March 1, 2019

GUARDING THE SECURITY OF THE SOVIET STATE

Felix Dzerzhinsky: a biography
Progress Publishers Moscow 1988

Chapter Nine

GUARDING THE SECURITY OF THE SOVIET STATE

Led by the Communist Party, headed by Lenin, the Soviet people finally emerged victorious from the Civil War, having driven away the foreign invaders. Now it was possible to return to the peaceful building of socialism.

However, though defeated in open battle, the bourgeoisie did not renounce its plans to destroy the first state of workers and peasants. Adjusting to the new situation, the imperialist quarters merely changed their tactics. Now they hoped to bring about the country’s economic ruin and hastened to take advantage of its desperate economic position.

Lenin repeatedly stated that the republic would have to steadily build up its defence potential and the might of the Red Army and Cheka bodies. He personally instructed Dzerzhinsky to draft a plan for the struggle against domestic counter-revolution under conditions of the peaceful building of socialism. Such a plan was prepared and presented to Lenin. It provided for the final annihilation of the White Guard, SR, Menshevik and other anti-Soviet organisations, the weeding out of the counter-revolutionary and criminal elements in some parts of the country, and consolidation of special purpose detachments and units whose duty was to fight banditry.

Dzerzhinsky introduced a number of effective measures to organisationally reinforce the Vecheka. He initiated the formation of new operation units, including the Economic Administration in the centre affiliated with the Vecheka Economic Department and with branches in the provinces, for the struggle against espionage, counter-revolution and sabotage in the various spheres of the economy.

Directed by Lenin’s instructions and the decisions of the Central Committee, Dzerzhinsky consistently pursued the Party line in the work of the Vecheka and its local branches. The extraordinary nature of its activities as a body of proletarian dictatorship necessitated by the Civil War and foreign invasion no longer suited the changed conditions in the country—the aim of the peaceful building of socialism. In the report to the Ninth All-Russia Congress of Soviets held in December 1921, Lenin formulated an important theoretical thesis on the need for the prolonged existence in a socialist state of a body responsible for its security. He stated: “As long as there are exploiters in the world ... the power of the working people cannot survive without such an institution."[1] He insisted on the reform of the Vecheka and evolved a clearer definition of its competence and functions: “Prevailing conditions insistently demand that the work of this organisation be limited to the purely political sphere."[2]

On February 6, 1922, the All-Russia Central Executive Committee disbanded the All- Russia Extraordinary Commission and formed the State Political Department (GPU) under the RSFSR People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. The People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs, Felix Dzerzhinsky, was appointed Chairman of the GPU.

That same day, the All-Russia Central Executive Committee confirmed the Statute on the GPU. Its functions were to prevent and suppress open counter-revolutionary actions, combat banditry, and uncover organisations and persons plotting to undermine the republic’s economic apparatus. The GPU was charged with protecting state secrets, preventing espionage, guarding rail-and waterways and state borders, combating economic and political smuggling and the illegal crossing of borders, and fulfilling special assignments of the Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars in the field on preserving revolutionary public order.

When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formed on December 30, 1922, a USSR Central Executive Committee decree of November 15, 1923, endorsed the establishment of the Unified State 

Political Department (OGPU) at the USSR Council of People’s Commissars as the body coordinating the efforts of all republics in the struggle against political and economic counter-revolutionary activities, espionage, and banditry. Dzerzhinsky was appointed head of the OGPU. The abolition of the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission and the formation of the GPU-OGPU signified more than a change of name for state security bodies. The gist of the reform of the Vecheka, according to Lenin, was the changed nature of its work to suit the new situation. The RCP(B) Central Committee pointed out that under the conditions of peace, the goals set before the GPU bodies would gain in complexity.

On May 6, 1922, Dzerzhinsky held a meeting of GPU representatives which discussed the functions of state security bodies and ways of consolidating socialist legality. He underscored the political significance of the Vecheka reform initiated by Lenin and of the establishment of the GPU, and the need to step up the campaign against economic counterrevolution and to further improve the Cheka apparatus.

The decree signed by Dzerzhinsky stated “Overt uprisings must be mercilessly suppressed, and the gangs are to be exterminated, but the struggle against SR underground organisations which are preparing revolts and terrorist acts, the capture of political and economic spies require subtle methods of work, etc... It is essential to know exactly what a particular person, a former officer or landowner, is engaged in, so that his arrest is justified; otherwise spies, terrorists and underground troublemakers will go scot- free.” Headed by Dzerzhinsky, the state security bodies traced and eliminated British, French, Japanese and Polish spy nests.

