When I was traveling around the Soviet Union way back in the summer of 1964, people were talking about a mummy that had been found in a cave in Dagestan, in the northeast of the Caucasus. It wasn’t long before scholars were debating how old it was, with two opinions coming to the fore: either it was from the 5th century B.C. or the 10th century B.C.

The KGB was called in to settle the dispute, and two seasoned interrogators were sent into the cave where the mummy lay. Early the next morning, the KGB men emerged from the cave, thin gray neckties askew and hair matted in sweat from their grueling interrogation.

“The mummy is from the 10th century B.C. He finally talked.”

The veracity of this story may be questionable, but veracity played little role in public life in the former Soviet Union. However, a recent news item I saw on MosNews, a Russian news Internet site, made me think that the anecdote of the mummy in the cave might well be resurrected in today’s Russia.

A bust of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founding father of the Soviet secret police, or Cheka, was “re-installed” in the courtyard of Moscow’s main police authority building. The statue of “Iron Feliks” had been taken down in 1991; and this symbolic gesture of “re-installation” is nothing less than a reaffirmation of the odious modes of operation created by Dzerzhinsky.

Dzerzhinsky was a Pole, born in the western districts of what is now Belarus. At the time of his birth in 1877, the region, including virtually all of Poland, was part of the Russian empire, and Dzerzhinsky spoke both Polish and Russian.

Endless interrogations

Already an avowed Marxist as a teenager, he threw himself into subversive activities; and over a period of approximately two decades was in and out of Czarist prisons — his longest stint being five years from 1912. Freed in 1917, he immediately joined the Bolshevik Party, where he soon caught Lenin’s eye. Lenin instructed him to establish an organization to bolster Soviet authority, which he did on Dec. 20, 1917. Its initials, VchK, standing for All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterterrorism and Sabotage, sounded in Russian like “Cheka” when pronounced.

There was a war on in the new state over the Bolshevik monopoly on power, and Iron Feliks knew what to do. He began by setting up a huge network of civilian informants, rounding up the usual and unusual suspects, instigating seemingly endless interrogations, psychological and physical torture and, in many cases, wanton executions. Nazi SS Chief Heinrich Himmler was known to be an admirer of Dzerzhinsky’s approach to dealing with perceived and real opposition.

Dzerzhinsky died of cardiac arrest in 1924. Over the years, the Cheka became the GPU and OGPU, both under the umbrella of the dreaded NKVD, which in turn morphed, not exactly painlessly, into the KGB, or Committee for State Security.

Iron Feliks’ methods of interrogation were certainly extreme. The KGB building in Moscow was always called “the tallest in Moscow,” as it was said that “you can see all the way to Siberia from the top floor.” But in many ways, the legacy of intimidation and torture that he left is with us in places far away from Moscow.

The Chinese government’s blatant disregard for human rights and dignity in their treatment of dissidents, and the American government’s nonobservance of the Geneva Conventions in the incarceration and abuse of suspected terrorists are, in reality, watered-down versions of “the mummy in the cave.” Call it the erosion of rights, if you prefer the slow-drip variety of metaphor. But to my mind, governments around the world are fast-tracking us on a course that can only lead to the demise of democracy.

In my own country, Australia, arch-conservative leaders such as Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer have consistently refused to stand up for an Australian citizen, David Hicks, who has been held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as an “unlawful combatant” for more than three years. Howard and Downer are therefore colluding with the American government in the illegal mistreatment of an Australian citizen. Were Hicks being held in Syria or North Korea, I am sure they would vigorously intervene on his behalf. The only principle by which they govern is expediency.

New regime of measures

The Australian Parliament has recently passed into law an entirely new regime of measures that allows the government to detain and interrogate suspects. And in the United States, despite robust attempts by human rights advocates to protect the liberties of Americans guaranteed in the Constitution, the Bush administration continues to defy domestic and international law in its methods of detention and interrogation.

If we could resurrect the body of Dzerzhinsky and ask him to express his motives, I am certain he would say that he was only trying to protect the integrity of the state from those who would do it harm. J. Edgar Hoover, who was director of the FBI 1924-72, and ever searching for subversives, particularly under the bed, was known as a practitioner of intimidation, blackmail and psychological torture of those he took a disliking to. And just as Iron Feliks’ bust now adorns Moscow police headquarters, the FBI’s headquarters bears the name of J. Edgar Hoover, thanks to a law signed by President Richard Nixon on May 4, 1972, two days before Hoover’s death.

After studying Russian and Polish in the U.S., I went to Warsaw in 1966 for postgraduate study. That was a time when Poland was still under Soviet domination. I remember a Polish friend telling me that Dzerzhinsky was a true Polish hero.

“Really? Wasn’t he on the wrong side?” I asked.

“Yes,” my friend replied. “But all in all, no Pole killed more communists.”

We today are obsessed with the question that both Dzerzhinsky and Hoover posited: Whose side are you on? There are true subversives in our society who would gladly see the curtailment of our freedoms. Some of them do fit the profile of the 21st-century terrorist. But others are in positions equivalent to Dzerzhinsky’s and Hoover’s.

We have to find a way of dealing with both types without forfeiting our rights in the process.

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