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Fear factor: Back in the USSR Add to ...

It should have been impossible to go back.The image of what happened on Aug. 22, 1991, is frozen in the minds of most Russians. Anyone who was there describes it as beautiful -- tens of thousands of people dancing in front of the KGB building they had all feared for so long, cheering as cranes pulled down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the man who had created the murderous secret service in the days after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

The feeling of hope that came with it is also still remembered. For any Russian who saw it, the toppling of "Iron Felix" meant the era of state-sanctioned fear was over. Something else -- liberal democracy, everyone presumed at the time -- was supposed to take its place.

But 13 years later, Iron Felix is back and democracy in Russia is in dire trouble, some say dead. Mr. Dzerzhinsky has not yet been returned to his old plinth on Lubyanka Square, although that has been suggested by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. But his likeness now stands amid the birch trees in a new, man-made park in this grimy Moscow suburb named for one of history's great killers.

Few seem to mind.

"It's a nice monument. I like it. They made a mistake in Moscow when they pulled that statue down," says 76-year-old Zinaida Oreshkova, sitting on a bench near the three-metre-high bronze monument put up on Sept. 11.

Ms. Oreshkova associates Mr. Dzerzhinsky's name with a time when Russia was a great power and life was predictable. "It was a time of stability and order. We lived better before perestroika," she says.

And she's not alone. Numerous bunches of red, yellow and violet flowers have been laid at the statue's feet, apparently that very morning. Of the dozen or so people who stroll through the park on Dzerzhinsky Street on a Friday afternoon, not one admits to being bothered by Iron Felix's return.

Three teenaged girls say they have heard about Mr. Dzerzhinsky in school, but mostly about the good he did. "I know about the repressions, but I've also heard positive things. He restored schools," 15-year-old Olga Gryaznova says, giggling with her friends. "I like him as a historical personality."

President Vladimir Putin might have been hailed as a democrat and a reformer when he was elected four years ago, but under his reign it has become fashionable once again to lionize men such as Mr. Dzerzhinksy. What happened on Sept. 11 in Dzerzhinsky was comparable to a town in Germany erecting a monument to Heinrich Himmler.

Critics say that while the world's attention was diverted elsewhere, the KGB has carried out a coup in the Kremlin. Not only is the President a former agent, so are nearly all of his top advisers, more than a dozen deputy ministers and regional governors, as well as Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, the man most often mentioned as Mr. Putin's successor.

And the ruling junta is once more making threatening rumbles -- Mr. Putin, who has quintupled military spending since he took over from Boris Yeltsin, said this week that Russia would soon have new nuclear missiles "which other nuclear powers do not and will not possess."

"This country changed the day that Boris Yeltsin chose a KGB colonel as his nominee for president," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few independent deputies remaining in the State Duma, the lower house of the federal Parliament. "Russia is now a virtual democracy, becoming more and more authoritarian. Nobody knows how far it can go."

Mr. Dzerzhinsky wasn't the first secret-services icon to have his reputation and monument restored.

In 1999, while Mr. Putin was the head of the KGB's successor organization, the FSB -- and just weeks before he was named prime minister en route to the presidency -- he reinstated something else the crowds had torn down in 1991: a plaque on the side of the agency's headquarters commemorating Yuri Andropov, another KGB veteran who rose to the top as Soviet leader from 1982 to 1984.

Mr. Putin's most hysterical critics liken the President to Joseph Stalin, a killer of millions, but Mr. Andropov, famous as the "Butcher of Budapest" for calling in the Red Army to crush the Hungarian revolt when he was Soviet ambassador in 1956, has long been one of his heroes.

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