The various White émigré centres supported by foreign intelligence services such as the Russian General Warriors’ Union, the Supreme Monarchist Council, the Fraternity of Russian Truth, the People’s Union for the Defence of the Homeland and Freedom, and the Russian Fascist Union closely collaborated with one another in coordinating their anti-Soviet plans. A so-called inter-union intelligence network was operating in Constantinople, and used White Guards who had fled to Turkey for intelligence purposes against Soviet Russia. A conference of the Baltic states convened in 1924 by the ruling circles of Britain and Finland called for the establishment of a united anti-Soviet centre and more vigorous anti-Soviet intelligence activities on Soviet territory.

Dzerzhinsky, his deputies Unszlicht and Menzhinsky, the central Vecheka—OGPU apparatus and local state security bodies kept close tag on the activities of the country’s enemies and worked to foil their plans.

On July 24, 1921, the newspaper Izvestia VTsIK published materials from the Vecheka report concerning the discovery of anti-Soviet conspirational groups operating within the territory of the RSFSR in May and June 1921. These included the Petrograd Fighting Organisation, the Western Regional Committee of the so-called People’s Union for the Defence of the Homeland and Freedom, and the Siberian Regional Union of Toiling Peasants, all of which were in touch with foreign intelligence services and with SRs and Mensheviks. The report stated,
 “The anti-Soviet movement in the past few months has shown that what we have now before us is the old close knit fraternity of counterrevolutionaries, from extreme monarchists to Mensheviks. Its ultimate goal is the restoration of the bourgeois and landowner rule, and its methods of struggle—banditry, terror and destruction.”
Lenin repeatedly pointed out that the campaign waged by Cheka bodies against domestic and foreign counter- revolution would be successful only if the Cheka had a thorough knowledge of the enemy, its strength and weaknesses.

“It would be very instructive,” he wrote, “... systematically to watch... the most important tactical moves, and the most important trends of this Russian counter-revolution. It operates chiefly abroad..."[3]

Dzerzhinsky directly participated in or masterminded each major operation of the state security bodies against imperialist intelligence services, White émigré centres abroad, and domestic counter-revolution.

The Cheka’s vigilance disrupted the plans of domestic and foreign counterrevolutionaries who had hoped to unite the foreign White Guard centres into a single system.

The OGPU operations masterminded and supervised by Dzerzhinsky provided good training for his men; they learned the subtle and meticulous art of discovering and thwarting enemy plans.

Dzerzhinsky directed the work of the principal operation departments of the Vecheka— OGPU. He personally supervised Operation Syndicate-2. Together with his deputy, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, and the head of the counter- intelligence department, Artur Artuzov, he made a detailed study of the plan to lure Boris Savinkov, an émigré SR leader, to return to Russia to head the Liberal Democrats, an “anti-Soviet organisation" with which his emissary had established contacts. The Cheka men who were involved in the operation received many valuable suggestions from Dzerzhinsky through Artuzov. Savinkov had to become convinced of the strength of the “anti-Soviet organisation”. He was a very ambitious man, and to cater to this trait, he was elected the organisation’s Central Committee Chairman. This was done in his absence and at Dzerzhinsky’s suggestion. A rabid enemy of Soviet power, he was thirsting for leadership in the anti-Soviet movement. On August 15, 1924, accompanied by his closest associates, he “illegally” crossed the Soviet-Polish border, and was arrested in Minsk the next day.

The OGPU worked competently and resolutely to put an end to the existence of the People’s Union for the Defence of the Homeland and Freedom.

On Dzerzhinsky’s instructions, the OGPU bodies, working on Operation Trust, communicated to the British intelligence and the special services of some other capitalist states fictitious information which was thought to be highly valuable by the ruling quarters and the general staffs of Britain and France, and by the leaders of the White émigré circles.

In 1921-22, the underground White Guard, SR and Menshevik organisations staged arson and explosions in a number of the country’s regions, destroyed railway lines, bridges and telephone and telegraph lines, and flooded mines. Taking advantage of the difficult economic situation that had evolved in the Soviet Republic, they sought to undermine confidence in Soviet power, instigated rebellions and strikes. They also tried to use the New Economic Policy to promote their illegal plans. Feigning support for the government, they infiltrated the Communist Party in an effort to split its ranks, as well as the Red Army and government bodies, and made their way in to a number of high positions in the various branches of the economy, seeking to cripple the country economically and militarily and obstruct the building of socialism.

