Lessons of the Heart from a Secret Policeman

They called him Iron Felix – but did he have a soft spot? Daniel Kalder discovers the tender side of the man who established Russia’s first concentration camp…

When I lived in Moscow I regularly frequented an antique shop on Malaya Nikitskaya Street that had a small selection of English books. A lot of the stuff was awful, but they had a good selection of volumes from Progress, the Soviet Union’s foreign language publishing house. Progress specialized in works by soviet authors and bad translations of the Russian classics. My favorite Progress book (which I found in the shop) was Words from the Wise, a selection of Russian and Soviet quotations.

 Some of the words within are wise; others are banal and many are flat-out lies. My favorite quotes come from Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Polish Bolshevik who founded the Cheka, embraced Lenin’s policy of terror and established Russia’s first concentration camps. A bad man? Certainly. But he knew the human heart.

I discovered this while searching for quotes from Stalin on love. Nothing doing, but Felix, he had a lot to say. For instance:

Love is the maker of all that is kind, exalted, strong, warm, and bright.

Not exactly revelatory, close to a platitude, and yet still it reveals the tender side of the Iron Felix. Better yet is the fact that the editors gave the first word on love in the book to a secret policeman who liked shooting people. Does this suggest a crippling lack of irony on their part, or a hyper-irony so sophisticated it will take centuries before mortals can comprehend it? It’s anybody’s guess.

But I digress. Felix’s other quote on love fits the template of revolutionary rhetoric:

Love is a summons to action and struggle.

It is also untrue, unless of course he is talking about the love of power that motivated Lenin, Stalin and Mao. However, Felix is not done with musing on the tender passions. In the section “Love and Morality,” we find:

Where there is love there must be trust.

Very true, and I am starting to think that at some point in his life Felix suffered severe pains of the heart. Plain as it seems, the statement is much better than this effort from Ivan Goncharov:

Deep love and deep intellect are inseparable.

Goncharov was a Great Author, you see, and so he wanted to say something profound. But Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor experienced deep love without deep intellect. You see? He’s just saying stuff to sound clever. Felix, a torturer by trade, had less vanity and so kept it simple and honest. It’s when we get to “Family, Parents and Children,” though, that the architect of the Soviet police state really hits his stride:

A love centered upon but one person in whom it concentrates all the joy of life, making everything else a burden and a torment – that sort of love is laden with poison for both.

Clearly he wasn’t all about leather and pistols. Felix understood the danger of obsessive, monomaniacal love, and was as alert to the dangers of passion as he was to its ecstasies. Compare the above to this slice of “wisdom” from Lenin, written in his characteristically theoretical-robotic style:

Divorce will not cause the ‘disintegration’ of family ties, but, on the contrary, will strengthen them on a democratic basis.

That’s not just false, it’s meaningless. Here’s Felix again on “Family, Parents and Children:”

The faults and merits of children fall mainly on the heads and conscience of their parents.

This relies too heavily on the “blank slate” theory of child psychology that has no empirical basis, but who can deny the truth about a parent’s conscience? Felix – so sensitive a lover – was a thinking, feeling parent also. In fact, he has a lot to say about children:

Parental love must not be blind. Pandering to the child’s wishes or cramming it with candy and other goodies is tantamount to warping its soul.

Amen, brother! But what of the opposite extreme?

Intimidation will foster in a child nothing but meanness, hypocrisy, base cowardice and extremism.

And as the head of the Cheka Felix knew a thing or two about intimidation! Finally there’s this:

Parents are unaware of the harm they do their children when, using their parental authority, they try to impose on them their own convictions and viewpoints.

This has many applications today, as a warning to excessively authoritarian parents and also to self-consciously progressive parents, who force their kids into all kinds of supplementary classes and lessons, hoping to mould miniature intellectuals in their own image, as if they were gods and not mere fallible humans like the rest of us.

In short, Felix Dzerzhinsky had a soul. He knew the pangs of love, the joys and sorrows of family. He advocated tolerance, openness, freedom, fairness, balance – in family life, anyway. In his career as a fanatical communist and mass murderer he had no problem imposing his viewpoints on millions, via the barrel of a gun if necessary. If only they’d invented television, and Oprah, earlier. Felix might have found another, less catastrophic, career.

A version of this post previously appeared at RIA Novosti.
Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.
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About Author Profile: Daniel Kalder

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.

