N.I. Yezhov: A Biography by B.B. Bryuxanov and E.N. Shoshkin

Copyright © 1998 by Hugo S. Cunningham
first posted 980723
latest minor change y10131

Copyright © 1998 by Hugo S. Cunningham
Individual, non-commercial reproduction is authorized, provided this notice is retained.

There are no book-length biographies of Yezhov in English. In Russian, the following book appeared in 1998:

From Bryuxanov and Shoshkov, I extract some information about: Scan provided courtesy of

Early Years (1895-1930)

Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov was born 1 May 18951, apparently in a poor worker's family of S-Peterburg. The authors could determine nothing for certain about his father, though it might have been a certain Ivan Vasil'evich Ezhov, listed in an 1895 directory as a small wine-dealer. [p. 7]

Bryukhanov and Shoshkin apparently dispute the claim (by Medvedev and others) that the young Nikolai had been orphaned. In the last few years, they have found information about some of his relatives, including his mother Antonina Antonovna Ezhova, his brother Ivan Ivanovich Ezhov, and his sister Evdokiya Ivanovna Babulina. [p. 154]

Records of Nikolai Yezhov's life are remarkably scant before 1919. The authors consider it quite plausible that he used his later power as NKVD chief to "tidy up" any records that might conflict with his official image. [p. 7]

Nikolai received only 2-3 years of primary education. He was later able to learn enough on his own to hold responsible non-technical jobs, though his acquaintances never considered him more than superficially educated. [p. 8]

In 1910, he was apprenticed as a tailor, but did not like the work. In 1911, he was apprenticed as a locksmith or mechanic ("slesar'" in Russian). [p. 8]

In 1913, he was drafted into the Tsarist Russian army, but apparently was not sent into combat during World War I (1914-1917). The authors believe he was considered too short (at 151 cm), and was used behind the lines as a skilled mechanic. [p. 10]

The authors dismiss, as self-serving ex-post-facto puffery, claims that he was a revolutionary militant in the Tsarist army (Among other things he was not shot for mutiny). [pp. 8 - 10]

After the democratic "February Revolution", Yezhov joined the Bolshevik Party on 5 May 1917 in Vitebsk. Since this happened before the Bolshevik victory in Nov 1917, it would establish his revolutionary bona-fides.

There is little confirmed information about him over the next 2 years. He disappeared from Vitebsk for several months, returning in Sep 1917. He began working as a mechanic ("slesar'") at a Vitebsk railroad yard, but disappeared again in Jan 1918. [pp. 10-11]

There are unconfirmed sightings near Vyshnij Volochek (Aug 1918) perhaps at a glass factory, perhaps working as a policeman [p. 11]

Yezhov definitively reappears in April 1919, enlisting in the Red Army. Originally a technical student at a newly developing radio base in Saratov, he was chosen as the base commander's personal operator on 1 September, and military commissar (political supervisor2) of the school on 18 Oct 1919, a remarkably rapid promotion. [p. 11]

Meanwhile, temporarily threatened by the Whites' Admiral Kolchak, the radio base was evacuated first to Arzamas, finally settling at Kazan' (1 Sep 1919). [p. 13]

As political commissar, Yezhov showed an aptitude for mixing with and remembering large numbers of people. He had a good reputation with the staff of the school: he acknowledged his technical weaknesses, knew when to ask advice, and when to let people do their jobs. [p. 13]

In early 1920, Yezhov and the non-Party school director S.Ya. Magnushevskij were court-martialed for allowing 20 deserters to attend the school. Their motives were ruled honorable, however, and they were let off with what amounts to probation. Indeed, on 26 April 1921, Yezhov was promoted to be political commissar for the whole base. [p. 14]

In his new post, he seemed to get along with non-Party base commander A.T. Uglov, a brilliant engineer. [pp. 14-15] Yezhov would do nothing, however, to protect Uglov and his family from a senseless purge in 1937-38. [p. 17-18]

