Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Did Felix Dzerzhinsky Suffer From Posttraumatic Embitterment Disorder?

We openly advocate organized terror. . . . Terror, in times of revolution, is an absolute necessity
 - Felix Dzerzhinsky 

Dr. Ruwan M Jayatunge

Polish and Russian revolutionary Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926) headed Cheka (the Soviet secret police) from 1917 to 1926. He was known as Iron Felix for his mercilessness and apathy. Ironically by nature he was a compassionate person. In his young days Felix Dzerzhinsky was pious and caring for others. Dzerzhinsky’s Catholic mother Helen Januszewski, was very religious and young Felix wanted to become a Jesuit priest. But his destiny took him to a different direction transforming him to one of the malicious persons in the history.

There was a strong affectionate bond between Felix and his mother. She was his guiding star.  Felix listened to his mother’s bedtime stories about the brutal tsarist repression of Polish independence and Catholic religion: ‘her stories taught me to hate every act of injustice. Their influence helped make me a revolutionary in the latter stages Dzerzhinsky concluded. (MarkkuKangaspuro & VesaOittinen, 2013).

Psychological trauma converted Dzerzhinsky in to a different person. Young Felix Dzerzhinsky experienced a number of childhood traumas. He was five years old when his father died. The family was stricken by poverty. His mother had to feed eight children. At school he was constantly bullied by the rich kids. As a teenager when he was playing with a rifle Felix accidentally killed his sister Wanda. It created permanent psychological scars in him. Felix avoided socializing with people and led an isolated life. Illness and mortality haunted Dzerzhinsky persistently.

He saw emancipation in his own religion.  He wanted to become a priest and dedicate his life for the downtrodden. But the chief priest in his church saw some strange signs of evil in Felix. His attempt to become a priest was turned down. He became disenchanted in religion and in his tedious life. During this time period he developed a profound resentment towards the church. He saw duplicity and corruption in the church. This antipathy never left Felix. In the later years he arrested and killed a number of priests.

He saw evil in his society and then in everywhere. He determined to fight ‘evil’ for the rest of his days. He found a new emancipation in Marxism. In 1895 he joined the Lithuanian Social Democratic organization in Vilna. His journey from Christianity to Communism was a dramatic as well as a traumatic one. Dzerzhinsky engaged in revolutionary agitation. He became a dedicated revolutionist. He was involved in underground politics. However he was betrayed by a comrade. It was a lifelong lesson for Dzerzhinsky. He realized that treachery was everywhere and it degraded the masses. Hence he lost basic trust. He became more cynical.

Dzerzhinsky spent eleven years in czarist prisons facing gruesome events. For long periods he was put in solitary confinement. He experienced torture. A number of times he was beaten unconscious by the prison guards. Violence became a constant element of Dzerzhinsky’s life. Physical beatings caused permanent scars in his face. He sustained disfigurement of mouth and jaw. His psyche was damaged beyond repair.

In prison Dzerzhinsky kept a diary. According to his diary entry on the 14th May 1908 Dzerzhinsky writes: ‘There is nothing to take the eye, nothing to soothe one’s frayed nerves, … the ceiling resembles a coffin lid, there is the treacherous peephole in the door, and the ghastly, pale daylight. And on the other side of the door the hushed tread of the gendarme who every now and then raises the flap of the peephole to make sure that the victim has not cheated the hangman.

On the 31st of December 1908 Dzerzhinsky writes:  I have matured in prison in torments of solitude, in torments of longing for the world and for life. And, in spite of this, doubt in the justness of our cause has never risen in my heart. Felix called the jail -‘the house of the dead. The prison experience was so woeful. He had spent the best part of his adult life in jails and penal exile (Figes, 1996). “Life would not be worth living,’ he wrote from his jail cell, ‘were it not for the light shown to humanity by the star of socialism, the star of the future.

