Nikolai Yezhov

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Nikolai Yezhov

Nikolai Yezhov (official Soviet portrait)

Born 1895
Died 4 February 1940
Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Nationality Russian
Occupation political police
Party Communist Party of the Soviet Union
Spouse Antonia Titova (1919-1930)
Yevgenia Feigenberg (1930-1938)

Term September 26, 1936 – January 27, 1937
Predecessor Genrikh Yagoda
Successor Lavrentiy Beria

General Commissar of State Security
Term January 27, 1937 – November 25, 1938

Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov (born 1895, died 4 February 1940), (Russ. Николай Иванович Ежо́в) was a communist mass murderer who became head of the NKVD in the Soviet Union 1936 - 1938, and presided over the Great Terror.[1] He was so infamous for his part in the mass killings under Communist regimes that he has been nicknamed The Bloody Dwarf.[2]

Early life

Perhaps one of the Soviet regime’s most mysterious figures, there is little known of Yezhov's background apart from the fact that he was an ethnic Russian, the first ever to head the NKVD via its predecessor bodies.[3] He was only five feet tall, and apparently lame.[4] His second wife, Evgeniya Solomonovna Feigenberg, was a Jewess.


He joined the Bolsheviks in March 1917 and was a political commissar in the Red Army during the Civil War, and thereafter rose through several political posts becoming a functionary for the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow by 1927 and a protégé of Stalin,[5] working in his Secretariat. By 1936 he was Secretary of the Central Committee and head of the Party Control Commission. Within the Party apparatus he had created a security staff parallel to the NKVD itself which had probably planned Kirov's assassination, at Stalin's behest. Yezhov had taken part in the preparations for the trial of the "Trotskyite-Zinovyevite Terrorist Centre", even setting up an office in the Lubyanka and taking part in the interrogations as Party representative in charge of security. He showed particular interest in the methods used to extract confessions. He took personal pride in reducing the toughest 'suspects' by threatening their children.


Finally Stalin demanded he replace Genrikh Grigoryevich Yagoda, a Polish Jew, as head of the NKVD. This also gave Yezhov a place in the Politburo.[6] Yezhov embarked upon a policy of liquidation of the Trotskyite leadership, setting up in December an "Administration of Special tasks" under his own administration with 'mobile groups' to carry out assassinations abroad ordered by Stalin. Its main field of action over the next two years was Spain.[7]

Under Yezhov all the restraints which had hindered the liquidation of Stalin's imaginary enemies within were removed. The next two years, usually known in the West as the Great Terror, were remembered in the old Soviet Union as the Yezhovshcha. His show trials are infamous. On March 18, 1937, Yezhov announced that Yagoda and most of his leading departmental chiefs were all traitors and working for foreign countries and had been arrested. Most were soon shot after the obligatory show trial. Others were poisoned. The next great imaginary conspiracy to be 'uncovered' by Yezhov involved the Red Army. On 11th June it was announced that Marshal Tukhachevsky, hero of the Civil War and the Soviet Union's leading military thinker, had been arrested with seven other generals on a charge of treason and were shot the next day. The credulity of many well-educated foreign observers is exemplified by the USA Ambassador, Joseph Davies, who reported to the State Department that the show trials had provided "proof....beyond reasonable doubt to justify the verdict of guilty of treason."[8]

The total number of victims of the Yezhovshchina may never be known with certainty. In response to a secret request from the Politburo in 1956, the KGB produced a figure of about nineteen million arrests for the period 1935 to 1940, of whom at least seven million were shot or died in the gulags. The real death toll was probably higher still. Even 110 of the 139 members of the Central Committee elected at the 1934 Party Congress were shot or imprisoned. Only 59 of the 1,966 delegates reappeared at the next Congress in 1939. 75 of the 80 members of the Supreme Military Council were shot. More than half the Red Army officer corps, well over 35,000 men, were executed or imprisoned. The NKVD hierarchy was purged twice. All of Yagoda's Commissars were executed under Yezhov. Of Yezhov's top 122 officers in 1937-8, only 21 still held office under his successor in 1940.[9]

Yezhov's other victims included foreign as well as Russian Communists. A majority of the Comintern officials and foreign Communists resident in Moscow were condemned as "enemy agents" or "foreign spies", and shot. The Polish Communists were most suspect of all: their leaders were Jewish and had taken Trotsky's side at the time of Lenin's death. All were shot. Tito later recalled that "all the Yugoslav communist leaders at that time in the Soviet Union had been arrested."[10]

Late each evening Stalin received Yezhov, which meetings usually went on until 2 a.m. Yezhov lived in continual fear of assassination from 'traitors' within the NKVD, and he was heavily protected. In July 1938 Lavrentiy Beria head of the Transcaucasian NKVD was made Yezhov's first deputy. By the time Yezhov was dismissed from the NKVD on the 8th December, effective power had already passed to Beria. Stalin then proceeded to make Yezhov the scapegoat for such excesses of the Yezhovshchina as could be publicly admitted.[11]


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 rather meaningless 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.[12]

Arrest and trial

On April 10, Yezhov was arrested and imprisoned in the Sukhanovo Prison. 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."[13]

On February 2, 1940, Yezhov was tried by the Military Collegium chaired by the notorious Soviet judge Vasili Ulrikh[14] behind closed doors.[15] 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.[16] After the trial, Yezhov was allowed to return to his cell; but, 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 declined, and Yezhov became hysterical and weeping. This time he had to be dragged out of the room, struggling with the guards and screaming.


Yezhov was shot late on the night of February 4 by the future KGB Chairman, Ivan Serov, in an execution chamber with a sloping floor, which was for hosing and had been built according to Yezhov's own specifications near the Lubyanka.[17]

His body was immediately cremated and his ashes dumped in a common grave at Moscow's Donskoi Monastery Cemetery. The execution remained secret, and as late as 1948, Time reported: "Some think he is still in an insane asylum."[18]

Yezhov was replaced by Lavrentiy Beria.

Yezhov quote

  • If during this operation an extra thousand people will be shot, that is not such a big deal.
  • Better too far than not far enough.

External links


  1. Andrew, Christopher & Gordievsky, Oleg, KGB - from Lenin to Gorbachev, London, 1990, p.100. ISBN 0-340-48561-2
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, 1990, Micropaedia vol.12, p.841.
  3. Andrew & Gordievsky, 1990, p.103.
  4. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1990, p.841.
  5. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1990, p.841.
  6. Andrew & Gordievsky, 1990, pps:100 and 103-4.
  7. Andrew & Gordievsky, 1990, p.121-2.
  8. Andrew & Gordievsky, 1990, pps:104-6; 113
  9. Andrew & Gordievsky, 1990, p.106-7.
  10. Andrew & Gordievsky, 1990, p.108-9.
  11. Andrew & Gordievsky, 1990, p.130.
  12. Jansen, Marc, and Petrov, Nikita, Stalin's Loyal Executioner, Hoover Institution Press, 2002, p.181. ISBN 0-8179-2902-9
  13. Jansen and Petrov, 2002, p.185.
  14. Father Latvian and mother Russian.
  15. Jansen and Petrov, 2002, p.187.
  16. Jansen and Petrov, 2002, p.187-188.
  17. Jansen and Petrov, 2002, p.188-189.
  18. "COMMUNISTS: The Hunter". Time. March 22, 1948.,9171,804478-4,00.html. Retrieved May 20, 2010.