Yezhov in uniform
|People's Commissar for Water Transport|
6 April 1938 - 9 April 1939
|None (position abolished)|
|People's Commissar for Internal Affairs|
26 September 1936 - 25 November 1938
|People's Commissar for State Security|
27 January 1937 - 25 November 1938
|Candidate member of the 17th Politburo|
12 October 1937 - 3 March 1939
|Member of the 17th Secretariat|
1 February 1935 - 3 March 1939
Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov|
May 1, 1895
St. Petersburg, Russian Empire
February 4, 1940 (aged 44)|
Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
|Political party||Communist Party of the Soviet Union|
Antonia Titova (1919-1930)|
Yevgenia Feigenberg (1930-1938; her death; 1 child)
|Children||Natalia Nikolaevna Yezhova, later Natalia Khayutina (adopted)|
Russian: ? (Blackberry)|
Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov, IPA: [nk?'?aj j?'?of]; May 1, 1895 – February 4, 1940) was a Soviet secret police official under Joseph Stalin who was head of the NKVD from 1936 to 1938, during the most active period of the Great Purge.
Having presided over mass arrests and executions during the Great Purge, Yezhov eventually fell from Stalin's favour and power. He was arrested, confessed to a range of anti-Soviet activity, later claiming he was tortured into making these confessions, and was executed in 1940.
Yezhov was born either in Saint Petersburg, according to his official Soviet biography, or in Suwa?ki Governorate of the Congress Poland. In a form filled out in 1921, Yezhov claimed some ability to speak Polish and Lithuanian.
He completed only his elementary education. From 1909 to 1915, he worked as a tailor's assistant and factory worker. From 1915 until 1917, Yezhov served in the Imperial Russian Army. He joined the Bolsheviks on May 5, 1917, in Vitebsk, six months before the October Revolution. During the Russian Civil War, 1919–1921, he fought in the Red Army. After February 1922, he worked in the political system, mostly as a secretary of various regional committees of the Communist Party. In 1927, he was transferred to the Accounting and Distribution Department of the Party where he worked as an instructor and acting head of the department. From 1929 to 1930, he was the Deputy People's Commissar for Agriculture. In November 1930, he was appointed to the Head of several departments of the Communist Party: department of special affairs, department of personnel and department of industry. In 1934, he was elected to the Central Committee of the Communist Party; in the next year he became a secretary of the Central Committee. From February 1935 to March 1939, he was also the Chairman of the Central Commission for Party Control.
In the "Letter of an Old Bolshevik" (1936), written by Boris Nicolaevsky, there is this contemporary description of Yezhov:
In the whole of my long life, I have never met a more repellent personality than Yezhov's. When I look at him I am reminded irresistibly of the wicked urchins of the courts in Rasterayeva Street, whose favorite occupation was to tie a piece of paper dipped in kerosene to a cat's tail, set fire to it, and then watch with delight how the terrified animal would tear down the street, trying desperately but in vain to escape the approaching flames. I do not doubt that in his childhood Yezhov amused himself in just such a manner and that he is now continuing to do so in different forms.
Nadezhda Mandelstam, in contrast, who met Yezhov at Sukhum in the early thirties, did not perceive anything ominous in his manner or appearance; her impression of him was that of a "modest and rather agreeable person". Physically, Yezhov was short, standing five feet (151 cm), and that, combined with his perceived sadistic personality, led to his nickname "The Poison Dwarf" or "The Bloody Dwarf".
Yezhov married Marxist Antonia Titova in 1919, but he later divorced her and married Yevgenia Feigenburg (Khayutina-Yezhova). Yezhov and Feigenburg had an adopted daughter, Natalia, an orphan from a children's home. Her parents had been killed in the Yezhovshchina. After Yezhov's death, Natalia was sent back to a local orphanage and was forced to relinquish the Yezhov surname. Subsequently, she was known by the name Natalia Khayutina.
The turning point in Yezhov's life (which led to his appointment as head of the NKVD) was the response by Stalin to the murder of the Bolshevik chief of Leningrad, Sergey Kirov. Stalin used the murder as a pretext for further purges; he chose Yezhov for this task. Yezhov oversaw falsified accusations in the Kirov murder case against opposition leaders Kamenev, Zinoviev and their supporters. Yezhov's success in this task led to his further promotion.
He became People's Commissar for Internal Affairs (head of the NKVD) and a member of the Central Committee on September 26, 1936, following the dismissal of Genrikh Yagoda. This appointment did not at first seem to suggest an intensification of the purge: "Unlike Yagoda, Yezhov did not come out of the 'organs,' which was considered an advantage." Yagoda became a target because he had been suspected of killing innocents and protecting anti-soviet conspirators by the NKVD. Party leadership revoking and executions of those found guilty during the Moscow Trials wasn't not a problem for Yezhov, granted he himself was later found guilty of the same actions Yagoda had been doing beforehand. Seeming to be a devout admirer of Stalin and not a member of the organs of state security, Yezhov was just the man Stalin needed to lead the NKVD and rid the government of potential opponents. Yezhov's first task from Stalin was to personally investigate and conduct the prosecution of his long-time Chekist mentor Yagoda, which he did with remorseless zeal. Ordered by Stalin to create a suitably grandiose plot for Yagoda's show trial, Yezhov ordered the NKVD to sprinkle mercury on the curtains of his office so that the physical evidence could be collected and used to support the charge that Yagoda was a German spy, sent to assassinate Yezhov and Stalin with poison and restore capitalism. It's also claimed that he personally tortured both Yagoda and Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky to extract their confessions.