He came out of the prison in 1917 with severe mental scars. In the same year his brother was murdered by the deserters from the Russian Imperial Army at Dzierzynowo.

The memories of humiliation and physical and psychological sufferings in the Tsar’s jails made drastic changes in his personality. He turned in to an emotionally numbed cold person. A man with a bruised psyche he saw conspiracy and injustice everywhere and trusted no one. He dealt with suspects in a callous manner.

Although he was a committed revolutionary he became a Bolshevik in 1917. He took orders only from Lenin. Lenin appointed Dzerzhinsky as the head of the Cheka (All Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Sabotage and Speculation).

 Cheka was the first of a succession of Soviet state security organizations. It was created by a decree issued on Dec. 20, 1917, by Lenin. Cheka founded with 23 employees, by 1921 the figures went high as 145,000.

Straight from prison he moved to a decisive post and overnight became a powerful Commissar. He was given immense powers. In February 1918, after just two months in power, the Bolsheviks gave the Cheka the formal right to shoot its victims without anyone else's sanction, even without charge or trial (Rayfield, 2004).

Dzerzhinsky accepted terror as a normal administrative method that ought to be implemented to clean the post-revolutionary society. He used his traumatic prison experiences to impair his victims. He copied many of these torture methods and interrogated suspects. 

Felix Dzerzhinsky publicly stated: We stand for organized terror - this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. When confronted with evidence criminals in almost every case confess; and what argument can have greater weight than a criminal's own confession?”   

Satter (2013) states that from 1918 to 1919 ten thousand persons were shot on Dzerzhinsky’s orders. After eliminating so called the enemies of the people he had no remorse or any guilt. He gave clear orders to arrest counter revolutionists. Most of these arrests were based on class origin. In 1918 following instructions were issued to Cheka officials:   “First you must ask him to what class he belongs, what his social origin is, his education and profession. These are the questions that must determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning of the Red Terror” 

On February 17, 1919, the head of the Cheka, Feliks Dzerzhinskii, delivered a speech (first published in 1958) in which he said the following:

Besides sentencing by courts, it is necessary to retain administrative sentencing, namely the concentration camp. Even now the labor of prisoners is far from being utilized on public works, and I propose to retain these concentration camps to use the labor of prisoners, gentlemen who live without occupation, those who cannot work without a certain compulsion, or, if we talk of Soviet institutions, then here one should apply this measure of punishment for unscrupulous attitude to work, for negligence, for lateness etc. With this measure we can pull up even our own workers (Pipes, 2014). 

The Cheka’s task was to settle accounts outside the court system. In all of man’s history it represented a unique kind of repressive organ—one single authority entrusted with spying on citizens, with arresting them, with conducting investigations of them, with directing their prosecution, furnishing their judges and carrying out sentences upon them.  In 1918 alone Cheka killed over 50,000 people. In the first five years Cheka’ admitted that 1.86 million “class enemies” were “liquidated,” among them 6,000 teachers and professors, 8,800 physicians, 1,200 clergy, 5,400 military officers, 260,000 sergeants and lower ranks, 105,000 police officers, 48,000 police officers, 12,800 officials, 350,000 intellectuals, 192,000 workers and 815,000 farmers (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn )

Cheka used numerous torture methods which were brutal and inhuman. They used immense physical violence on their victims. Many Chekas preferred psychological forms of torture as well.  One had the victims led off to what they thought was their execution, only to find that a blank had been fired at them.  Another had the victims buried alive, or kept in a coffin with a corpse.  Some Chekas forced their victims to watch their loved ones being tortured, raped or killed. The ingenuity of the Cheka's torture methods was matched only by the Spanish Inquisition (Figes, 1996).

The Cheka officials were given solid orders and vigorous training how to conduct investigations.
The Chairman of the All-Ukrainian Cheka and Chairman of Cheka in Kiev Governorate wrote in the Chekist journal The Red Sword thus.

