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Nikolai Yezhov: A Portrait of the “Bloody Dwarf”. Part 2: Terror and Downfall

Jesse Seeberg-Gordon, Intern at the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, 08. October 2021

Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov (1895-1940) was, in his prime, the head of the infamous Soviet secret police, the NKVD, and a confidant of Stalin himself. He was a key perpetrator and the namesake of the Yezhovshchina, the Great Terror of 1936-1938, earning him the nickname “The Bloody Dwarf” in reference to his small stature. Despite his significance in understanding the crimes of communism in the Soviet Union, history typically gives little sense of Yezhov’s personality and how it fuelled the misery he unleashed on the Soviet populace.

In this two-part article, Australian historian Jesse Seeberg-Gordon takes a closer look at Yezhov’s life and the crimes he committed. This second installment addresses the mass arrests and executions overseen by Yezhov during the height of the Yezhovshchina, as well as his ultimate downfall. 

Stalinist political propaganda featuring Yezhov quashing the so-called ‘enemies of the people’. Source: УСИ Online

Two more show trials followed in January 1937 and March 1938, which convicted prominent Soviet officials including Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Radek, Alexei Rykov, and the disgraced former NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda himself. The latter was accused of, among other things, being a German spy, murdering the famous writer Maxim Gorky and his son, and trying to kill Yezhov by spraying the curtains of his office with mercury. Signifying what Yezhov’s victims were willing to do to avoid his chopping block, one of the accused, Yury Pyatakov, offered in vain to execute all those sentenced in his forthcoming trial, including his former wife, to prove his innocence. Almost all of the accused were executed.

The Soviet armed forces soon suffered a similar fate. On Stalin’s orders, Yezhov facilitated the arrest of practically the entire Soviet High Command, including Stalin’s old nemesis from the Russian Civil War, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. Yezhov himself oversaw Tukhachevsky’s interrogation and torture. Though he eventually admitted to being a German Fascist agent, Tukhachevsky’s ‘confession’ was stained in his own blood.

Yezhov savoured the death of his master’s adversaries. He personally supervised the High Command executions. Satisfying Stalin’s morbid curiosity about the final moments of those he betrayed, another common feature of the relationship he had with Yezhov, Yezhov told Stalin that “The snake [Tukhachevsky] said he was dedicated to the Motherland and Comrade Stalin. He asked for clemency. But it was obvious he was not being straight, he hadn’t laid down his arms”. Yezhov’s NKVD devastated the Red Army, executing three out of five marshals, fifteen of sixteen commanders, sixty out of sixty-seven corps commanders, and all seventeen of the commissars.

As if symbolically consummating his takeover of the NKVD (his “secret sect”, as he now called it), Yezhov took possession of the bullets that killed Zinoviev and Kamenev, and his family moved into Yagoda’s apartments. The NKVD was unquestioningly under Stalin’s control, and the devastating bloodletting of the Soviet defence forces ensured that any hope of opposing his rule was extinguished. Yezhov also assisted Stalin in stoking fears about the impending conflict with the Fascist and Capitalist powers, shifting the blame for the various failures of the Soviet economic and political system onto internal enemies. In this, Yezhov’s Terror did not just affect distinguished politicians and generals.

The Murderer

Soviet propaganda venerated Yezhov. Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, applauded him as “an unyielding Bolshevik who without getting up from his desk, night and day, is unravelling and cutting the threads of the Fascist conspiracy”. Speaking at a Party event beneath banners of Stalin and Yezhov, senior politician Anastas Mikoyan implored his audience to “Learn the Stalinist style of work from Comrade Yezhov just as he learned it from Comrade Stalin”. What the propaganda failed to mention, of course, was the nature of Comrade Yezhov’s ‘hard work’.

As the giants of Soviet civil life fell, so too did those linked to them, as well as many who were not. The Terror touched all social and professional spheres, and was acutely random. This, Yezhov openly admitted, even embraced. “There will be some innocent victims in this fight against Fascist agents”, Yezhov once told a group of Chekists. “We are launching a major attack on the Enemy […] Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly”.