The campaign waged by the GPU-OGPU bodies against the anti-Soviet activities of the Mensheviks, SRs and bourgeois nationalists was part of the overall fight of the Communist Party against counter-revolutionary parties and trends. Dzerzhinsky explained to his staff the new tactics in the struggle of Mensheviks and SRs against Soviet power and the need for more flexible and efficient methods of combating their activities and exposing their organisations. He believed that the bodies of state security should enlist the help of the people and use the press, workers’ assemblies and meetings.
Dzerzhinsky headed the operation in which the records of the right wing SR Central Committee were found and seized. This group had masterminded and instigated a large number of kulak revolts and banditry in Siberia, Tambov Gubernia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and some other districts.

In late 1921, the Cheka had acquired much new evidence of counter-revolutionary activities of the SRs.

On December 28, 1921, based on Dzerzhinsky’s report on the activities of the SRs and Mensheviks, the RCP(B) Central Committee Plenary Meeting passed a decision to try the SR Central Committee by the Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal, and instructed an ad hoc commission, to which Dzerzhinsky was appointed, to name the deadline for the publication of the necessary materials.

At Dzerzhinsky’s suggestion, this information was printed by the Izvestia VTsIK. The report stated that the GPU had acquired evidence of terrorist and military activities of the Socialist-Revolutionaries in the years of the Civil War, and the crimes committed by this party towards the proletarian revolution. The Central Committee of this party and a number of other prominent members were tried by the Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal.

The trial, which took place in Moscow in June, July and August 1922, proved beyond any doubt that the SRs did engage in counter-revolutionary conspiracies and armed revolts against Soviet power, sabotage and individual terror, espionage for White Guards and interventionists. The sentence passed by the Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal noted that the activities of that party revealed that it was not socialist but bourgeois, that it was using its socialist name and the socialist elements it comprised to deceive the people, and that, in fact, it was a counter-revolutionary party and an enemy of the people.

The trial of SR leaders demonstrated that their actions were actually those of imperialist agents. Their collusion with the Western states helped trigger off the Civil War; SRs had instigated assassinations of Soviet political figures.

After the trial, the split in the SR party became more pronounced; many of its rank-and- file members parted ways with the leaders, which ultimately resulted in the party’s disintegration.

To check the hostile activities of the Mensheviks, SRs and other anti-Soviet groups and organisations, on August 10, 1922, the All-Russia Central Executive Committee passed a decree on the administrative deportation of participants in counter-revolutionary actions. Many members of anti-Soviet parties and groups were deported from Moscow and other major cities.

At the same time, Dzerzhinsky seriously and attentively considered the letters and appeals of those people who had come to understand the folly of their previous behaviour and pledged to never again engage in anti-Soviet activities. After receiving a letter from SR Alexander Beilin, who wrote that he was determined to open a new page in his life, Dzerzhinsky wrote a memo stating that Beilin’s case should be reconsidered.

Dzerzhinsky took an interest in the fate of former members of anti-Soviet parties who had gone over to the side of the Bolsheviks. On March 22, 1922, he wrote that for the GPU, the moral purity of these persons’ motives was unquestionable, and that they ought to find a sympathetic response and full support in the Party.

The overall campaign launched by the Communist Party and the Soviet Government against law-breakers was also directed against banditry, which was flaring up in many of the country’s regions.
The intelligence network of many capitalist countries knocked together criminal groups recruited from among the remnants of White armies and sent them into Soviet territory. Inside the country, such groups were comprised of kulaks, anarchists, bourgeois nationalists and criminal and déclassé elements. Banditry was particularly widespread in the Ukraine, the Kuban area, Tambov Region, Siberia, Central Asia, Karelia and the Caucasus.

It posed a major threat to the country. Thugs plundered entire regions, attacked Party committees and local Soviets, brutally killed Communists, Komsomol members and activists in the Soviets, robbed banks, trains, depots and shops, and terrorised the population. They tried to obstruct the measures introduced by the Communist Party and Soviet Government to promote the New Economic Policy and to reconstruct the national economy.

Their activities were often controlled by the intelligence networks of capitalist states and various foreign anti-Soviet and nationalist centres and organisations supported by this network, as well as SRs and bourgeois nationalists.

“In the banditry one feels the influence of the Socialist-Revolutionaries,” wrote Lenin. “Their main forces are abroad; every spring they dream of overthrowing Soviet power... The SRs are connected with the local instigators."[4]

To direct the campaign against banditry, a special commission was set up. As head of the commission, Dzerzhinsky rallied GPU—OGPU forces for decisive action. At his suggestion, Deputy Chairman of the GPU Unszlicht was sent to Byelorussia. The special GPU department for the struggle against banditry was being strengthened.

In view of the public threat posed by banditry, in October 1922, the RSFSR Central Executive Committee granted the GPU the right to execute participants in bandit raids and armed robberies without a court trial.

On January 29, 1924, Dzerzhinsky despatched a letter to the Politbureau of the RCP(B) Central Committee suggesting that the leadership in the campaign against banditry should be assumed by the OGPU and its local branches and that the investigation departments and the militia be made accountable to them. When discussing ways to step up this campaign, the Politbureau and the Central Executive Committee Presidium accepted Dzerzhinsky’s suggestion.

Dzerzhinsky believed that success in this work depended directly on the support of the working masses, the confidence of the toiling peasants.

Within a relatively short time, banditry was eradicated in a number of regions. The plans of the imperialists and domestic counter-revolutionaries to destroy Soviet power from the inside had fallen through. The overthrown exploiter classes lost all hope for the restoration of the old order. The eradication of banditry speeded up the reconstruction of the economy and socialist changes in the countryside.

Another major target of GPU activities was economic counter-revolution. The imperialist states and Russian bourgeoisie abroad tried every means to disrupt or at least slow down the work to reconstruct the Soviet economy which had been severely undermined by the war. They also entertained hopes that their subversive activities in Soviet Russia would be more effective after the introduction of the New Economic Policy, and even believed they might completely restore capitalism and overthrow Soviet power. Associations of former Russian manufacturers, bankers and traders abroad, strengthened by their international contacts, played the leading role in staging acts of economic subversion in the USSR. Keeping in touch with various counterrevolutionary organisations on Soviet territory, they also financed foreign White émigré centres which conducted espionage and terrorist activities in Soviet Russia.

The prevalent forms of economic counter-revolution were economic espionage, wrecking and sabotage, smuggling, production and circulation of counterfeit money, speculation, and plunder of socialist property. It was imperative to suppress these activities in order to build a sound economic basis for the Soviet state, enhance its defence capacity and state security.

Dzerzhinsky wrote in a decree that one of the weapons of the bourgeoisie was foreign trade, attempts to “corrupt our foreign missions by bribery, pump away our gold reserves and mineral resources, and palm off on the Soviet state rubbish instead of engines, motorcars, spare parts and other things needed for the restoration of production”.

The GPU-OGPU bodies uncovered dozens of major sabotage plots and conspiracy groups in various branches of the national economy whose subversive activities were directed from abroad. In 1924-25, sabotage groups were uncovered at a number of factories and mines, in bodies responsible for the provision and distribution of goods, and in cooperative organisations. It was found that intelligence data were also collected by the saboteurs and passed abroad.

Dzerzhinsky made it a point to expose the links between sabotage groups and their patrons abroad, and instructed the men at the GPU-OGPU Economic Department to pay due attention to this aspect of their work. He also explained to them the need to render aid to Party and government bodies in their work to improve the functioning of enterprises and organisations, to be more responsive to the letters and requests of citizens who wrote about acts of sabotage on the part of officials from among the pre revolutionary body of employees. He carefully reinforced the OGPU with skilled and experienced men.

Dzerzhinsky regularly informed the RCP(B) Central Committee and the USSR Council of People’s Commissars about developments in the campaign against sabotage.

Dzerzhinsky had always regarded the state border as the front line of struggle. He personally headed and masterminded operations aimed at checking the flow of contraband which was doing a great deal of damage to the Soviet economy. Persons hostile to the Soviet system constantly tried to smuggle out of the country currency, gold, rare musical instruments, works of art and historical objects, and to flood the home market with contraband goods. Despite his extremely busy schedule, he regularly, and usually late at night, read reports of the Economic Department on the capture of smugglers and the goods that they were carrying. He offered recommendations on how best to guard the state border to prevent smuggling, and made it a point to inform Party and economic bodies about the type of goods in short supply inside the country and their smuggling from abroad. On April 26, 1925, in a speech at the All-Union Conference of Commanders of the OGPU Border Units, Dzerzhinsky stated: “The bourgeoisie was hoping that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would not be able to cope with the reconstruction of its economy and would come crying to the West, but we are advancing without its help... You, comrades, who are fighting contraband, must follow the economic development of our country... You could study contraband (which goods are smuggled and where) and the reasons for its filtering through, and pose before me ... the question: is it not possible to develop this or that branch, whose produce is getting inside the country as contraband?... Your suggestions based on the serious study of contraband may be useful for our economic bodies.”

Dzerzhinsky regularly reported to the Party Central Committee and its Politbureau on the steps taken by the state security bodies to prevent and check contraband. He made suggestions directed at improving the legislation in force at that time. On February 2, 1924, the Politbureau discussed the question on the struggle against the smuggling of platinum and enjoined the OGPU to step up their efforts in the field. Dzerzhinsky supplied the materials for the discussion. On his instructions the OGPU set up special border zones at which travellers were checked for smuggled gold and foreign currency.

In 1924, the OGPU bodies confiscated over eight million roubles’ worth of smuggled-in goods. In 1925-26, at the Western border alone, over 32,000 persons were detained carrying smuggled goods, currency and valuables worth about six million roubles. Within the same period, in Central Asia, the Cheka bodies detained over 51,000 smugglers and confiscated over six million roubles’ worth of goods.

The concentrated efforts of state security bodies resulted in a sharp drop in the amount of valuables smuggled abroad.

Another dangerous form of activity of foreign and domestic counter-revolution, which was undermining the economic foundations of the Soviet state, was the manufacture and circulation of counterfeit money. The vigorous campaign launched by the state security bodies against this evil strengthened the Soviet credit and monetary system and Soviet currency, and enhanced the rouble’s purchasing power.

On March 30, 1924, Dzerzhinsky requested the USSR Central Executive Committee to grant the OGPU special powers to suppress counterfeiters. In 1923-25, its bodies uncovered over 200 groups engaged in the manufacture and circulation of counterfeit money; about 2,000 counterfeiters were arrested and tried.

Another matter that lay within Dzerzhinsky’s competence as Chairman of the Vecheka- OGPU was the organisation of guard duty at the country’s state borders.

On November 24, 1920, the Labour and Defence Council proclaimed the Vecheka Special Department the body responsible for the security of state borders, providing it with military units operating under dual command. All issues involved in the protection of the state borders were to be settled by the special departments, while in other matters, these troops were under army command.

At Dzerzhinsky’s insistence, on September 27, 1922, the Labour and Defence Council passed a resolution on entrusting the-State Political Department with protection of the RSFSR land and water borders, and on forming an Independent Border Corps within the GPU forces.

Dzerzhinsky considered it vitally important to staff all army and border zone headquarters with competent and experienced commanders and political instructors. This alone could ensure the reliable protection of the state border and prevent its violations.

In a greeting to the delegates of the Second Congress of Political Instructors of the GPU Forces delivered on April 11, 1923, Dzerzhinsky stated that the issue of guarding the Soviet state borders was a particularly pressing one at the time, and that they must be closed to counter- revolutionaries and smugglers at whatever the cost.

In December 1923, at his suggestion, a Border Guard College was opened, which grew into the centre training commanders and political instructors of border units. Dzerzhinsky emphasised the importance of the students’ military and political education! Addressing the first graduates of the College in September 1924 he said:
“To protect the country from the agents of international capital, their spies, instigators of revolts, incendiaries and terrorists, and to stem the attempts to undermine the foreign trade monopoly by economic contraband—these are the main targets facing you and the border guards at large.”
Dzerzhinsky believed that the personnel of the OGPU bodies and troops should be dedicated to the cause of the Communist Party and socialist Motherland vigilant and steadfast in fighting the class enemy to the end and strictly adhere to socialist laws. In a note to Ivan Ksenofontov written on January 19, 1921, he stated that the work of the Cheka was hard and thankless on the personal plane, extremely responsible and important on the state plane, and evoked the strong dissatisfaction among some persons and even bodies where sabotage was going on. At the same time, it offered temptations, as the very fact of being employed at the Cheka could have been used to promote one’s personal ends. Dzerzhinsky stressed the need to weed out politically and morally unreliable employees, and condemned covering up for those who had abused their authority for selfish purposes as a triple crime.

Substantiating his conviction that the Soviet socialist state needed bodies of state security, Dzerzhinsky stated that their chief purpose was to uncover, prevent and check the subversive activities of imperialists and their secret services.

The Party Central Committee highly valued the work of the OGPU and repeatedly exhorted local Party committees to render them every assistance. It pointed out that the Vecheka and its local branches played the key role in the struggle against domestic and foreign counter-revolution and thus were the focus of attention of the entire Party, and that the GPU that had replaced the Vecheka, although working under more peaceful conditions, had to fight against no less great odds. The Central Committee stated that the Party should treat the GPU personnel just as it did the Vecheka, and that the GPU and its local bodies should remain one of the principal bodies of Soviet power.

Dzerzhinsky demanded that OGPU personnel keep in touch with Party and government organisations and inform them of the developments in the campaign against crime. He constantly worked to improve the functioning of state security bodies, remove everything that might serve as a breeding ground for dissatisfaction and hostility, inform more frequently the Moscow Party Committee about the OGPU activities, and keep up its prestige among the population.

Dzerzhinsky is still remembered as the Cheka man, a fiery revolutionary who was scrupulously honest and exhibited great courage; a man who was considerate to the people, merciless towards the enemy, and prepared to sacrifice his life for his country.

* * *

As Chairman of the Vecheka and, since 1919, the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs, Dzerzhinsky had from the first days of the Soviet state been involved in the campaign for helping homeless and hungry children. He was always dissatisfied with the amount of work done in the field in those hard times and, as his wife stated, was waiting for the end of the Civil War to be able to concentrate more on the communist education of children, of the youth. This was considered an important facet of the Vecheka activities to protect revolutionary law and order and prevent crime.

In 1921, the Soviet state was finally able to begin healing the wounds inflicted by the Civil War and foreign intervention. At that time, the country had over five million homeless and hungry children who desperately needed help, attention and care. Dzerzhinsky suggested that the appropriate bodies pool their efforts in the campaign against child homelessness. On his instructions, groups were recruited from among the Cheka staff to inspect children’s homes and help their management take prompt measures to improve their work.

It occurred to Dzerzhinsky to involve all Cheka bodies from top to bottom in this campaign. Dzerzhinsky outlined his plan to Anatoly Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar for Education. Later, Lunacharsky reminisced: “Felix entered the room as swiftly and urgently as ever. Those who had met him know his manner: he spoke as if in a great hurry, as if realising that time was running short and that everything had to be done promptly. The words chased each other like waves, as if in a hurry to be translated into action.

“ ‘I want to channel some of my personal strength and, what is more important, of the Vecheka forces, into the struggle against child homelessness,’ he told me, and the familiar slightly feverish light of excited energy glowed in his eyes.

“ ‘I have arrived at this decision’ he went on, ‘proceeding from two considerations. First, this is a terrible thing! One can’t help thinking when looking at the children that everything is really for them! The fruits of the revolution are not for us, they are for them! And yet how many of them have been terribly hurt by the fighting and the poverty. One feels like rushing to their help, as one would if they were drowning. The People’s Commissariat for Education won’t be able to cope on its own. You need assistance from the broad Soviet public. It is necessary to set up, under the All-Russia Central Executive Committee,... a commission that would incorporate representatives of all departments and organisations that can be useful. I have already talked to some people; I’d like to head this commission myself; I want to involve the Vecheka apparatus in practical work.’ "

On January 27, 1921, the All-Russia Central Executive Committee Presidium appointed Dzerzhinsky head of the newly-established commission on the improvement of children’s conditions, which came to be known as the Children’s Commission It was instructed to investigate the state of affairs in the provinces and the condition of children’s homes and institutions, to collect data on the number of homeless children and together with the bodies of Soviet state authority, find places for them in children’s homes and in specially established children’s and teenagers’ communes.

That same day, Dzerzhinsky addressed a letter to all extraordinary commissions instructing them to take prompt steps to improve the children’s conditions. It read: “The time has come when, breathing more easily on the foreign front, Soviet power can channel its energy into this matter, turn its attention above all to children, the future stronghold of the communist system.
“The extraordinary commissions, as bodies of proletarian dictatorship, cannot remain outside this project; they must render every assistance to Soviet power in its work to protect the children and provide for them. For this purpose, so as to involve the Cheka, the All-Russia Central Executive Committee Presidium has appointed me head of the abovementioned commission for the improvement of the children’s conditions. Let this be a signal and an instruction to all extraordinary commissions.”
The letter outlined a programme of work to be carried out by the Cheka to save and help bring up and educate children, and voiced its author’s conviction that all Cheka men would come to realise the importance and urgency of this work and, as usual, give of their best. “Caring for the children is the surest way to eradicate counter-revolution. Having successfully dealt with the matter of provisions for children, Soviet power will have won supporters and defenders in each peasant and worker family, and with this, a broad basis in its struggle against counter-revolution,” ended Dzerzhinsky’s letter to the Cheka staff.

The news about the foundation of the Children’s Commission headed by Dzerzhinsky was warmly welcomed by the people, and especially educationalists. From the start, the commission set to work with great enthusiasm. At Dzerzhinsky’s initiative, a nation-wide investigation into the state of childcare institutions was conducted. Local Party, Komsomol and trade union bodies and all extraordinary commissions joined the campaign for saving children and improving their life. The noble example of Dzerzhinsky and his tremendous prestige in the Party and among the people was a major factor contributing to the success of this large-scale and difficult project.

Constantly overworked, Dzerzhinsky still found the time to attend the commission’s meetings and personally direct its daily work. He initiated the establishment of work communes and colonies for children and teenagers, where former homeless children and juvenile delinquents received shelter, food and clothes, got an education and learned a trade, and finally became useful and worthy members of society. A great number of orphans were placed in children’s homes or adopted by families or Red Army and Vecheka— GPU units.

The commission accomplished a great amount of work to help the children in the famine-struck Volga area in 1921-22. It suggested that children be evacuated to Siberia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Georgia, Turkestan and other areas where the situation was better. Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka and its local branches supervised this work. Dzerzhinsky personally read the reports on the possibilities of feeding and housing the starving children.

The Children’s Commission and public organisations collected gifts for the children, sent sanitary and food trains to the famine-struck areas, and distributed state-granted rations among children’s establishments.

But the focus of the commission’s efforts was still child homelessness. Ragged, hungry and sick children swarmed railway stations, hid in cold and damp basements and attics of abandoned ramshackle buildings, begged, stole and sold things on the black market. They were particularly numerous in Moscow. The Moscow Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Child Homelessness set up nine reception points for 2,600 children, and two isolation centres for 600 children. However, that was far from enough; at times over 10,000 homeless children stayed there.

On December 21, 1922, the commission heard a report on the progress of the campaign against child homelessness in Moscow and passed the following decision: “To request Comrade Dzerzhinsky to report to the appropriate higher Party and government bodies on the desperate situation of the republic’s child population, and, specifically, on the catastrophic increase in child homelessness.”

Dzerzhinsky regularly reported to Lenin and the Party Central Committee on the children’s conditions and the work being done to combat child homelessness, and always met with their support and sympathy. When they met before conferences, Lenin often asked Dzerzhinsky about the commission’s work and the things being done to make the life of children better.

In August 1922, Dzerzhinsky sent a letter to the provinces suggesting that more should be done to open children’s homes and render the children other urgent assistance. He insisted on being sent detailed information about the work of children’s institutions in the provinces and the progress of the campaign to eliminate child homelessness, and had those who displayed carelessness in this field severely punished.

Gradually, the situation in this field improved, but the overall task was far from accomplished. Out of 5 million homeless, hungry and sick children, over a million were placed in children’s homes, and about three million received aid from the Commission to Combat Famine, the Children’s Commission and other organisations. However, about 1.5 million children still had not been reached by any form of aid. The network of children’s institutions was not extensive enough to accommodate everyone, and there was no money to build new ones. Even those establishments that were already functioning were not provided with enough food, clothing or supplies.

In view of the desperate condition of a tremendous number of children and the formidable consequences of child homelessness, the Children’s Commission, which enjoyed the vigorous support of Party, Komsomol and trade union bodies, held a Week of the Homeless and Sick Child throughout the country from April 30 to May 6, 1923.

On March 31, 1923, an address to the working people of the USSR “Everyone to the Aid of the Children" signed by Dzerzhinsky was made public.

“Be embarrassed neither by the form nor by the size of your donation. Remember that only the concerted effort of the broad worker-peasant masses can secure us success on the difficult front of combating child homelessness,” the address read.

The Soviet people eagerly responded to the appeal of the Children’s Commission. The Week of the Homeless and Sick Child was efficiently organised and brought in substantial funds. Thirty per cent of the money went to the already functioning children’s institutions, and seventy per cent was used to build new ones.

In those years, such “weeks” were held more than once and were always successful, bringing in money and items for children. The forms of the people’s aid varied and included gifts of money, clothes, shoes, food and linen, concerts given for the benefit of the children’s fund, purchase of postal stamps issued by the Children’s Commission, adoption of homeless children.

Dzerzhinsky was closely following the organisation and progress of education in the children’s work communes and colonies. As a rule, they were set up in the countryside not far from towns and railway stations, and occupied former aristocratic country mansions or dachas, or were opened on the land of state-run farms. They were sponsored by Cheka bodies.

Dzerzhinsky believed productive labour could considerably help correct the delinquent behaviour of former homeless children and juveniles. The work communes and colonies combined education with work, and politics with morality.

The significance of the work communes and colonies was not only the fact that they had saved from death and gave tens of thousands of former vagabonds and young delinquents a start in life; they proved by practice the soundness of the new, Soviet system of communist education of children and teenagers.

A memorial to Dzerzhinsky’s efforts in this field is the work commune named after him, which was established not far from Kharkov with the funds donated by the Ukrainian Cheka. For a long time the distinguished Soviet educator Anton Makarenko was a staff member of that commune, which the writer Maxim Gorky called “a window into communism”. It was there that Makarenko shaped his educational theory.

Despite his many other duties, Dzerzhinsky frequently visited work communes, and colonies, and children’s homes, had long talks with former delinquents, took an interest in their studies, work and daily life, rejoined at their progress and gave friendly advice.

In the autumn of 1923, having too much to do at the OGPU and the Commissariat for Transport, as well as in the RCP(B) Central Committee, Dzerzhinsky requested that the All-Russia Central Executive Committee Presidium allow him to resign from the commission. Since by that time it was already functioning quite smoothly, Dzerzhinsky’s request was granted. But for the rest of his life, he continued to take a lively interest in educational matters, the work of schools and Young Pioneer and Komsomol organisations, and the daily life of Soviet young people. In the spring of 1924, he initiated a commission to inspect the Young Pioneer movement, seeing it as “a powerful means for creating an independent and strong nation of proletarians”. He believed that the activities of Young Pioneers should blend independent ventures of children with sensible guidance of their elders. He often inquired about Moscow general education schools, and took time to analyse and criticise shortcomings in their work.

Janek, Dzerzhinsky’s son, said years later that as a parent and educator, his father was both stern and demanding, kind and responsive. He taught Janek to love his country, be brave, hard-working, modest and honest. Dzerzhinsky never lectured him, was never boring; he relied more on emulation of worthy examples. “More than anything else,” wrote Janek, “he hated lies and sentimentality which has nothing to do with sincere, real feeling.”

Dzerzhinsky always knew how his son was doing at school, helped him whenever he had time to spare, especially in maths, listened with great interest about his stay at the Young Pioneer camp and the life of the Young Pioneer detachment to which his son belonged, about his friends.

Dzerzhinsky’s relationship with his son is an example of sensible upbringing which shapes the young person into a worthy and useful member of society.

The country’s children knew very well who Dzerzhinsky was and repaid his efforts with gratitude and affection. Touching letters were sent to him from all over the country. The children included photographs and, in a childishly touching manner, related events or their life and studies, thanked Dzerzhinsky for his concern and care. They promised their elder friend to be good and to study conscientiously. On an anniversary of the October Revolution, the residents of a children’s home wrote him that his name had lit the fire of communism in their hearts, and that as young communards they would work to finish what their fathers had begun.

Warm, spirited letters were sent to Dzerzhinsky from children’s homes, work communes and Young Pioneer organisations. “Dear Comrade Dzerzhinsky,” read a letter from Voronezh, “we are sending you our warm Young Pioneer greetings, and want to tell you that we have named our detachment after you, and elected you an honorary Young Pioneer.” The children asked Dzerzhinsky for his photograph and biography for the anniversary of their detachment.

Dzerzhinsky was, as always, very busy, but he sent the Young Pioneers a telegram on the day of the anniversary, July 6. He carefully preserved children’s letters and, as his wife reported, frequently read them over and over again. Ingenuous and sincere, they helped assuage heartache and weariness, and filled him with fresh energy.

Notes
[1] V. I. Lenin, “Ninth All-Russia Congress of Soviets; December 23-28, 1921”, Collected Works, Vol. 33, 1973, p. 176.
[2] Ibid.
[3] V. I. Lenin, “Third Congress of the Communist International, June 22-July 1921”, Collected Works, Vol. 32, 1977, p. 483.
[4] V. I. Lenin, “Speech at a Meeting of