 When interrogating, do not seek material evidence or proof of the accused's words or deeds against Soviet power.  The first question you must ask is: what class does he belong to, what education, upbringing, origin, or profession does he have?  These questions must determine the accused's fate.  This is the sense and essence of red terror....  It doesn't judge the enemy, it strikes him. (Rayfield, 2004).

Dzerzhinsky could be seen as a case of ‘borderland syndrome- an exaggerated sentiment or contempt for the dominant majority (Berlin, 1980). As Flaubert put it, "inside every revolutionary there is a policeman". Felix Dzerzhinsky was a classic case in point. (Figes, 1996). A British Diplomat Robert Bruce Lockhart who served in Russia later revealed that Felix Dzerzhinsky was a strange person without a ray of humour in his character.

Assessing Felix Dzerzhinsky’s life and behavior pattern it is rational to conclude that Dzerzhinsky may have suffered from Posttraumatic embitterment disorder (PTED).   Posttraumatic embitterment disorder is a subtype of adjustment disorders.  According to Linden and colleagues (2011) Posttraumatic embitterment disorder is a reaction to unjust or humiliating life events, including embitterment and impairment of mood, somatoform complaints, reduction in drive, withdrawal from social contacts, and even suicide and murder suicide. 

 The Core criteria of PTED are: (1) a single exceptional negative life event precipitates the onset of the illness; (2) the present negative state developed in the direct context of this event; (3) the emotional response is embitterment and feelings of injustice; (4) repeated intrusive memories of the event; (5) emotional modulation is unimpaired, patients can even smile when engaged in thoughts of revenge, and (6) no obvious other mental disorder that can explain the reaction. Additional symptoms are feelings of helplessness, self-blame, rejection of help, suicidal ideation, dysphoria, aggression, down-heartedness, seemingly melancholic depression, unspecific somatic complaints, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, pain, phobic symptoms in respect to the place or to persons related to the event and reduced drive (Linden ,2003).

As explained by Professor Eric Kandel   events in the environment can have profound effects on gene expression and brain anatomy. Probably intense stress factors that Felix Dzerzhinsky experienced may have affected his brain structures as well.

Felix Dzerzhinsky had most of the Posttraumatic embitterment disorder criteria. He led a physically and emotionally distressing life. After years of turbulence he was physically and psychologically exhausted and died in late 1926. He was 49 years old. Although Dzerzhinsky was hailed as a hero his atrocious acts were revealed by the post-Soviet historians. The Russian statesman and liberal politician Boris Nemtsov described Dzerzhinsky as "a hangman who destroyed several million of his fellow countrymen. In August 1991, a memorial to Dzerzhinsky by the KGB headquarters in Moscow was toppled by the protesting masses.   



Berlin, I.(1980).Against the Current. London.

Dzerzhinskiĭ, F. Ė.. (1959).    Prison diary and letters.  Foreign Languages Pub. House Moscow.
Figes, O.(1996). A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, PIMLICO, London.

Linden, M., Baumann, K., Lieberei, B., Lorenz, C., Rotter, M.(2011). Treatment of posttraumatic embitterment disorder with cognitive behaviour therapy based on wisdom psychology and hedonia strategies. PsychotherPsychosom. 80(4):199-205.

Linden, M. (2003). Posttraumatic embitterment disorder. PsychotherPsychosom.  72(4):195-202. 

MarkkuKangaspuro, VesaOittinen (2013).Essays on Stalinism. Kikimora Press.Helsinki.

Pipes, R. (2014). Lenin's Gulag. Academic Research Journals.Vol. 2(6), pp. 140-146.

Rayfield,D. (2004). Stalin and his hangmen: the tyrant and those who killed for him, Random House, New York.

Satter, D.(2013).  It Was a Long Time Ago, and it Never Happened Anywaya: Russia and the Communist Past.  Yale University Press

1 comment:

  1. This should be read very leisurely. I will read this later.


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