Local Party secretaries were ordered by the Politburo, in July 1937, to arrest and execute alleged “anti-Soviet elements”, but were provided a list of quotas for deaths, rather than a list of names for arrestees. Yezhov’s NKVD thoroughly embodied this randomness. In the same month, Yezhov proposed the infamous Order No.00447 to the Politburo. This order stipulated the executions of 72,950 ‘enemies’, and the arrest and deportation of a further 259,450, with the families of the accused also being deported. These numbers eventually swelled to 386,798 executions and 767,397 arrests under this order alone. That the order practically endorsed arbitrary arrests and murders based on personal rivalries, jealousy, or even simply bad luck, did not matter. As Yezhov reiterated to his men, “better too far than not far enough”.

This order was accompanied by another, Order No.00485, signed by Yezhov just days after No.00447, that facilitated mass ethnic cleansing against Soviet national minorities, especially Poles and Germans. Some 350,000 were arrested in this operation, 144,000 of whom were Poles. 247,157 of these arrestees were shot.

As with the Show Trials, Yezhov personally played a leading role in these operations, working closely with Stalin to rid him of anyone who might even think of opposing his regime. This was often done with remarkable casualness. In one instance, Stalin, on a list of suspects accused of anti-Soviet activity, wrote to Yezhov simply: “Shoot all 138 of them”. ‘Nikolai the Bookman’ never failed to deliver. Between 1937 and 1938, Yezhov visited Stalin’s office 278 times, summarily spending 834 hours with his boss.

Yezhov’s personal conduct throughout these mass terror operations was permeated with his sadism. He frequently supervised and participated in interrogations and executions himself. Once, when future Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev attended Yezhov’s office, he remarked on dry blood stains that he noticed on the floor and on Yezhov’s tunic. “One can be proud of those stains. This is the blood of the enemies of the revolution”, answered an unphased Yezhov.

Many prisoners murdered by Yezhov’s NKVD were beaten to death, some so hard that their eyes were knocked from their sockets. In typical Soviet bureaucratic fashion, such deaths were listed as heart attacks. Yezhov left his personal mark on the NKVD’s crimes in many ways, of which his special execution method was perhaps the most disturbing. The structure he devised featured a sloping concrete floor, which ended in a wall of logs fashioned to absorb bullets, as well as cleaning equipment for hosing the area down. In this, it functioned as a sort of abattoir, designed to expedite systematic human slaughter. 

Often, he personally knew his victims, who included his godfather and his godfather’s wife, and one of his lovers, the wife of the Ambassador to Poland who had refused his offer to move to Moscow with him. In November 1937, Yezhov was to kill a former friend, A. I. Yakovlev. As he faced the firing squad, Yakovlev addressed Yezhov: “Nikolai Ivanovich! I can see it in your eyes that you feel pity for me”. Yezhov, momentarily confused, did not answer, but after this brief hesitation swiftly ordered his men to pull the trigger.

Throughout this chaos, the peak of his career, Yezhov and his family lived extravagantly. He, his wife Yevgenia, and their adopted daughter Natasha, lived in a dacha at Meshcherino, complete with a cinema, tennis court, and waiting staff. He raised Natasha lovingly, teaching her to ride a bicycle and pampering her as any normal father does.

Yet, his neurotic dedication to his macabre work, for which he kept an incredibly demanding schedule, was taking its toll. Under his leadership, the NKVD had murdered almost 700,000 people, and sent a further 600,000 to prisons and forced labour camps. Suffering constant exhaustion and becoming increasingly paranoid, Stalin’s Blackberry was nearing his end.

