MOSCOW -- To many, the tall statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka secret police, was a symbol of bloody Soviet repression, and the moment when it was pulled down from its pedestal outside KGB headquarters in August 1991 was an iconic image of the regime’s demise.
To the communists who campaigned for his rehabilitation, however, the Bolshevik revolutionary remains a cherished figure, and this week they inched closer to their goal: returning Dzerzhinsky to that old spot on central Moscow's Lubyanka Square.
On June 11, the Moscow City Election Commission ruled to allow a referendum on restoring the statue to the site -- a concession the commission had previously declined to make.
A final decision on whether to proceed with a nationwide vote now hinges on the outcome of a session of the Moscow City Duma that could be held as early as June 24, state news agency RIA Novosti reports, after which the Communist Party would have 28 days to collect 146,000 signatures in support.
The ruling brings Dzerzhinsky closer to his perch at Lubyanka Square than he has been since the Soviet Union fell apart, but this isn’t the first time he’s tried to stage a comeback.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been numerous calls from the Communist Party and powerful noncommunist politicians such as former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov to restore the statue to its pedestal.
In Russia, Dzerzhinsky is polarizing.
Known now as "Iron Feliks," Dzerzhinsky founded the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police force that carried out the Red Terror, a campaign of executions and torture in the years that followed the revolution of 1917. The Cheka evolved into a succession of Soviet and then Russian security services, including the NKVD, the KGB, and today's Federal Security Service, the FSB.
The FSB still operates from its headquarters at Lubyanka, but instead of the statue of Dzerzhinsky there is a modest commemorative boulder -- transported after the Soviet collapse from the bleak northern gulag camp on Solovetsky Island -- honoring the millions who were repressed.
Erected in 1958, the monument to Dzerzhinsky was torn down by a crowd of protesters in August 1991, following the failed coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev by hard-line opponents of reform. The monument currently resides in Muzeon, a statue park with a renovated hipster feel in a more obscure site near the Moscow River.
Prominent voices such as pro-Kremlin TV host Vladimir Solovyov have already declined to support the restoration of the statue.
“I think it’s a mistake to restore the Dzerzhinsky statue now. There’s too much politics in such a gesture,” he wrote on Twitter.
Nonetheless, polls show there is support. In November 2013, almost half of those Russians polled said they supported the return of the statue. What’s more, the breakthrough for the communists comes at a time when the Soviet past is often glorified and the darkest chapters under dictator Josef Stalin are often glossed over.
In September 2014, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree renaming an elite police unit the Dzerzhinsky Division, after its old Soviet name. Earlier that month, communist activists briefly raised a miniature plaster monument to Dzerzhinsky outside the FSB headquarters.
The tentative communist victory coincides with other controversial statue plans in Moscow: a bid by the Russian Military History Society to erect a statue to a figurehead of the Russian civilization, Grand Prince Vladimir of Kyiv, who is credited with converting the eastern Slavs to Orthodox Christianity. The monument will mark 1,000 years since his death.
Facing local protests and resistance, the Vladimir statue’s sponsors were forced to seek a new site and are now contemplating pushing for the statue to be erected at Lubyanka -- a seemingly strange fit, given the Soviet government's persecution of the faithful.
That could set the stage for what popular Russian news site gazeta.ru cast as a historical statue face-off: Feliks vs. Vladimir -- the founder of the Soviet secret police or the founder of the Russian civilization.