Back from the dead

By December 9, 2023Russian Politics

Back in early 1992, I travelled to what remained of the USSR (or CIS, or whatever it was called at the time), on an exchange program between governments: a Russian colleague had come to Australia to work with us in 1990. 1992 was after the USSR fell apart and Boris Yeltsin had become president, the first popularly elected leader in Russia’s entire history1.

In my second weekend in Moscow, one of the people I met at the institute I was visiting, told me that she would show me some stuff. Being completely in the dark as to what that would be, I agreed. She said to meet her on the platform in Kaluzhskaya station in the Moscow Metro (the underground commuter railway), at a particular time. I had been riding the Metro for a few days and despite my Russian being rudimentary, I knew how to get around.

I arrived at the said platform at the pre-arranged time and, she took me on another Metro line and then onto a trolley-bus (a tram-like vehicle). We got off at a stop near the Moscow River and near a park. We walked a short distance into the park, then rounded a copse of bushes and, there were four statues which had been toppled off their plinths from around Moscow, smeared with red paint and partly hidden behind these bushes. They were statues of Stalin, Sverdlov, Dzerzhinsky and Kalinin. While everyone knows of Stalin, I knew enough of Russian history to recognise the other names when my host mentioned them. I was stunned, as this was a snapshot of history in the making, so I asked my host if she would stand by them while I took a photograph. She declined, saying that she wouldn’t ‘in case they come back’.

Everyone with a modicum of understanding of 20th century history knows that Stalin was a psychopath. This was brought home to me when visiting colleagues in Novosibirsk. In the hotel at which I was staying, were a couple of Americans studying Russian history. One was dealing with the period of Russian history (~1600) referred to as the time of the False Dmitrys2. These historians were of the opinion that Stalin’s time in power was accompanied by as many as 40 million deaths, fewer than that caused by the nazi invasion in 1941. The phrase they used was ‘Stalin killed more Russians than Hitler did’. I remember this because I wrote it in the diary I kept at the time.

Yakov Mikhaylovich Sverdlov was the son of a Jewish engraver, and became involved in politics while a teenager and joined the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party in 1902. When that party split in 1903, he joined the Bolshevik Faction and remained thereafter a faithful adherent of the policies of Lenin. Sverdlov became a party organizer and agitator, working primarily in the Urals, where he headed the Bolshevik underground. He was arrested a number of times and consequently served prison terms and periods of internal exile. While in exile he was co-opted in 1912 into the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and was subsequently elected chairman of the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, thereby becoming titular head of the Bolshevik state (Nov. 8, 1917). He used his power to bring the CEC and other organs of the new Soviet government firmly under Bolshevik Party control. His working relations with Lenin were extremely close, with the two men dominating decision-making in the Central Committee by late 1918. It was Sverdlov who in July 1918 authorised the Urals Soviet to execute the imperial family in Yekaterinburg that month. The city of Yekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk in his honour, but reverted to its original name in 19913.

Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky was the son of a Polish nobleman, and joined the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party in 1895. He became a party organiser, and, although he was arrested by the Russian Imperial Police for his revolutionary activities five times between 1897 and 1908, he repeatedly escaped from exile in Siberia. Not only did he participate in the Russian Revolution of 1905 but he also became a leader of the Polish-Lithuanian Social Democratic Party and was influential in convincing his colleagues to unite with the Russian Social Democrats in 1906. Arrested for the sixth time in 1912, he remained in captivity until after the February Revolution of 1917. In July 1917, he was elected to the Central Committee in July 1917, and he played an active role in the October Revolution. In December, 1917, he was named head of the new All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage (Cheka), which became Soviet Russia’s ‘security police’. The Cheka (later the OGPU) helped stabilise Lenin’s dictatorship by arbitrarily executing real and alleged enemies of the Soviet state. In addition, it was Dzerzhinsky who organised the first concentration camps (‘gulags’) in Russia which, at their peak during Stalin’s dictatorship, held over five million prisoners. In addition to being a murderous psychopath, Dzerzhinsky, had a reputation as an incorruptible, fanatical communist4.

Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin was a peasant by birth but became an industrial worker in of St. Petersburg in 1893, and in 1898 joined the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, and became one of the first supporters of Lenin’s Bolshevik Faction. He played an active role in the party’s revolutionary functions being arrested twice and like Dzerzhinsky, participated in the 1905 revolution in St. Petersburg. In 1912 he became a candidate member of the Bolsheviks’ Central Committee, and was cofounder of their newspaper Pravda (“Truth”)5.

My host was, of course, correct. They have come back, in the person of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. It is perhaps fitting that Putin was a member of the KGB, the descendant of the Cheka, created by Dzerzhinsky. This coming back from the dead is also perhaps epitomised by the fact that a new statue of the murderous Dzerzhinsky was erected in September, in the Yasenevo district of Moscow, outside the headquarters of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR)6. The SVR is the successor to the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, fittingly where Putin spent most of his time while at the KGB. Rather than only organising their shooting or incarceration until they die, as Dzerzhinksy tended to do, Putin also poisons them, defenestrates them or trumps up some bogus charges so he can incarcerate them in perpetuity.

The murderous bastards did come back; they just have different names and more varied methods.



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.