In the terrible years of the Yezhovshchina, I spent seventeen months in lines outside the prison in Leningrad [queuing to deliver food to or get news of imprisoned loved ones: in her case, her son Lev]. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
‘And can you describe this?’
And I said: ‘I can.’
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
-Poet Anna Akhmatova
On this date in 1940, the first name in Stalin’s terror got his just deserts.
Well. The first name after Stalin’s own, a point energetically made by Nikolai Yezhov’s daughter* in her fruitless post-Soviet attempts to rehabilitate the man.
But clearing a fellow’s name is a tough task when that name is the mother tongue’s very metonym for political persecution: the Soviet Union’s mind-bending late-1930s witch hunt for internal enemies, known as the Yezhovshchina.
From late 1936, when he eliminated his predecessor Genrikh Yagoda (later executed, of course), until his own fall from power in at the end of 1938, Yezhov presided over the apex of Stalinist terror, averaging hundreds of political killings daily — perhaps north of 600,000 for the two-year period, plus a like number disappeared into the Gulag’s freezers. (Just browse this here site’s ‘1937’ tag for a taste.)
Departments and regions received quotas for executions as if they were tractor factories. Security officials well understood that their own heads would be next on the block for any perceived shortcoming; Yezhov had thousands of them arrested, too. (pdf)**
We are launching a major attack on the Enemy; let there be no resentment if we bump someone with an elbow. Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly.
The “Bloody Dwarf” — surely there is some of Yezhov in the Master and Margarita character Azazello, the Satan/Stalin figure’s murderous and diminutive attendant — rode this tiger unto his own destruction.
Stalin and other Soviet VIPs with (front right) Nikolai Yezhov.
The same photo ‘updated’ after Yezhov’s fall. (For a similarly chilling photographic disappearance, see Vladimir Clementis.)
As Yezhov had once displaced and killed his mentor Yagoda, so Yezhov’s own nominal underling Beria would displace Yezhov.
Power in the NKVD shifted towards Beria over the course of 1938 until Yezhov’s own resignation that November. The former boss was quietly arrested the next April and barely troubled his skilled torturers before copping to the usual litany of official self-denunciations: corruption, economic sabotage and “wrecking”, treasonable collaboration with the Germans, plus a bisexual personal life. (That last one was true.)
Bound for historical infamy, Yezhov salvaged a shred of dignity in the last, when he was “tried” a few hours before death and renounced those confessions — albeit from the twisted standpoint of a man still unquestioningly committed to the man and the system that had destroyed him.
It is better to die, but to leave this earth as an honorable man and to tell nothing but the truth at the trial. At the preliminary investigation I said that I was not a spy, that I was not a terrorist, but they didn’t believe me and applied to me the strongest beating. During the 25 years of my party work I have fought honorably against enemies and have exterminated them. I have committed crimes for which I might well be executed … But those crimes which are imputed to me by the indictment in my case I did not commit …
My fate is obvious. My life, naturally, will not be spared since I myself have contributed to this at my preliminary investigation. I ask only one thing: shoot me quietly, without tortures …Tell Stalin that I shall die with his name on my lips.
And indeed, Yezhov knew from plenty of personal experience how this script ended. It was called the Yezhovshchina for a reason.
The judges pretended to deliberate for half an hour. Ezhov fainted at the verdict, then scrawled a petition for mecy; it was read out over the telephone to the Kremlin and rejected. Ezhov was taken in the dead of night to a slaughterhouse he himself had built near the Lubianka. Dragged screaming to a special room with a sloping cement floor and a log-lined wall, he was shot by the NKVD’s chief executioner, Vasili Blokhin. Beria gave Stalin a list of 346 of Ezhov’s associates to be shot. Sixty of them were NKVD officers, another fifty were relatives and sexual partners. (From Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him
* Natalia Khayutina is actually Yezhov’s adoptive daughter. Her birth parents were killed … in the Yezhovschina.
** “I purged 14,000 chekists,” Yezhov later said. “But my guilt lies in the fact that I did not purge enough of them.”