MOSCOW - A towering statue of the founder of the dreaded Soviet secret police could soon be rescued from a grassy park where it has idled with other fallen Soviet leaders for a decade - sparking protests from activists who consider it a symbol of terror.
Liberal lawmakers and human rights activists warned Monday that returning the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky to the front of the former KGB headquarters would insult the memory of victims of the mass repressions of the communist era that claimed tens of millions of lives.
"Dzerzhinsky was a butcher who along with his henchmen killed millions of Russians," lawmaker Boris Nemtsov, leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces parliament faction, said Monday in Lubyanka Square, where the Dzerzhinsky statue stood in front of KGB headquarters until 1991. The building now houses a KGB successor agency.
Dzerzhinsky, a Polish noble who abandoned his roots and embraced the communist cause, became head of the Cheka secret police shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. He presided over a wave of terror that earned him the nickname "Iron Felix." The organization's name changed several times and it eventually became the KGB.
The Dzerzhinsky statue was torn down by pro-democracy demonstrators after the defeat of the hard-line communist coup in August 1991. It is currently in a Moscow sculpture garden alongside other discarded statues of Soviet-era leaders.
Russian officials have said they believe more than 20 million people were victims of communist purges before Soviet leader Josef Stalin's death in 1953. More than 10 million died.
Alexander Yakovlev, once a close adviser to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and a veteran reformer who led the government's commission for rehabilitation of political repression victims, said Dzerzhinsky personally ordered mass killings and tortures. "He is the shame of Russia," Yakovlev said.
Nemtsov said Monday his party and other liberal groups would try to collect 1 million signatures to prevent the return of the statue.
Several dozen liberal politicians and human rights activists who gathered on Lubyanka Square on Monday near a monument to victims of Soviet-era repressions said the resurrection of Dzerzhinsky's statue would herald the government's approval of the communist terror.
"We have joined the international coalition against terror, so how can we restore the statue of Dzerzhinsky, the symbol of Red Terror against the country's citizens?" asked Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a leading human rights organization.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov called Friday for the return of the Dzerzhinsky statue, praising the 14-ton bronze monument as a "flawless" work of art. He said that despite his role in repressions, Dzerzhinsky must be given credit for taking care of homeless children and helping rebuild the national economy.
Sergei Yushenkov, a leader of the Liberal Russia party, speculated that Luzhkov was merely trying to please President Vladimir Putin, a KGB veteran who turns 50 next month - a theory shared by some Russian media. Luzhkov "thought the restoration of this statue would be the best present for Putin's birthday," Yushenkov said.
The proposal was a stunning about-face for Luzhkov, who in 1998 rejected communist lawmakers' demand to restore the statue.
Putin has spoken with pride about his 16-year KGB career, but hasn't commented on Luzhkov's proposal to restore the statue.
In sharp contrast with his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who abhorred all symbols of communism, Putin endorsed the Russian parliament's move to reinstate the music of the old Soviet anthem, albeit with different words, in 2000.
Putin dismissed liberal protests, saying the combination of the Soviet-era anthem and Russia's post-Soviet tricolor flag and the state coat of arms with the czarist double-headed eagle would help end divisions in society.
"Restoration of the Stalinist anthem was a test for the nation, and the proposal to bring Dzerzhinsky's statue back is yet another one," said liberal lawmaker Nikolai Travkin. "A decade ago, we couldn't imagine that even in a nightmare."