Nikolai Yezhov

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Nikolai Yezhov : biography

May 1, 1895 – February 4, 1940

Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov or Ezhov ( ; May 1, 1895 – February 4, 1940) was the chairman of the Soviet secret police NKVD who conducted Great Purge in the 1930s under Joseph Stalin. His reign is sometimes known as the "Yezhovshchina" ( "the Yezhov era"), a term coined during the de-Stalinization campaign of the 1950s. After presiding over mass arrests and executions during the Great Purge, Yezhov became its victim. He was arrested, confessed under torture to a range of anti-Soviet activity, and was executed in 1940. By the beginning of World War II, his status within the Soviet Union became that of a political unperson.Marc Jansen and Nikita Petrov, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner: People’s Commissar Nikolai Ezhov, 1895-1940 (Hoover Institution Press, 2002: ISBN 0-8179-2902-9), p. 210. After his execution, his likeness was retouched out of a well-known press photo of Stalin.

Fall from power

Yezhov was appointed to the post of 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 charging 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.Jansen and Petrov, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner, p. 140.

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 for Stalin to allow him to live. The defection of the Far Eastern NKVD chief, G.S. Liushkov to Japan on June 13, 1938, rightly worried Yezhov, who had protected him from the purges and feared he would be blamed.Jansen and Petrov, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner, pp. 143-44.

Early life and career

Yezhov was born in Saint Petersburg, according to his official Soviet biography, though other records point to the possibility that he was born in Marijampolė. 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, seven 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 Communist 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.