Before summer 1921, Yezhov made his first marriage, to Antonina Alekseyevna Titova (1896-1988). She was a fellow Party-activist, and substantially more educated than he. (She had enrolled for her first year at Kazan' University, before revolution and civil war had closed it.) Her education, as well as ambition and social skills comparable to Nikolai's, would make her a valuable partner as he sought to find openings in Moscow. [p. 16]

In Feb 1922, Yezhov was appointed responsible secretary of the Party organization in the Mari Autonomous region; in March he and Titova arrived at Yoshkar-Ola. [pp. 18-19]. The appointment was not successful, however; Yezhov apparently tried to rule with too heavy a centralizing hand, offending some nationalist sentiments. On Sep 1922, he was recalled to Moscow [p. 22].

In March 1923, Yezhov was appointed responsible secretary of the Semipalatinsk provincial Party committee. [p. 23] In Jun 1924, he arranged what looks like a demotion, as director of the instructors' division, most likely because he was not doing well as responsible secretary [pp. 26-27].
According to Boris A. Starkov, Yezhov participated in wars against "basmatchi" (Central Asian anti-Bolshevik) guerrillas during at least part of this time.3

In 1926-1927, Yezhov would become the protege of Ivan Mixailovich Moskvin, entrusted by Stalin to find and remove potential oppositionists from the Party apparatus. On Nov 1927, he was appointed Moskvin's deputy in the Assigments and Records Department (Russian "Orgraspredotdel") of the Central Committee. Moskvin gave Yezhov a rather distinctive testimonial,

Moskvin's wife Sof'ya Aleksandrovna also seemed to adopt Yezhov, encouraging him to come by and spend evenings at their apartment [p. 31]. Despite his huge personal debt, however, Yezhov would do nothing to save Moskvin from a purge in 1937. [p. 35]

Yezhov got along well with his coworkers. He was known as a good singer. (One of his favorite pieces was "Ty ne vejsya, chornyj voron...") [p. 31]

In Dec 1929, he was appointed deputy Commissar of Agriculture, a highly responsible post at the beginning of Collectivization. [p. 31]

In 1930-31, Yezhov divorced his first wife Titova [p. 34]. Instead, he married Evgeniya Solomonovna Feigenberg (1904-1938). Feigenberg had been born in Gomel', where she had married a certain Lazar' Xayutin. About the time she first met Yezhov (late 1920s), she divorced Xayutin and married Aleksej Fėdorovich Gladun, a journalist and diplomat. They went on assignment to London and Berlin, where she had an affair with Soviet writer Isaak Babel'. Not long after her return, Yezhov fell in love with her at a Black Sea resort and courted her successfully. [pp. 33-34]

In November 1930, after Moskvin was transferred, Ezhov was brought back to replace him as head of the Assignments and Records department. Yezhov's first recorded meeting with Stalin took place that same month. Now independent of his former mentor, he stopped socializing with the Moskvins. [p. 35]

In January 1933, a Central Purge Commission was created, with Yezhov as a member. L.M. Kaganovich encouraged Yezhov to arrange OGPU/NKVD surveillance of the Seventeenth Party Congress in Feb 1934. [p. 37]

[Material from Yezhov's principal years of power (1934-38) is omitted, mainly because I didn't want to plagiarize the whole book. Such information is available from the book itself, in lesser detail from other sources, or, in brief summary, from other pages on this site.]

Yezhov's relatives -- their fate


Note 1-- 1 May 1895--
1 May in the modern Gregorian calendar, adopted by Russia in 1918. 19 April in the Julian calendar of the time, favored by Eastern Orthodox churches.
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Note 2-- military commissar--
During the Russian civil war (1918-1921), the Red Army had to use the talents of politically suspect former Tsarist officers and "bourgeois specialists." Politically-reliable military commissars were appointed to keep an eye on them. Decisions could not be made unless co-signed by the military commissar.
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Boris A. Starkov, "Narkom Yezhov," in
J. Arch Getty and Roberta T. Manning, editors, Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 22.
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