Yagoda, Genrykh Grigorevich

(1891–1938)
   The chief instigator of the purges of the 1930s, Yagoda was eventually replaced for ideological and operational failures. Yagoda grew up in a family of radicals; his father manufactured documents for left-wing parties. Yagoda joined the anarchists at age 16 and was a member of several anarchist “fighting commands.” He joined the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1917 and served in the Red Army for the next two years. Yagoda joined the Cheka in 1919 and proved to be a merciless administrator of the Red Terror. In 1920–1921 he took part in crushing a mass peasant revolt in Tambov. Ten years later, he played a critical role in collectivization, again employing troops against peasant rebels. Yagoda also established the forced labor empire for building the Belomor Canal and other projects. In 1931 he was appointed deputy chief of the service, and in July 1934 he replaced Vyacheslav Menzhinsky as head of the NKVD. Joseph Stalin apparently had a low personal opinion of Yagoda, who had repeatedly been charged with corruption during his years in the security service. But Stalin apparently believed he could control and manipulate Yagoda as he began his purge of the Communist Party.
   During the next two years, Yagoda at Stalin’s behest moved against dissidents in the party. Many scholars believe he took an active part in organizing the assassination of Sergei Kirov on 1 December 1934, which set off the purges. Following Kirov’s death, the NKVD was given power to arrest, try, and execute enemies of the people. Yagoda took advantage of the law to order the arrest and execution of thousands of men and women. Yagoda, however, was far too slow in pursuing enemies of the regime for Stalin, who demanded that Yagoda provide confessions from Old Bolsheviks that they were spies and terrorists. In the summer of 1936, Stalin in a public note to the Central Committee called for Yagoda’s replacement and an intensification of the purge.
   Yagoda was transferred to a minor post and became people’s commissar of communications in September 1936. When Stalin saw him at a social function in late 1936, he reportedly asked why “that creature was hanging around.” Six months later, in March 1937, Yagoda was arrested. After several months of interrogation, he agreed to play an important role in the trial of Nikolai Bukharin and the Rightists in February 1938, confessing to being an avowed enemy of the people and a Fascist spy. Despite promises that his life would be spared, he was shot less than 48 hours after the trial ended.
   Yagoda saw himself as a secret and terrible servant of Stalin and the regime. He wrote the writer Maksim Gorky: “Like a dog on a chain, I lie by the gate of the republic and chew through the throat of anyone who raises a hand against the peace.” His service has not been rewarded by posterity any more than it was by his boss. Unlike the others tried and shot in February 1938, Yagoda has never been rehabilitated. His ultimate failure was an inability to meet the demands of Stalin, not an excess of mercy for those unfortunate enemies of the people who fell into his hands. Following his execution, his wife, mother, father, and two sisters were either shot or perished in the gulag.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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