8 thoughts on “Lessons of the Heart from a Secret Policeman

  1. bensix@live.co.uk'
    October 9, 2012 at 16:29

    Hah! It is extraordinary how sensitive mass murderers are capable of becoming when they aren’t “at work”. One of the enduring themes of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s writings on the Politburo was the private soppiness of its members. Molotov’s love letters to his wife were as drippy as a 14-year-old song lyrics, while even enthusiastic torturer and rapist Lavrenti Beria was a devoted husband. Whether they’re good at compartmentalising aspects of their personality or overcompensate with their kind acts to justify their brutal ones is an intriguing question.

    • Gaw
      October 10, 2012 at 07:22

      I think there’s something about ideologically utopian ways of the thinking that enables a segmentation of sentiment. People outside one’s own circle become abstractions that serve supremely important ideas, and its these ideas that become objects of sentimental attachment. I think once this approach to the world becomes normalised pretty much anything is morally possible, and can even become normal.

      Such segmentation can also be tactical and self-serving, justifying the isolation and elimination of rivals. It’s at this point, as the revolution devours its children, that communists tend to become ex-communists (the Kolakowski piece mentioned at the end of my last diary is good on this).

      The Hobsbawm experience plays this out in a relatively minor key. In the abstract, it can be acceptable to murder people – but that doesn’t interfere on a daily basis with ones civilised life with family and friends in Hampstead and the academy. Arguably, the award of a CH demonstrated that this way of thinking was shared to a degree by the people who had this in their power. I find this possibility disturbing.

  2. Worm
    October 9, 2012 at 19:15

    Similar indeed to the cliched image of the big nasty gangster being maudlin and sentimental and nice to his muvva

  3. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    October 9, 2012 at 20:32

    More disturbing, in a way, that they’re not just psychopaths incapable of human empathy.

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      October 10, 2012 at 16:05

      Indeed, Brit, and wishing such were so is a big problem in modern thinking, particularly political and social thinking. To a great extent we’re all children of Rousseau now. We hold tenaciously to the belief that what our ancestors saw as the good/evil dichotemy within all human beings was ignorant religious superstition and that humans are all essentially good. Evidence to the contrary are anomalies to be explained in therapeutic terms.

      I think it is the slow realization that this is a fallacy, as much as declining faculties, that leads many seniors to become cranky curmudgeons. Too many war wounds.

  4. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    October 9, 2012 at 22:57

    Soso Djugashvili, inconsolable at his first wife’s funeral, jumped into her open grave, they say that he never got over her death. Choirboy, poet, admirer of, and could recite chapter and verse from, Goethe and Walt Whitman, friend of Maxim Gorky, far more sophisticated than portrayed, clever, devious and paranoid psychopathic mass murderer. Seduced more underage girls than a BBC dressing room full of Sir Jims. Unlike our very own paranoid psychopathic ex leader, not constrained by the leash of democracy, stayed in the job until he died, or at least until Nikita shoved a pillow down his dying throat.

    As heartless dictators go, an enigma wrapped in a mystery and served up on a bed of contradictions, makes my own Onkel Addie seem pedestrian.

    I do wonder if he was simply Catherine with more hardware and infrastructure at his disposal although, in mitigation, she did sort out the Turks.

  5. danielkalder@yahoo.com'
    October 10, 2012 at 04:32

    I tried to find out a bit about Felix’s children when writing this to see if he practised what he preached, but even when searching the Russian language web, information was scant (though I think he sired at least two kids.) I heard that he cut the ribbon for the grand opening of Moscow’s “Children’s World” store, though I suspect the story is apocryphal. On the other hand, his statue stood diagonally opposite its entrance for decades, thanks to the toy shop’s neighbour- the Lubyanka, HQ of the KGB.

  6. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    October 11, 2012 at 00:45

    In the second volume of Henry Adams’s history of Jefferson’s administration, Chapter III “Perceval and Canning 1807”, I find

    The criticism was not less revolting than remarkable, that many of the men whose want of political morality was most conspicuous in this story were, both in England and in America, models of private respectability and fanatical haters of vice. That Timothy Pickering and Roger Griswold should join hands with Aaron Burr was less wonderful than that Spencer Perceval and his friend James Stephen, the author of “War in Disguise,” should adopt the violence of Napoleon as the measure of their own morals, and avow that they meant to respect no other standard. With the same voice Spencer Perceval expressed fear lest calling Parliament on a Monday should lead members into Sunday travel, and justified the bombardment of Copenhagen and the robbery of American commerce.

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