Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov: Biographical Notes

[Counterrevolutionary Version]

Copyright © 1998 by Hugo S. Cunningham
first posted 980723
latest minor change 2008/1210


Biographical entry in "Who's Who"

Some general remarks: Ezhov's significance

A pun off Yezhov's surname: "a grip of steel"


Additional biographical info

Revisionists vs. anti-Soviets

This head-shot of N.I. Yezhov was taken from a portrait in "Bol'shevistskaya Pechat'", 1937, Issue #7, p. 1. It commemorated N.I. Yezhov's award of the Order of Lenin, 17 July 1937. For the full portrait and the official citation, see "y-order.html."

[Note-- the spellings "Yezhov" and "Ezhov" are interchangeable, reflecting different transcription systems.]

"Who's Who" entry

Some general remarks: Ezhov's significance--

A pun off Yezhov's surname: "a grip of steel"


Additional biographical info:

    Yezhov was born 1895 in a poor worker's family in the outskirts of Peterburg. He received only a primary education. At age 14, he started work at a factory. He changed working trades several times and developed "the class instincts of a young proletarian." [Kovalev, Starkov]
    According to Medvedev [p. 359], Yezhov was orphaned early in life and raised from age 12 by the Shlyapnikovs, a Bolshevik family.
    Bryuxanov and Shoshkin dispute that Yezhov was orphaned.

    Drafted into the Russian Army during World War I, Yezhov deserted after the "February" 1917 revolution and went to revolutionary Peterburg. He joined the Bolsheviks in May 1917, supported the Communist "October" revolution, and joined the Red Army in early 1918. As his supervisors praised "his discipline and his diligence in fulfilling orders," he rose in rank as a military commissar (political supervisor of professional officers). [Starkov, p. 21]

    Contradictory views of Yezhov's early years and character are offered by Conquest ["Terror"] and Medvedev:

    Robert Conquest quotes an "old Bolshevik": "'In the whole of my long life I have never seen a more repellent personality than Yezhov's.' [The 'old Bolshevik'] was reminded of one of those slum children whose favorite occupation was to tie paraffin-soaked paper to a cat's tail and set fire to it-- and this was long before Yezhov had shown his full potential." ["Terror," p. 14]

    In contrast, Medvedev claims the younger Yezhov "was not distinguished by negative traits such as treachery and viciousness ... People who knew Yezhov in Komsomol work, in party work, in an oblast of Kazakhstan, or during his short term as people's commissar of agriculture have told me that Yezhov was a very ordinary person at that time, not cruel in any way -- not a bad sort at all." [Medvedev, p. 359] Nadezhda Mandelstam was favorably impressed with Yezhov's modesty and friendliness in 1930 [Mandelstam, pp. 322-325]. It was not until Yezhov met Stalin, apparently during Stalin's trip to Siberia in 1928, that Yezhov fell completely under Stalin's spell, and became willing to commit any crimes Stalin wanted. [Medvedev, p. 359] Leaving the army (1921?) and switching to Party work, he diligently supported Stalin through the 1920s into the 1930s. "Cruelty and refusal to compromise in carrying out the general line, the unreasoning implementation of the orders of the leader, comprised [Ezhov's] workstyle." [Starkov, p. 22]

    Starting in 1933, he was drawn into Stalin's purges, first as a Central Committee administrator, but gradually working more with the secret police (OGPU, later NKVD). [Starkov, pp. 22-23]

    "In 1935, ... [Ezhov] began work on a large 'theoretical work' under the title 'From Factionalism to Open Counterrevolution.' In it he formulated basic theses/accusations abou the likes and terrorist inclinations of the leaders of the right and Trotsky-Zinovievist oppositions." [Starkov, p. 24] The manuscript was never published, but it still exists in Russian archives.

    "The NKVD of the Kirghizian SSR ... announced a socialist competition. In an NKVD order concerning the results of competition between departments, it was stated that

      the fourth department surpassed the third department by 1 1/2 times in terms of the number of arrests, having exposed 13 more spies and counterrevolutionaries. The same fourth department also surpassed the third department in terms of the number of cases reviewed by the three man tribunals at the center by 100."[Starkov, p. 34] [NKVD "troikas" were noted for assembly-line 20-minute "trials" to hand out death sentences and long prison terms. The presence of the accused was not necessarily required. --HSC]

    Possibly (I do not have a cite; it might be from Anatoly Rybakov's "Arbat" series of historical novels) Yezhov's wife used to host parties while he was NKVD chief, and various people curried favor with her, hoping she might shield them from the whirlwind of arrests. It didn't do them any good. (Indeed, it turns out she was under a cloud.)

    In the summer of 1938, Ezhov overreached himself, showing disrespect for Stalin's closest associates. For example, in response to a question from V.M. Molotov, Chairman of the Sovnarkom ("Council of People's Commissars"), Ezhov answered,

      "If I were in your place, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich, I would not ask competent organs [a favored euphemism for the secret police --HSC] those kinds of questions. Do not forget that one previous Chairman of the Sovnarkom, A.I. Rykov, has already been in my office. [Rykov was sentenced to death at a Moscow show trial and shot in March 1938. --HSC] The road to me is not off limits even for you." [Starkov, p. 38]

    [Stalin had no objection to killing off close associates, or imprisoning and torturing their wives, but that was a power he kept in his own hands. --HSC]. Angrily challenged by Molotov, Yezhov said he was only joking, and Stalin "suggested" he apologize. In August 1938, L.P. Beriya was appointed, without Ezhov's agreement, as his "assistant." In the autumn, the NKVD was subordinated to the Party. In November 1938, Yezhov was dismissed as NKVD chief. He was arrested on 10 April 1939, tortured like some of his own earlier victims at the infamous Sukhanovka prison, tried secretly, and shot on 4 Feb 1940. [Starkov, pp. 37-39; Radzinsky, pp. 430-431].

    In 1937 Ezhov lived modestly, in a modest Kremlin apartment with his mother and adopted five-year-old daughter. His wife, an actress in the Odessa theatre, either killed herself in 1938 [Starkov, p. 35], or was poisoned by N.I. Ezhov. He had come to suspect her, like just about everyone else, of being a traitor. [Radzinsky, p. 431].

    Supposedly in the KGB archives, there remains "Case File 510," about the deceased N.I. Yezhov. It includes flattering letters he had (before his downfall) received from high officials, including "hymns to the 'hero Yezhov' written by the Kazakh poet Dzhambul." [Radzinsky, pp. 430-32]

    After Ezhov's death, his daughter was sent to a special orphanage for "enemies of the people" and was exiled to Magadan when she reached adulthood [Starkov, p. 39].

"Revisionists" vs. anti-Soviets

Link to Authorized version of N.I. Yezhov's biography

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