The Downfall

After his downfall, Yezhov was dismissed by the Soviet state as an excessive rogue. Famously, he was scrubbed from this 1937 photograph with Stalin on the Moscow-Volga canal. Source: AFP

Drunk and overconfident in an excursion to Kiev, in which he oversaw 30,000 arrests, Yezhov was heard bragging about his powers as NKVD chief, asserting the Politburo itself was “in his hands”. Working himself to fatigue and agonising under the strain of late-night drinking and torture, Yezhov was slowly but steadily exhausting his usefulness. On top of this, he had overextended himself. Though between 1937 and 1938 the Soviet propaganda machine had made a veritable personality cult of him, Yezhov was flying too close to the sun for someone who was supposed to be little more than an obedient tool.

His unwavering loyalty aside, Yezhov had been busy collecting dirt on the heads of the NKVD, party bosses, and even on Stalin himself. The latter, it seemed, no longer had much use for Yezhov. With Soviet society effectively scared into submission, it was time for the Terror to draw to a close. Yezhov, as its key figurehead, was to go along with it. Stalin began forming a narrative in which a rogue Yezhov, and not he, was responsible for this wanton murder campaign. “You call the ministry, he’s left for the Central Committee”, Stalin grumbled. “You call the Central Committee, he’s left for the ministry. You send a messenger to his apartment and there he’s dead drunk”. Tools, as Yezhov would soon discover, are expendable.  

On April 4, 1938, Yezhov was ‘promoted’ to the post of Commissar for Water Transport, clearly an ill omen considering Yagoda had similarly been elected People's Commissar for Posts and Telegraphs prior to his own downfall. Yezhov’s forewarning of his associate Genrikh Lyushkov, the NKVD commander of the Soviet Far East, that he was being recalled to Moscow, accelerated his ruin when Lyushkov defected to the Japanese in June 1938. In a similar incident, Yezhov sought to hide the defection of an NKVD agent in Spain, Alexander Orlov, from Stalin for fear he would be implicated.

Yezhov began frantically executing any prisoner who might possibly implicate him in anti-Stalin activities. In August, Lavrentiy Beria was nominated to, at first, ‘help’ Yezhov in supervising the NKVD. Sensing his demise was near, Yezhov spiralled yet further into a pit of drunken depression, fantasising about killing his enemies, Stalin among them. A few of Yezhov’s close colleagues were arrested in the autumn of 1938. His wife was also in the crosshairs; with the ‘help’ of her husband, she committed suicide. He did not even show up to the funeral. Finally, after sharp criticism of the NKVD’s methods by Stalin, Yezhov resigned. After late November 1938, Stalin did not even accept him in his office anymore.

Beria, who succeeded Yezhov, began a swift purge of the ‘Yezhovites’ in the NKVD. The sentiment that the Terror had effectively eliminated the Party’s internal enemies, despite the excesses of Yezhov, became the accepted, retrospective outlook on the chaos of Yezhov’s reign.

In his final months, Yezhov continued in his water transport role, and still attended Politburo sessions. He lived a depraved and ghostlike existence. Though still surrounded by his former colleagues and friends, all refused to talk to him. Meanwhile, he drank excessively and engaged in bisexual orgies in his apartment in the Kremlin. Finally, Yezhov was arrested on April 10. He was brutally tortured and ‘confessed’ to everything his former colleagues accused him of. During his trial which, as he knew from experience, was a mere farce, Yezhov reiterated his allegiance to Stalin. “Tell Stalin that I shall die with his name on my lips”, he said as he was executed within his own innovation, the ‘Yezhov abattoir’.

Jesse Seeberg-Gordon is an Australian historian whose primary interest is the Soviet Union and its successor states. He graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2020, where his honours thesis, which dealt with an Australian-Soviet diplomatic incident in the 1970s, won the Brian Fitzpatrick Prize for Best Honours Thesis in Australian History. He currently works as an intern with the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory.

List of Sources

Alexander Orlov. The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes. New York: Random House, 1953.

Geoffrey Hosking. A History of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991: Final Edition. London: Fontana Press, 1992.

Nikita Petrov & Mark Yansen. Stalin’s Fosterling - Nikolai Ezhov. Moscow: Rosspen, 2008.

Simon Sebag Montefiore. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. New York: Vintage, 2007.