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Russia's Communist Party Calls Off 'Iron Feliks' Referendum

A crowd watches the statue of KGB founder Feliks Dzerzhinsky being toppled on Lubyanka Square in Moscow on August 22, 1991.

MOSCOW -- Russia's Communist Party seemed closer than ever in its quest to return "Iron Feliks" to his pedestal. But with its goal apparently in reach, the party surprisingly climbed down.

Just this week, the Communists claimed they had collected 152,000 signatures in support of returning the infamous Soviet-era statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka secret police, to Moscow's Lubyanka Square, site of the old KGB headquarters.

With that many signatures in hand, the way was paved for a historic referendum that could restore the statue that was pulled down in August 1991 in a lasting and powerful image of the crumbling Soviet Union.

But the party itself killed the referendum.

In announcing the decision on July 21, Communist Party deputy head Valery Rashkin told journalists that the return of the Dzerzhinsky statue was only one point of the three-point referendum the party had sought. The Moscow authorities, Rashkin explained in a statement published on the party's website, declined its proposed referendum questions on education reform and health care.

"Considering the amount of material expense to hold a referendum on only the one question linked to the Dzerzhinsky statue, we consider [continuing] today irrational," Rashkin was quoted by state news agencies as saying. "We are making a statement that we are postponing the submission of the signatures."

Rashkin said the Communist Party would seek to have the Dzerzhinsky statue restored through a decision of the Moscow city government and without a plebiscite.

The decision appeared to be a major setback to the party's yearslong quest to restore the controversial statue in the face of fierce opposition from more liberal Russians.

Some observers suggested that the about-face indicated that the Communists had struggled to collect the required number of signatures and concluded they did not have ample public support.

"There is consensus among experts that most likely the Communists failed to obtain the required number of real signatures, while the result of the referendum itself was in question," Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote on July 22.

Despite the party's claims this week that it had gathered more than the required number of signatures to be submitted to the Moscow City Election Commission for a referendum, there is room for doubt.

Just five days before the July 21 deadline to present 146,000 signatures, the Communist Party announced that it had only raised 97,000 signatures over the course of a month, and called on Muscovites to sign its petition.

Yet as the deadline passed, the party claimed to have gathered 6,000 more signatures than were required -- some 55,000 in just a few days' time.

Authorities in Moscow are currently scrambling to find a home for a newly built statue to Prince Vladimir, the founder of Kievan Rus, although it is not clear if that effort could have affected the decision to postpone the referendum.

The statue to Vladimir was originally designated for Moscow's Sparrow Hills, but that plan was aborted amid public outcry. Muscovites are currently being invited to vote and choose an alternative location. One of the three options is the Lubyanka site where Dzerzhinsky's statue once stood.

The original statue of "Iron Feliks" currently resides in a statue park in Moscow near the Tretyakov contemporary art gallery. Graffiti on the pedestal has been washed off but has left behind a stain that reads "butcher."