Yezhov, Nikolai Ivanovich

(1895–1940)
   The most infamous of the Soviet security generalissimos, Yezhov was born into a military family in Russian Lithuania. He later altered his birth certificate to show he came from a working-class family and had been born in St. Petersburg. Yezhov deserted the tsarist army in February 1917 and joined the Bolshevik Red Guard in May of that year. During the civil war, he served as a political officer in the Red Army; after the war, he drifted into party work.
   In the 1930s Yezhov served in Joseph Stalin’s political secretariat, supervising the security police for Stalin. In September 1936, at Stalin’s behest, Yezhov took over the NKVD and directed a massive purge of the Communist Party and Soviet society that took his name: the Yezhovshchina—the time of Yezhov. The Kremlin’s archives show that during the 15 months of the Yezhovshchina, he met with Stalin 278 times in the Kremlin, spending more than 800 hours in personal conferences with him. Yezhov saw to it that Stalin’s plan for a purge of Soviet society was overfulfilled, taking part personally in interrogations and executions. According to many sources, Yezhov was a sadist who gloried in the suffering of former friends and strangers alike. He was promoted to membership in the party Politburo and for a short period became the hero of the Stalinist media. The Russian root of Yezhov’s name is “hedgehog,” and the media referred to Yezhov as Stalin’s hedgehog.
   Stalin decided to replace Yezhov with Lavrenty Beria, who was brought to Moscow from Georgia in the summer of 1938 to serve as Yezhov’s chief deputy. In August, Yezhov left the NKVD to assume the post of people’s commissar of water transport. At the March 1939 Central Committee plenum, Yezhov was personally attacked by Stalin for not arresting the right enemies of the people. He was arrested a month later. After almost a year in prison, he was tried on 2 February 1940 and shot two days later as a Polish, German, and British spy, as well as a traitor who had planned the overthrow of the Soviet government. While Yezhov apparently admitted these crimes under threat of torture, he later denied his guilt at the trial. He was dragged kicking and screaming to his execution.
   Described by one of his subordinates as a “bloody dwarf,” Yezhov stood only five feet tall. He is a mystery to his biographers and to historians. While he was remembered as a quiet and unremarkable bureaucrat before rising to take charge of the great purge, he became addicted to vodka and drugs during his last years. He was also bisexual with a thirst for sexual conquests no less than for vodka. Yezhov’s last letter to Stalin reveals a man confused about the nasty trick history and fate played on him. To the end, he never realized that he was Stalin’s tool. In his last words on the purge, he noted: “my great guilt lies in that I purged so few of them.” The statement ends: “Tell Stalin I shall die with his name on my lips.” Following the execution, Beria reportedly gave Stalin a list of 346 of Yezhov’s associates to be executed. Fifty of them reportedly were Yezhov’s male and female sexual partners.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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