Objects with images of Feliks Dzierzynski found in Stasi headquarters in Leipzig.
The Iron Felix
After Dzerzhinsky’s death, during Stalin ’s era, the Iron Felix would be turned into a mythical figure, a Communist saint, selfless, incorruptible and just. He would routinely be described as “the lion of the revolution” – a man of great personal qualities, fine charm and sensitive nature, devoted to the right cause. His famous saying “a Chekist has to have a cold head, a hot heart and clean hands” was later used by the Soviet propaganda to romanticise the image of the Chekists.
Yet, many of those who knew him described him quite differently: as a cunning fanatic, unpopular and feared among the Bolsheviks. Tall, typically untidy, with emaciated face, Dzerzhinsky was notorious for his hard unblinking stare that few could stand.
In 1918 the Cheka orchestrated the campaign of mass arrests and executions that came to be known as Red Terror. A Red Army newspaper wrote: “Let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie – more blood, as much as possible”. The arrests didn’t stop at deserters and rioting workers. Anyone could fall under Cheka’s suspicion based on religious beliefs or social standing.
The Cheka also initiated the infamous system of labour camps and conducted a terrifying campaign against the peasantry. According to Lenin ’s orders, peasants had to sell their excess grain to the state at fixed prices. Because of uncontrolled inflation these payments were virtually worthless so many refused to obey. The full fury of the Cheka was unleashed on them in what was later called the “Bread War”. Entire families were executed and villages wiped out.
The organization turned into a giant man-killing machine. At Cheka's headquarters in Moscow lights glared every night as hundreds were brought in for interrogations. Here Dzerzhinsky spent days on end, keen to take part in questioning and studying files. He virtually lived in his office, where a bed’s been fitted for him.
The scale of mass murders
Mass murders left Dzerzhinsky unfazed. During party meetings, Lenin would often send short notes to some of his colleagues. A story goes that at one gathering in 1918, a note went to Dzerzhinsky, asking how many enemies of the revolution were currently jailed. Dzerzhinsky replied with a number of about 1,500. After reading it, Lenin put a cross next to the number and returned the paper to Dzerzhinsky who immediately stood up and left.
Nobody paid any attention to this sudden departure and only the following day did the result of this correspondence become known: Dzerzhinsky had all of the 1,500 inmates shot that very night, having interpreted Lenin’s cross as an execution order. Lenin apparently didn’t mean it – a cross was his usual way of showing he’s read and considered the information. 1,500 people fell victim of Dzerzhinsky’s misinterpretation – something nobody dared criticize.
The Cheka grew to be thoroughly hated by most people. Lenin decided to remove its authority over ordinary crimes and limited it to prosecution of state crimes only. Estimates of Cheka executions vary widely, from 50,000 to 500,000.