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Yezhov, Nikolai Ivanovich


(18951940), USSR State Security chief (19361938); organizer of the Great Terror of 19371938.

Of humble origins and scant education, Nikolai Yezhov rose from tailor to industrial worker, soldier, and Red Army and Communist Party functionary. Since the early 1920s he was a provincial party secretary in Krasnokokshaisk (Mari province), Semipalatinsk, Orenburg, and Kzyl-Orda (Kazakh republic). In 1927 he was transferred to Moscow to become involved in personnel policy for the party Central Committee and the USSR People's Commissariat of Agriculture. In 1930 he was promoted to chief of the Personnel Department of the Central Committee. In 1934 he was included in the Central Committee and appointed chief of the party Control Commission.

From 1935 on, as Secretary of the Central Committee, he was in the top echelon of the party. He was charged with supervising the USSR People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), or state security service, and its investigation of Leningrad party chief Sergei Kirov's murder, as well as with organizing major purge operations in the party in order to curb the party apparatus, which Josef Stalin deemed too independent. From 1936 on he organized major show trials against Stalin's rivals in the party. On September 25, 1936, Stalin appointed him People's Commissar of Internal Affairs. This was followed by a large purge operation in the NKVD involving the liquidation of his predecessor Genrikh Yagoda and his supporters, as well as mass arrests within the party.

On July 30, 1937, by order of Stalin and the Party Politburo, Yezhov issued NKVD Order 00447, "Concerning the Operation Aimed at the Subjecting to Repression of Former Kulaks, Criminals, and Other Anti-Soviet Elements." The operation was to involve the arrest of almost 270,000 people, some 76,000 of whom were immediately to be shot. Their cases were to be considered by "troikas," or bodies of the party chief, NKVD chief, and procurator of each USSR province, who were given quotas of arrests and executions. In return, the regional authorities requested even higher quotas, with the encouragement of the central leadership.

Another mass operation was directed against foreigners living in the USSR, especially those belonging to the nationalities of neighboring countries (e.g., Poles, Germans, Finns). The Great Terror was intended to liquidate elements thought insufficiently loyal, as well as alleged "spies." All in all, from August 1937 through November 1938, more than 1.5 million people were arrested for counter-revolutionary and other crimes against the state, and nearly 700,000 of them were shot; the rest were sent to Gulag concentration camps. By order of Yezhov, and with Yezhov personally participating, the prisoners were tortured in order to make them "confess" to crimes they had not committed; the use of torture had the approval of Stalin and the Politburo.

In April 1937, Yezhov was included in the leading five who in practice had taken over the leading role from the Politburo, and in October of that same year he was made a Politburo candidate member. In April 1938, the leadership of the People's Commissariat of Water Transportation was added to his functions. But in fact, it was the beginning of his decline. In August, Stalin appointed Lavrenty Beria as his deputy and intended successor. After sharp criticism, on November 23, 1938, Yezhov resigned from his function as NKVD chief, though for the time being he stayed on as People's Commissar of Water Transportation. People close to him were arrested, and under these conditions his wife, Yevgenia, committed suicide; Yezhov abandoned himself to even more drinking than he was accustomed to.

On April 10, 1939, he was arrested. He could not bear torture and during interrogation confessed everything: spying, wrecking, conspiring, terrorism, and sodomy (apparently, he had maintained frequent homosexual contacts). On February 2, 1940, he was tried behind closed doors and sentenced to death, to be shot the following night.

His fall was given almost no publicity, and during the ensuing months and years he was practically forgotten. Only since the 1990s have details about his life, death, and activities become known. In spite of this, during the de-Stalinization campaign of the 1950s, he was brought up as nearly the only person responsible for the terror; the term Yezhovshchina, or the time of Yezhov, was brought into use. Some historians of the Stalin period indeed tend to stress Yezhov's personal contribution to the terror, relating his dismissal to his over-zealousness. As a matter of fact, Stalin suspected him of disloyal conduct and of collecting evidence against prominent party people, including even Stalin himself. Others believe that he obediently executed Stalin's instructions, and that Stalin dismissed him when he thought it expedient.

See also: gulag; purges, the great; stalin, josef vissarionovich; state security, organs of


Conquest, Robert. (1990). The Great Terror: A Reassessment. London: Hutchinson.

Getty, J. Arch, and Naumov, Oleg V. (1999). The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 19321939, tr. Benjamin Sher. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jansen, Marc, and Petrov, Nikita. (2002). Stalin's Loyal Executioner: People's Commissar Nikolai Ezhov, 18951940. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Khlevnyuk, Oleg (1995). "The Objectives of the Great Terror, 19371938." In Soviet History, 191753: Essays in Honour of R.W. Davies, ed. Julian Cooper et al. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.

Medvedev, Roy. (1989). Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, rev. and expanded ed., tr. George Shriver. New York: Columbia University Press.

Starkov, Boris A. (1993). "Narkom Ezhov." In Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives, eds. J. Arch Getty and Roberta T. Manning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Marc Jansen

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