Nikolai Yezhov

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Nikolai Yezhov : biography

May 1, 1895 – February 4, 1940

His body was immediately cremated and his ashes dumped in a common grave at Moscow’s Donskoi Cemetery.Montefiore, 288 The execution remained secret, and as late as 1948, Time reported that “[s]ome 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.Sebag-Montefiore, 203.

In addition, the scapegoating of Yezhov allowed Stalin to end the Great Purge while still retaining plausible deniability of his direction over it. This was further reinforced by Stalin’s decision to declare damnatio memoriae on Yezhov, a fate normally reserved for only the highest-ranking and most prominent of Stalin’s political enemies, and all evidence of his existence was quietly censored from State records and publications.

Though his adoptive daughter Natalia Khayutina (whose birth parents were killed in 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).Jansen and Petrov, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner, p. 190.

Head of the NKVD

Yezhov was known as a devout Bolshevik and loyalist of Joseph Stalin, and in 1935 he wrote a paper on Stalinism in which he argued that since political unorthodoxy was impossible in a perfect Communist state (such as the USSR), any form of political opposition to Stalinist policies was actually evidence of conspiracy by "disloyal elements" to overthrow the Soviet state, thus requiring violence and state terrorism to "root out" these "enemies of the People"; this became in part the ideological basis of the purges.

The turning point in Yezhov’s life which would lead to his appointment as head of the NKVD, was the response by Stalin to the murder of the Bolsheviek 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.A Dictionaru of 20th Century Communism. Editors: Silvio Pons and Robert Service. Princeton University Press 2010.

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 terror: "Unlike Yagoda, Yezhov did not come out of the ‘organs,’ which was considered an advantage."Jansen and Petrov, Stalin’s Loyal Executioner, p. 56. Genrikh Yagoda became a target because he had been too slow to eliminate the old Bolsheviks in the purges ordered by Stalin. Destruction of the old bolshevik cadres as well as Yagoda himself — all potential or imagined enemies of Stalin – was not a problem for Yezhov. As a devout Stalinist and not a member of the organs of state security, Yezhov was just the man Stalin needed to intensify the terror and rid Stalin 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.Sebag-Montefiore, 219. He also personally tortured both Yagoda and Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky to extract their confessions.Sebag-Montefiore, 222. As a final insult for his former mentor, Yezhov ordered Yagoda to be stripped naked and severely beaten by the guards at the Lubyanka before being dragged into the execution chamber and shot.