KGB Founder Dzerzhinsky Reigns in Ex-Soviet Belarus

By Elizabeth PIPER, Reuters

Photo Reuters

In a clearing surrounded by tall fir trees, 49 stones, one for each year of his life, lead to the bust of "Iron Felix," the man who killed tens of thousands of "enemies of the revolution."

Felix Dzerzhinsky stares down icily at the thousands of visitors who pay homage to the man whom many believe instilled much-needed discipline into the ex-Soviet state of Belarus.

While neighboring Russia battles with the divisive issue of whether to resurrect a statue of Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, later the KGB, Belarus still celebrates his firm belief in the triumph of communism.

"We have touched nothing here and have tried to leave everything as it should be. It is the only such museum left in the whole Soviet Union, oops, I mean the former Soviet Union," said Valentina Adamyevich, head of the Dzerzhinsky museum in the town that bears his name.

"KGB summits, those which also involve Russia's FSB security services, always come here. Many from other countries come here. This museum sums up the spirit of the time."

It is a time that still pervades Belarus, a country of 10 million sandwiched between Russia and an eastward-expanding European Union and smack in the middle of major gas, oil and freight transport routes.

In the countryside surrounding Dzerzhinovo, farms have yet to be touched by modern methods.

Farmers pull horse-drawn plows into orange earth. Goods are taken to market by the same horses, home-grown fruit and vegetables from cottage gardens are the source of every meal.

Belarus's small, liberal opposition says it is these people, focused on everyday survival, who have allowed President Alexander Lukashenko to rule with an iron fist by maintaining the overwhelming power of the security services.

KGB Worship

Belarus's KGB, the only post-Soviet security service to retain the notorious name, is widely praised by Lukashenko as are the Interior Ministry and police. All keep a tight grip on dissent in Belarus, a state increasingly isolated by the West and its traditional ally Russia.

The security services offer the best paid jobs in the public sector and sometimes perks, like the best apartments. And every year they pay homage to their founder — Dzerzhinsky.

Adamyevich says new recruits to the KGB come to lay flowers at Dzerzhinsky's feet and pledge allegiance to Belarus before starting their work.

Summits of security services bring together 'comrades' from across the former Soviet Union who come to pay tribute to the man who died of a heart attack at a Communist Party Congress in 1926 — aged just 49 and at the height of his powers.

"He is still popular, despite efforts by some media to get rid of him ... It is our history and we can relate to Dzerzhinsky on many levels. He once wanted to be a priest. He loved poetry, literature," Adamyevich said.

"There was a good side to him. He helped people when he was in prison. He built homes for young orphans," she said, showing an oil painting of young children eating from bowls or gazing lovingly at the pointed features of a stern-looking Dzerzhinsky.

"Everyone has a bad side and a good side and we have to remember that he did everything for a great idea — one which remains in Belarus — the idea of equality. The Soviet idea was beautiful."

Dzerzhinsky, a Pole and fervent Roman Catholic by upbringing, underwent a remarkable transformation in his youth, abandoning plans to become a priest in favor of a diehard revolutionary, known for his uncompromising zeal.

As a tested leader of the revolution, he was given the task of heading the Cheka — the Commission for fighting Crime and Counter-Revolutionary Activity — which dealt brutally with opposition to the Bolsheviks.

He never denied that the new revolutionary authorities used force but maintained it was the counter-revolutionary elements which resorted to it first. Violence begat violence.

Discipline was his, and now Lukashenko's, by-word.

At a recent news conference for Western journalists — attended by only a few foreign reporters — Lukashenko again lauded the work of his security services.

"Of course society today depends on the work of the security services. So all we can ask for is that you don't work any worse," Lukashenko said after a member of the Interior Ministry asked how the security services could do a better job.

"You must work so that people see you as their defenders. Be resilient and strong."

The mustachioed leader says communist-era policies have made Belarus a leading power in the former Soviet Union.

And many agree.

Belarus has escaped the ruptures of rapid privatization and economic reform, and his people say they do not want to give up their assets to hungry Western usurpers eager only to make a quick buck.

A Comeback

Dzerzhinsky's legacy has, in contrast, generated huge passions in Russia, buffeted by a sharp rise in post-Soviet crime, corruption and cheap sell-offs in dubious privatization schemes.

Human rights groups and liberals see him as a symbol of Russia's repressive past and are outraged over Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's proposal to restore the statue — toppled after the collapse of a 1991 hardline coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Hundreds have gathered outside the headquarters of the FSB, a successor to the KGB, saying the monument's violent removal was meant to herald the end of Soviet communism.

"Restoring the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky is an insult to millions of innocent, repressed Russians and a sign of Russia's possible return to the era of authoritarianism and of secret services beyond the reach of the authorities and the law," said a resolution proposed by three liberal parliamentarians.

Such an outburst would be unthinkable in Belarus.

The opposition has been muzzled and Lukashenko has all but kicked out Western organizations who criticized his re-election last year as fraudulent.

People hush their voices when they speak of Lukashenko in restaurants, fearful "someone" might be listening, and few leave their homes after dark.

Some say this is Dzerzhinsky's legacy.

"He was a disciplinarian," Adamyeva said, showing his death mask amid an assortment of sculptures, books and paintings of the man. But even Adamyeva admits she was ready for some change.

"We are pushing our exhibitions of peasant art. Bowls, wood carvings and trinkets made locally as that is also our past and might attract a few more normal visitors."