Yagoda was but the first of many to die by Yezhov's orders. Under Yezhov, the Great Purge reached its height during 1937-1938. 50-75% of the members of the Supreme Soviet and officers of the Soviet military were stripped of their positions and imprisoned, exiled to the Gulag's camps in Siberia or executed. In addition, a much greater number of ordinary Soviet citizens were accused (usually on flimsy or nonexistent evidence) of disloyalty or "wrecking" by local Chekist troikas and similarly punished to fill Stalin and Yezhov's arbitrary quotas for arrests and executions. Yezhov also conducted a thorough purge of the security organs, both NKVD and GRU, removing and executing not only many officials who had been appointed by his predecessors Yagoda and Menzhinsky, but even his own appointees as well. He admitted that innocents were being falsely accused, but dismissed their lives as unimportant so long as the purge was successful:
There will be some innocent victims in this fight against Fascist agents. We are launching a major attack on the Enemy; let there be no resentment if we bump someone with an elbow. Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly.
In 1937 and 1938 alone, at least 1.3 million were arrested and 681,692 were shot for 'crimes against the state'. The Gulag population swelled by 685,201 under Yezhov, nearly tripling in size in just two years, with at least 140,000 of these prisoners (and likely many more) dying of malnutrition, exhaustion and the elements in the camps (or during transport to them).
Yezhov was appointed People's Commissar for Water Transport on April 6, 1938. Though he retained his other posts, his role as grand inquisitor and extractor of confessions gradually diminished as Stalin retreated from the worst excesses of the Great Purge.
By saddling him with the extra job, Stalin killed two birds with one stone: Yezhov could correct the water transportation situation with tough Chekist methods, and his transfer to the terra incognita of economic tasks would leave him less time for the NKVD and weaken his position there, thus creating the possibility that in due course he could be removed from the leadership of the punitive apparatus and replaced by fresh people.
Contrary to Stalin's expectations, the vast number of party officials and military officers lost during Yezhov's purges had been only partially made good by replacement with trusted Stalinist functionaries, and he eventually recognized that the disruption was severely affecting the country's ability to coordinate industrial production and defend its borders from the growing threat of Nazi Germany. Yezhov had accomplished Stalin's intended task for the Great Purge: the public liquidation of the last of his Old Bolshevik political rivals and the elimination of any possibility of "disloyal elements" or "fifth columnists" within the Soviet military and government prior to the onset of war with Germany. From Stalin's perspective, Yezhov (like Yagoda) had served his purpose but had seen too much and wielded too much power to be allowed to live. The defection to Japan of the Far Eastern NKVD chief, Genrikh Lyushkov on June 13, 1938, rightly worried Yezhov, who had protected Lyushkov from the purges and feared he would be blamed.
On August 22, 1938, Georgian NKVD leader Lavrenty Beria was named as Yezhov's deputy. Beria had managed to survive the Great Purge and the "Yezhovshchina" during the years 1936-1938, even though he had almost become one of its victims. Earlier in 1938, Yezhov had even ordered the arrest of Beria, who was party chief in Georgia. However, Georgian NKVD chief Sergei Goglidze warned Beria, who immediately flew to Moscow to see Stalin personally. Beria convinced Stalin to spare his life and reminded Stalin how efficiently he had carried out party orders in Georgia and Transcaucasia. In a twist of fate, it was Yezhov who eventually fell in the struggle for power, and Beria who became the new NKVD chief.
Over the following months, Beria (with Stalin's approval) began increasingly to usurp Yezhov's governance of the Commissariat for Internal Affairs. As early as September 8, Mikhail Frinovsky, Yezhov's first deputy, was relocated from under his command into the Navy. Stalin's penchant for periodically executing and replacing his primary lieutenants was well known to Yezhov, as he had previously been the man most directly responsible for orchestrating such actions.
Well acquainted with the typical Stalinist bureaucratic precursors to eventual dismissal and arrest, Yezhov recognized Beria's increasing influence with Stalin as a sign that his downfall was imminent; and he plunged headlong into alcoholism and despair. Already a heavy drinker, in the last weeks of his service, he reportedly was disconsolate, slovenly, and drunk nearly all of his waking hours, rarely bothering to show up to work. As anticipated, Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov, in a report dated November 11, sharply criticised the work and methods of the NKVD during Yezhov's tenure as chief, thus creating the bureaucratic pretense necessary to remove him from power.
