No, this isn’t a belated exercise in ghoulish humour, showing yet again my crass insensitivity to human suffering.
It’s just that 11 September also happens to be some kind of anniversary of the Soviet secret police, called the CheKa at its founding.
You must see that such a glorious day couldn’t be allowed to pass uncommemorated. And sure enough, it wasn’t.
Two statues of the CheKa founder, the ‘Iron’ Felix Dzerjinsky (d. 1926), were unveiled on that festive day. One of them was in Krasnodar and the other, significantly, in Simferopol, the capital city of the Crimea, currently occupied by Dzerjinsky’s heirs.
“The Iron Felix,” explained the FSB spokesman, “didn’t just fight counter-revolution. He also raised the country out of ruin and penury… Thanks to him, two thousand bridges, almost three thousand locomotives and over two thousand kilometres of railway tracks were rebuilt.”
That achievement, grandiose though undoubtedly it was, strikes me as somewhat circuitous. After all, that effort would have been unnecessary had the Bolsheviks, including Dzerjinsky, not plunged the country into a devastating civil war. But hey, credit where it’s due and all that.
In a parallel development, two statues of Heinrich ‘Uncle Heini’ Himmler were unveiled in Germany. “Uncle Heini,” said the government spokesman, “didn’t just run the SS with its death camps. He made an invaluable contribution to the country’s economy by ensuring a steady supply of free labour, and thereby promoting liberty. Arbeit macht frei, doesn’t it?”
Sounds unbelievable? Of course, it does. Germany has repudiated her Nazi past, and neither Himmler nor Hitler nor any other comparable figure is likely to rate a statue there in any foreseeable future.
However, should the German government commit – and then defend – such an outrage, can you imagine the ensuing worldwide din? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if NATO troops moved back in to nip the rebirth of Nazism in the bud.
But the statues to Dzerjinsky are real enough, and nobody cares. After all, the Nazis were just awful, while the Bolsheviks were merely overenthusiastic practitioners of the philosophy widely shared within the vociferous classes in the West. Too much of a good thing, in other words, but the thing was indeed good, no doubt about that.
Yet the Iron Felix easily bettered Uncle Heini’s murderous score, and with fewer years at his disposal. He was the one charged with carrying out the Red Terror, in which at least 15 million were dispatched by various means, including artificial famines.
That makes Dzerjinsky one of the worst mass murderers in history – and one of the darlings of today’s Russian government, almost exclusively staffed with veterans of the very service the Iron Felix founded.
Other dubious figures are undergoing a cultural renascence too. One of them is Alexander Nevsky, about whom I wrote not so long ago. That 13th century prince played lickspittle to the conquering Mongols, while doing his utmost to protect his fiefdom from corrupting Western influences.
In that capacity he suppressed several anti-Mongol uprisings, including the one in Novgorod. That Hanseatic commonwealth was run along proto-democratic lines, trading with her neighbours, rather than trying to rob them.
That had to be stopped, and in moved Nevsky, cutting off various portions of the rebels’ anatomy, gouging their eyes out and killing them in their thousands. Since a somewhat less sanguinary version of euroscepticism is part and parcel of Russia’s current policy, Nevsky is being re-canonised.
To be fair though, neither Putin nor Stalin invented that chap’s saintly image. Nevsky was canonised in 1547, in the reign of another courageous fighter against the West, Ivan the Terrible.
And what do you know, his reputation is also being revised in Russia. Five years ago, Ivan’s statue was inaugurated in the city of Oryol, and the general tenor of media comments on the first tsar is laudatory. He is being portrayed as a strict but fair leader who courageously kept the degenerate West at bay, while ruling Russia with an iron hand.
The iron hand moved by Ivan’s indomitable spirit belonged to Malyuta Skuratov, head of the oprichnina, precursor of the CheKa. Malyuta went Nevsky one better by purging Novgorod even more savagely.
Under his leadership, oprichniki first culled all the Novgorod elders, priests, boyars and merchants. Presaging Stalin, they then also murdered their families, tying babies to their mothers and pushing both under the Volhov ice. The river was stuffed with corpses to the gunwales, and the subsequent epidemics complemented Malyuta’s effort nicely.
Unlike Nevsky, both Ivan and Malyuta used to be seen as evil incarnate throughout subsequent Russian history. Stalin, who saw the Terrible as one of his role models, rehabilitated the tsar, aided in that effort by the Eisenstein film (the director earlier provided the same service for Nevsky). Yet even Stalin didn’t glorify Malyuta.
That oversight was partly corrected the other day by Putin, who these days vouchsafes to the public many an historic insight. The good colonel exonerated Malyuta from the 1569 murder of St Philip, one of the few church hierarchs who defied Ivan’s authority.
Malyuta’s guilt is only one of the versions, explained the newly great historian. The implication was that only a rank Russophobe would besmirch the reputation of that great proto-chekist Malyuta.
Now, Philip’s blood added only a drop to the rapidly congealing rivers unleashed by Malyuta. Why bother absolving him of that one crime? That question can only be asked by someone who doesn’t realise that connotation can be more telling than denotation.
By exonerating Malyuta from this crime by denotation, Putin exonerated him from all crimes by connotation — and himself by implication. Malyuta paved the way for the Iron Felix, that great rebuilder of bridges and locomotives and coincidentally the founder of the sinister organisation responsible for the murder of over 60 million people.
Nevsky, Ivan, Malyuta, Dzerjinsky and increasingly Stalin are acquiring an iconic status in Putin’s Russia. Well, show me the icons a country worships, and I’ll show you the country.
However, the fair man in me regrets the rotten deal Uncle Heini gets in Germany. Where are his statues, his face on icons? Sauce for the Russian goose should be sauce for the German gander, I say. And don’t you dare disagree.