On leaving school, became a professional revolutionary at first SR, later Social Democratic. Active in Kovno, arrested in 1897, exiled, 1898, to Viatka, escaped, 1899. Active in Warsaw underground Social Democratic organizations.
Arrested in 1900, exiled to Siberia, 1902, but escaped the same year. Participated in the 1905 revolution, organizing demonstrations in Warsaw. Arrested July 1905, amnestied, October 1905, and continued revolutionary activity in Warsaw and Petersburg.
Arrested, December 1906, released May 1907, re-arrested April 1909, exiled to Siberia 1909, escaped to Berlin at the end of 1909. Returned to Poland (Cracow, then AustroHungary), 1910. Arrested in Russian Poland, September 1912.
In Warsaw citadel prison, 1912-1914. Transferred to Orel prison, and later to Moscow. Released after the February Revolution 1917, from Butyrki prison.
One of the organizers of the October Revolution, 7 November 1917. Soon thereafter, on 20 December 1917, appointed first head of the Cheka becoming thus the founder and organizer of one of the most ruthless terror organizations in the world. Personified the fanatical, inquisitorial side of communism (in his youth inclined towards Catholic fanaticism, and wanted to become a Jesuit).
Knowing the Tsarist system of repression and all its weaknesses, took care not to repeat the mistakes of leniency and moral restrictions. Introduced the system of hostages and class terror on a wide scale. To a large extent personally responsible for shocking the country into obedience during the early years of Bolshevik rule.
During the uprising of the left SRs in July 1918, arrested by the rebels, but soon released as a fellow revolutionary. During the Civil War, sent to several crisis points, restoring discipline and imposing obedience by unremitting terror. In command of the rear of the South-West front during the war with Poland, 1920.
Appointed member of the Provisional Government of Poland during the Soviet offensive, 1920. Head of the Children’s Commission. 1921 (when the problem of homeless children, who were victims of terror and the Civil War, was at its height).
Appointed Minister of Transport, 1921. Retained the post of Chairman of the Cheka and Minister of the Interior throughout. Organized an extensive spy network abroad.
Chairman of the Supreme Council of the National Economy, February 1924. Committee of the party. His life-size statue stands before the infamous Lubianka prison and the Committee for State Security HQ on Dzerzhinskii Square in the centre of Moscow.
Officially glorified as ‘Zheleznyi Feliks’ with his 'warm heart, cool head and clean hands’ (his own description of a member of the secret police). First criticism of his terror policies appeared in the Soviet press in 1988.