile, was taken to a children's home in Warsaw. Fortunately, Sofia's uncle Marian Muszkat , a respected physician, took care of the child and in time his health improved dramatically. In March 1912, Janek's father eluded the Russian police and was able to see his son for the first time. Feliks described him to a party colleague as "a tall boy, but dreadfully thin."

In the late summer of 1912, Sofia Dzerzhinska was able to escape her Siberian exile. Her husband had enabled her flight by sending her a forged passport and 100 rubles. She made her way to Cracow, hoping there to rejoin Feliks and then reclaim their son in Warsaw. Sofia arrived safely in Cracow on September 26, 1912, only to learn that Feliks had been arrested for the sixth time in his revolutionary career on September 1. First imprisoned in the Warsaw Citadel, later in the Russian town of Orel and finally in Moscow, he would not see his wife and child again until 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution. Sofia, on the other hand, returned to Cracow to continue her party work as secretary of the foreign sections bureau of the SDKPiL.

After the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, in which her husband played a leading role, Sofia Dzerzhinska moved to Switzerland to assist Russian and Polish revolutionaries in their plans to return home. In 1918, she was a key member of the Soviet delegation in the Swiss capital, Berne. In 1919, she went to Moscow, working for some time in the People's Commissariat of Education. At the same time, Feliks Dzerzhinsky assisted Vladimir Lenin by serving as chair of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission. Known universally as the Cheka, this was the much-feared secret police that crushed all those accused of "counter-revolutionary thoughts or deeds." Both Feliks and Sofia were deeply disappointed in the summer of 1920 when the Polish army under Jozef Pilsudski triumphed over the Red Army and all hopes of establishing a Communist society in Poland had to be abandoned.

After her husband's sudden death in July 1926, Sofia Dzerzhinska continued her work as a Communist activist. Among the positions she held during the 1920s were posts in the Polish Bureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and at the Communist University of National Minorities of the West. She also served as executive secretary of the Polish bureau of the Soviet Communist party central committee's department of propaganda and agitation. She generally avoided becoming embroiled in internal conflicts of the Polish Communist émigrés living in Moscow, and in 1929 was able to largely withdraw from active political affairs by becoming a research scholar as well as editor-in-chief at Moscow's prestigious Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute. In 1937, at a time when Joseph Stalin was engaged in mercilessly purging the Polish Communist Party (in 1938 it was the only Communist party to be abolished for being "infected by Fascism"), Sofia Dzerzhinska assumed a post in the executive committee of the Communist International (Comintern). Her son Jan also worked for the Comintern until it was dissolved by Stalin in 1943 as a conciliatory gesture to his wartime allies in the West. During World War II, Sofia served as a director of the Radio Kosciuszko, which broadcast the Soviet view of world affairs to German-occupied Poland. Dzerzhinska also worked during the war years in the Moscow headquarters of the Bureau of Polish Communists.

After her retirement in 1946, Dzerzhinska remained in Moscow collecting materials for her autobiography, which finally appeared in print in 1964. A Polish version was published in Warsaw in 1969. One of the more intriguing aspects of the Polish edition is the fact that it makes no mention of Dzerzhinska's Jewish ancestry; Poland underwent a virulent wave of anti-Semitism in 1968 which resulted in the expulsion or emigration of thousands of its remaining Jewish population. Proud to the end of her long life of her remarkable career of revolutionary activism, Sofia Dzerzhinska died in Moscow on February 27, 1968. She was one of the most highly decorated revolutionary veterans of the Soviet era, having been awarded the Order of Lenin on three occasions as well as several other high decorations.


Blobaum, Robert. Feliks Dzierzynski and the SDKPiL: A Study of the Origins of Polish Communism. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs, 1984.

Dzierzynska, Zofia. Lata wielkich bojow: wspomnienia. Warsaw: Ksiazka i Wiedza, 1969.

Feliks Dzerzhinsky: A Biography. Translated by Natalia Belskaya. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1988.

Latka, Jerzy S. Krwawy apostol: Feliks Dzierzynski, 1877–1926. Cracow: Klub Przyjaciol Turcji, 1993.

Toranska, Teresa. "Them": Stalin's Polish Puppets. Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska. NY: Harper & Row, 1987.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia