Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Ultimate Soviet Henchman

Fourteen years ago, Moscow's summer was filled with sheer exuberance. The Soviet Union was suddenly gone, separated into 15 different states and a thousand pieces. People were afraid, but many believed Russia would turn democratic naturally, like a whole nation taking a sudden breath of fresh, free air after being underwater for too long.

On the night of Aug. 22, 1991, several construction cranes and a crowd of about 50,000 determined people gathered in central Moscow to seal that promise of something better than Soviet misery. In front of the sinister KGB building, workers rocked, cracked and then toppled the formidable statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the father of the secret police, the founder of the gulag, the man whose people tortured and killed millions to create Lenin's dream state. It was not broken into pieces by protesters but relegated instead to an undistinguished patch of land behind the New Tretyakov Gallery.

The hard-to-find "monster's graveyard," as we foreigners called it, was a tourist attraction for Westerners, who enjoyed the sight of a bust of Khrushchev with a broken nose and Comrade Dzerzhinsky lying on his back, his steely, fanatical glare aimed at nothing more than the gray Russian sky. But for some Russians it became a kind of shrine. It was surrounded by red carnations, a steadily replenished reminder that some ex-Soviet citizens still believed the old propaganda. For them, this was a man who fought crime, crushed enemies of the state and cared for homeless children.

Earlier this month, with little fanfare but plenty of dreary symbolism, Dzerzhinsky was returned to a position of honor in central Moscow. It is not the same statue, and it is not on the same plinth, in the center of a prominent traffic circle near the place where the KGB tortured its many victims.

Instead, Iron Felix is some blocks away in the courtyard of the police headquarters at 38 Petrovka, his bronze likeness back on a pedestal in the new Russian society. This is the man who in 1917 founded the Cheka, which terrorized the nation with the arrests and brutal executions that became known as the Red Terror. This invention was the precursor of the secret police and spy network, the KGB, that stood as a symbol of barbarism in the 20th century.

Sadly, restoring the Dzerzhinsky statue was not all that shocking. It is one more step backward, like the state's increasing control over the media, like the removal of the president's political enemies by mock trial. Civic organizations are under fire, and President Vladimir Putin is paying unnecessary court to Uzbekistan's despotic and bloody government. Putin, who has just shuffled his Cabinet again, is also said to be narrowing his choice for his successor in the next putative election -- setting off a wave of speculation hard to distinguish from the old Kremlinology of who stood where on Lenin's Tomb at the big parades. If Putin does step down as promised, running against his chosen one could be a very dangerous venture.

Although it is not clear that Putin had anything to do with Dzerzhinsky's restored position, those who resurrected the statue certainly knew that their president, himself a former KGB agent, has a fondness for such Soviet nostalgia. This same man, after all, in his state-of-the-nation address this year, declared the death of the Soviet Union to have been "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." The world can only hope that does not mean he wants to bring it back, monument by bloody monument.

Eleanor Randolph is a member of the editorial staff of The New York Times, where this comment first appeared.