A prison that used to be integrated into the Soviet KGB headquarters, situated on Lubyanka Square in downtown Moscow. Now converted to headquarters for the Russian Border Troops.

Lubyanka Prison is one of the most notorious and terrifying prisons in history, maybe more so than other somber establishments like the Bastille or Alcatraz. The Lubyanka has become the foremost symbol of the cruelty and high-handedness of the Soviet police state. Thousands of people, imagined or real opponents of the Soviet regime, were shot here during the Soviet era, particularly during the Stalinist years of terror. Many times more innocents were periodically detained for interrogation, most often by torture, before being shipped off to execution or to the GULAG camps. Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis, was in all probability one of the untold numbers of people killed in the Lubyanka.

The Lubyanka prison is actually one part of a complex of three buildings, which form the headquarters of the once Soviet, now Russian secret security police. The main yellow building, which housed Lubyanka prison in Soviet times, was built before the Russian Revolution. It was taken over by the Bolsheviks in 1918 as the headquarters of the "Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Counterrevolution, Espionage and Sabotage".

Shutting up by bullets

This "Extraordinary Commission", abbreviated as "Che-Ka" or simply "Cheka" in Russian, was originally set up on Lenin's orders in 1917 by Felix Dzerzhinsky, a ruthless Bolshevik with aristocratic Polish roots. Dzerzhinsky recruited the toughest Communists to his police - "solid hard men without pity, who are ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of the revolution. Just round up all the most resolute people you can, who understand that there is nothing more effective than a bullet in the head to shut people up".

"Cheka" was simply the first of a long line of constantly changing abbreviations for the Soviet secret police - GPU, OGPU, NKVD, MVD - ending with KGB in 1991. However, all former KGB officers, including president Putin, still call themselves "Chekists". The corresponding state security service in present-day Russia is known by the letters FSB. It is still housed in a building on the Lubyanka Square, but the infamous prison itself has been converted to headquarters for the Russian Border Troops.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the open Lubyanka Square in front of the building used to be dominated by a 14-ton statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the organization in the building behind the statue. In August 1991 angry crowds tore down the Dzerzhinsky statue. It now lies on the ground in a local Moscow park.

Restoration in sight

In 2002 certain Moscow politicians have proposed to restore the Dzerzhinsky statue to its former site on Lubyanka Square. The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, seems to agree, saying that the statue is a "beautiful architectural and artistic composition". Others strongly oppose re-erecting a statue to a "butcher who killed millions of his fellow citizens".


Mark Kramer (ed): The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press, 2000)