Nikolai Yezhov

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Nikolai Yezhov : biography

May 1, 1895 – February 4, 1940

In the "Letter of an Old Bolshevik" (1936), written by Boris Nicolaevsky, there is this contemporary description of Yezhov:

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.’.N. Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope (Collins & Harvill Press, 1971), page 322. Physically, Yezhov was short in stature, standing five feet, or 151 cm – and that, combined with his sadistic personality, led to his nickname ‘The Poisonous Dwarf’ or ‘The Bloody Dwarf’.

Final days

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 an ironic twist of fate, it would be Yezhov who would eventually fall in the struggle for power, and Beria who would become 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 his downfall was imminent, and 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 A.I. 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).Jansen and Petrov, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner, pp. 166-70. On November 19, his wife Evgenia committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills; she was particularly vulnerable because of her many lovers, and people close to her were being arrested for months (Yezhov had told her on September 18 that he wanted a divorce, and she had begun writing increasingly despairing letters to Stalin, none of which were answered).Jansen and Petrov, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner, pp. 163-66.

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 Yezhov’s deputy Frinovskii on 8 September (Frinovskii was appointed People’s Commissar of the Navy).Jansen and Petrov, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner, pp. 151-52. 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"Jansen and Petrov, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner, p. 181.).