On November 14, another of Yezhov's protégés, the Ukrainian NKVD chief Alexander Uspensky, disappeared after being warned by Yezhov that he was in trouble. Stalin suspected that Yezhov was involved in the disappearance and told Beria, not Yezhov, that Uspensky must be caught (he was arrested on April 14, 1939). Yezhov had told his wife, Yevgenia, on September 18 that he wanted a divorce, and she had begun writing increasingly despairing letters to Stalin, none of which were answered. She was particularly vulnerable because of her many lovers, and people close to her were being arrested for months. On November 19, 1938, Yevgenia committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.
At his own request, Yezhov was officially relieved of his post as the People's Commissar for Internal Affairs on November 25, succeeded by Beria, who had been in complete control of the NKVD since the departure of Frinovsky on 8 September. He attended his last Politburo meeting on January 29, 1939.
Stalin was evidently content to ignore Yezhov for several months, finally ordering Beria to denounce him at the annual Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. On March 3, 1939, Yezhov was relieved of all his posts in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but retained his post as People's Commissar of Water Transportation. His last working day was April 9, at which time the "People's Commissariat was simply abolished by splitting it into two, the People's Commissariats of the River Fleet and the Sea Fleet, with two new People's Commissars, Z. A. Shashkov and S. S. Dukel'skii."
On April 10, Yezhov was arrested and imprisoned at the Sukhanovka prison; the "arrest was painstakingly concealed, not only from the general public but also from most NKVD officers... It would not do to make a fuss about the arrest of 'the leader's favourite,' and Stalin had no desire to arouse public interest in NKVD activity and the circumstances of the conduct of the Great Terror."
Yezhov confessed to the standard litany of state crimes necessary to mark him as an "enemy of the people" prior to execution, including "wrecking", official incompetence, theft of government funds, and treasonous collaboration with German spies and saboteurs, none of which were likely or supported by evidence. Apart from these political crimes, he was also accused of and confessed to a humiliating history of sexual promiscuity, including homosexuality, that was (unusually, in contrast with other condemned Bolshevik officials) later corroborated by witness reports and deemed true in some post-Soviet examinations of the case, though the most recent biography on Yezhov dismisses allegations of homosexuality and regards them as "based on the fantasies of the investigators." Yezhov later said that he was tortured before he confessed.
Among the many people dragged down in Yezhov's fall was Isaak Babel: "In May 1939 Yezhov confessed that Babel had committed espionage together with [Yezhov's wife] Yevgenia. Within a week the writer was arrested; during interrogation he in his turn testified against the Yezhovs." However, Yezhov's first wife, Antonina Titova, his sister, Evdokiya, and his mother all survived.
On February 2, 1940, Yezhov was tried by the Military Collegium chaired by Soviet judge Vasili Ulrikh behind closed doors. Yezhov, like his predecessor Yagoda, maintained to the end his love for Stalin. Yezhov denied being a spy, a terrorist, or a conspirator, stating that he preferred "death to telling lies." He maintained that his previous confession had been obtained under torture, admitted that he purged 14,000 of his fellow Chekists, but said that he was surrounded by "enemies of the people." He also said that he would die with the name of Stalin on his lips.
After the secret trial, Yezhov was allowed to return to his cell; half an hour later, he was called back and told that he had been condemned to death. On hearing the verdict, Yezhov became faint and began to collapse, but the guards caught him and removed him from the room. An immediate appeal for clemency was denied, and Yezhov became hysterical and wept. He soon had to be dragged out of the room, struggling with the guards and screaming.
On February 4, Yezhov was shot by the future KGB chairman Ivan Serov (or by Blokhin, in the presence of N. P. Afanasev, according to one book source ) in the basement of a small NKVD station on Varsonofevskii Lane (Varsonofyevskiy pereulok) in Moscow. The basement had a sloping floor so that it could be hosed down after executions, and had been built according to Yezhov's own specifications near the Lubyanka. The main NKVD execution chamber in the basement of the Lubyanka was deliberately avoided to ensure total secrecy.
Yezhov's body was immediately cremated and his ashes dumped in a common grave at Moscow's Donskoi Cemetery. The execution remained secret and as late as 1948, Time reported: "Some think he is still in an insane asylum."
Yezhov's refusal to admit to a conspiracy against Stalin's life and his long, verifiable history as Stalin's primary inquisitor during the Great Purge made him too dangerous to risk at a public show trial where he might betray Stalin's secrets or successfully expose Stalin's orchestration of the Purge.
Though his adoptive daughter Natalia Khayutina, whose birth parents were killed in the Yezhovshchina, has fought for a revision of the case, Yezhov has not been rehabilitated. The Procuracy decided that because of the serious consequences of Yezhov's activity as NKVD chief and the casualties he inflicted upon the country, he was not subject to rehabilitation, and the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court concurred on June 4, 1998.
The million-voiced sonorous word
A decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet on January 24, 1941 deprived Yezhov of all state and special awards.
Media related to Nikolai Yezhov at Wikimedia Commons