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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.4 (2006) 759-791

Dzherzhinskii and the Gerd Case
The Politics of Intercession and the Evolution of "Iron Felix" in NEP Russia
Douglas R. Weiner
Dept. of History
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721 USA

Unprotected by law, the civil rights of groups and individuals in 1920s Soviet Russia were at the mercy of tides of repression, whether those emanated from central campaigns or from local forces. In the personalistic order created by the Bolsheviks one of the most important avenues of redress against rights abuses, especially as concerned heterodox intellectuals, was intercession by regime oligarchs (Old Bolsheviks). 1 For this to occur, entrée to such figures was needed. However, another factor that permitted efficacy of intervention was the continuing existence of relatively autonomous spheres of power—administrative fiefdoms—and of independent political authority, in the absence of a dictatorship by a single supreme leader. Such conditions perdured in the Soviet Union roughly until the 15th Party Congress but arguably had already become largely inoperative by mid-1926 with Politburo member Lev Kamenev's fall from power and especially the death of United State Political Directorate (OGPU) chair Feliks Dzerzhinskii. Although it is true that Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii was able to protect people until early 1929 and Commissar of Heavy Industry Sergo Ordzhonikidze did so until the mid-1930s, their power of patronage was based on borrowed time. 2 [End Page 759]

The Gerd Case, as it was labeled in Dzerzhinskii's files, is a revealing exhibit of the complicated 1920s politics of repression and intervention. For one thing, it demonstrates just how vulnerable was the broad intellectual life under the New Economic Policy (NEP) and how widespread, especially among local and provincial party elites, were illiberal views and prejudices. 3 It illustrates how these illiberal currents collaborated on the local level in the selection of specific targets for persecution. For another, it underscores the degree to which the security of individual members of the old intelligentsia was dependent on intercessors from among the Old Bolshevik oligarchy, whose salvatory power was limited both by political contingency and by their own understandings of the requirements of regime loyalty (as opposed to the claims of "justice").

Finally, the Gerd Case reveals that intercession itself was a practice that some influential party members had become emboldened to contest, even if the intercessors were none other than Dzerzhinskii and Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaia. Hardliners discovered that by placing vulnerable clients or former friends of Old Bolshevik rivals in peril, as bait, they could draw those rivals out as "intercessors" and render them politically vulnerable as well.

The Gerd Case: Background

In October 1926 members of the Moscow Pedagogical Society met to honor the memory of Vladimir Aleksandrovich Gerd, a noted science teacher, educational theorist, and reformer, who was decisively influential in the pre-Soviet progressive school movement. A third-generation pedagogue, Gerd collapsed of a heart attack after running to catch a Volga River steamer in July. Shocked colleagues and relatives were unprepared for the news. Emilia Orestovna Vakhterova, who wrote a short memorial piece, was certain that a full-length biography of Gerd would appear. However, Gerd, along with the memory of his educational initiatives, sank with scarcely a trace into the deep Soviet memory hole. 4 [End Page 760]

During the 1920s Lunacharskii himself once admitted that "we perfectly well understand that the very best kind of school which we could succeed in creating is something very close to the new progressive schools of the past." 5 After the Bolshevik accession to power these schools—Tenishev Gymnasium, the Stoiunina Gymnasium, and the Lesnoe, Vyborgskoe, and Gerd's Putilovskoe kommercheskie uchilishcha (commercial schools) became part of the "unified labor school" network and Lunacharskii's People's Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros) allowed most of them to retain as much of their staff and programs as possible. There were...


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