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Russia: What Makes Yurii Run? Moscow Mayor Proposes Resurrecting Soviet Statue

  • Gregory Feifer

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov has proposed resurrecting a statue of Soviet secret-police chief Feliks Dzerzhinskii. The statue, which stood outside the KGB's Lubyanka headquarters, was toppled in 1991 and came to represent a central image of the communist collapse. Luzhkov prides himself on masterminding Moscow's capitalist boom, but he is far from a westward-leaning democrat. The onetime presidential hopeful often makes populist declarations and has a penchant for commissioning critically panned monuments. With Luzhkov now looking ahead to mayoral elections next year under the Kremlin's suspicious eye, many are questioning the true motives behind this most recent proposal from the city's top politician.

Moscow, 1 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Yurii Luzhkov, Moscow's outspoken mayor, is used to sparking controversy. So when he recently proposed resurrecting the Soviet-era statue of Feliks Dzerzhinskii -- the head and founding member of the precursor to the KGB, the Cheka secret police, which was responsible for a wave of terror and millions of deaths -- he could not have expected anything less than a public furor.

The once-despised, sinister-looking 1958 statue, which stood in front of the KGB's central Moscow headquarters, was pulled down the day after the end of the failed 1991 coup that brought the Soviet Union crashing down. The image of Dzerzhinskii's likeness dangling -- as if being hanged -- from a crane, surrounded by an ecstatic nighttime crowd of thousands, provided one of the most indelible images of the Soviet collapse.

There have since been several calls to put the statue back up. Luzhkov, who once boasted of allocating municipal cranes to help topple Soviet statues in the heady days of 1991, himself thwarted the aspirations of hard-line lawmakers in 1998 by saying he would not allow "Iron Feliks" back on Lubyanka Square.

But the mayor is sounding a different note these days. He has praised the statue as a "masterpiece," and has been quoted honoring Dzerzhinskii as a man who "solved the problem of homeless children and bailed out the railroads in a period of devastation."

Luzhkov's call to resurrect the statue has shocked liberal politicians and human rights defenders, who say the move represents a step back from Russia's democratic gains in the last decade.

But the number of opponents is shrinking. A poll conducted this month by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that 44 percent of Muscovites surveyed want to see the statue put back, compared to 27 percent in 1998.

Luzhkov's proposal, however, seems to have hit a brick wall -- at least for now. A top Kremlin strategist, deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration Vladislav Surkov, criticized the proposal for being ethically wrong.

Surkov's opinion has been taken as the official line on the issue, and it is unclear whether Luzhkov will follow up his proposal by drafting a formal letter to the City Duma, the next step for setting the process in motion.

The turn of events has sent observers scrambling to explain the possible political motives on both sides of the issue.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of the Politika Foundation think tank and a former Luzhkov campaign strategist, said the mayor often becomes consumed by his own ideas. The proposal, Nikonov said, was Luzhkov's own initiative. "As far as I know, Luzhkov is now engaged in the idea and the unity of Russian history. He thinks that whatever our history is, it's still ours. That's why, in the space of one day, he came out with the initiative to put up a monument of [Tsar] Aleksandr II and to resurrect the statue of Dzerzhinskii. That's his new credo: the unity and wholeness of Russian history," Nikonov said.

Since the Soviet collapse, Russian politicians -- led by Luzhkov -- have indeed drawn on images from tsarist and Soviet history indiscriminately to boost their own political standing. It is something critics say fuels a nostalgia for the past by removing the images from their real contexts.

Municipal legislator Yevgenii Bunimovich, head of the City Duma's Culture Committee, agrees that Luzhkov may have been "emotionally spurred" into action. "I've known Yurii Mikhailovich [Luzhkov] for many years. Yurii Mikhailovich Luzhkov has one quality, or maybe shortcoming, and that's his emotionality as a politician. He's not a computer. And that's why he could have emotionally -- after some situation or after some conversation or based on some context -- spoken out on a simply personal emotional idea," Bunimovich said.

But Bunimovich echoes general opinion when he says Luzhkov, in making his proposal, may have been hoping to ingratiate himself to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A former career KGB officer, Putin briefly headed its main successor agency, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, until his ascent into national politics in 1999. The president has since restored once-disavowed state emblems like the Soviet-era national anthem. Putin is also reported to have had a bust of Dzerzhinskii on his desk.

Luzhkov has been trying to get himself into Putin's good graces ever since he opposed the Kremlin in a bitter and dirty political campaign ahead of parliamentary elections in 1999.

Banking on his massive success in Moscow and the decline of then-President Boris Yeltsin, Luzhkov was once seen as the top contender for the Russian presidency. But the mayor's prospects came crashing down following his party's disappointing showing against a rejuvenated Kremlin headed by the wildly popular Putin, a new Yeltsin appointee.

In an attempt at damage control, Luzhkov set about displaying public subservience to the Kremlin. Relations have since become stabilized, as they were for many years under Yeltsin's administration. But a major prerequisite in both cases has been that Luzhkov keep quiet about any aspirations to run for national office -- something few now give him any chance of winning, in any case.

Thanks to recent Kremlin-backed changes to the constitution, however, Luzhkov can still serve a third term as mayor. No one doubts he will win in elections scheduled for next December.

Bunimovich says Luzhkov's Dzerzhinskii proposal may have been a prearranged quid pro quo for the Kremlin's early endorsement.

The thumbs-up came by way of a recent announcement by Georgii Poltavchenko, presidential envoy to the Central Federal District. Poltavchenko said that Luzhkov was a "strong" mayor and that federal authorities hoped Muscovites would "stay with" him.

While the pragmatic Putin, most analysts agree, would likely not support the statue's resurrection, which would further sully Moscow's image in the West, the proposal may instead have been an attempt to gauge public opinion and reactions from the media and the political elite.

Kremlin-connected officials have in the past made controversial proposals only to remain silent in the wake of public outrage. Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov recently raised the possibility of extending the president's term from four to seven years, a suggestion that was quickly dropped.

Some say it was Luzhkov's turn to do his bit for the presidential administration. But Vladimir Pribylovskii, president of Moscow's Panorama political research group, said the Kremlin may have been looking to humiliate the mayor deliberately. "There are two possibilities: Either they told him on purpose that [the proposal] would be accepted and then slapped him in the face, or they told him the truth, but then that truth changed in the space of a week," Pribylovskii said.

Bunimovich sees as another possible motive Luzhkov's desire to attract the elderly and other conservative voters. They are the country's most disciplined electorate and are susceptible to communist accusations that the mayor is a capitalist opportunist.

But Pribylovskii discounted that opinion, saying no one part of the population could stop Luzhkov from winning office again and that only Putin's whim would prevent him from serving another term. "Voters absolutely don't take part in this at all. [Luzhkov] couldn't care less about [liberal] voters and about the fact that they would get upset [about the Dzerzhinskii statue]. He couldn't care less about [communist] voters. He needed only to please President Putin, and it turned out he didn't please him," Pribylovskii said.

But Pribylovskii added that the Dzerzhinskii issue has not necessarily been put to bed yet. He said the word of Surkov, the Kremlin official who denounced the proposal, is not always the final one.

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