1940: Nikolai Yezhov, terror namesake

5 comments February 4th, 2012 Headsman

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.

-Yezhov

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.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Language,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Russia,Shot,The Worm Turns,Torture,USSR

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1937: Peljidiin Genden, former Mongolia Prime Minister

1 comment November 26th, 2011 Headsman

On earth there are two great geniuses – Buddha and Lenin.

-Peljidiin Genden

On this date in 1937, purged former Mongolia Prime Minister Peljidiin Genden was shot in Moscow.

Genden was in the thick of communist authority in Mongolia, including a forced collectivization that provoked resistance sufficient for Moscow to demand the Mongolians lay off the “leftist deviation.” Eyeballing a likely future conflict with Japan, Russia wanted Mongolia as a buffer zone and couldn’t afford gratuitously upsetting the apple cart.

Genden, himself a former leftist deviant, managed an adroit volte-face and got himself named Prime Minister in 1932.

Stalin’s minions would closely meddle in the business of the Mongolian People’s Republic over the 1930s as it rolled out its own eastern policy. Despite the Comintern’s recent turn towards ideological moderation in those precincts, it soon became concerned that Genden was lax in going after the Buddhist element; in fact, he’d openly declared religious toleration in 1932. But this particular enemy Russia could not abide. “The lama regime,” Stalin tut-tutted, “is stronger than the people’s regime.”

Genden had the ill-chosen moxie to push back against Stalin. On one state visit to Moscow, he got liquored up and bellowed,

“You bloody Georgian, you have become a virtual Russian Czar!”

Other plans for Mongolian leadership were soon put in place, the way cleared via the expedient of framing Genden as the mastermind of a fanciful pro-Japanese plot.

This [Genden] “case” led to the deaths of 639 falsely accused people, including 63 percent of the members of the [Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party] Central Committee and 80 percent of its presidium members … There is evidence that the arrest of many Mongolian leaders on false charges and their “rendition” to the USSR for execution was organized from Moscow by NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov.

It was estimated that, from 1934 to 1939, about 171 Mongols were arrested in Mongolia but tried and sentenced in Russia. The charges were usually “counterrevolution” or “espionage for Japan.” It is known that 33 were shot near Moscow, 108 received long terms of imprisonment, 13 were released, and four died “under investigation.”

And that’s just on the political side. With Genden out of the way, anti-Buddhist purges really took off in the late 1930s, to the tune of 18,000 lamas killed.

Part of the Daily Double: Stalinism East and West.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Heads of State,History,Mongolia,Politicians,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR

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1939: Evgeny Miller, White Russian

2 comments May 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938, former tsarist Gen. Evgeny Miller was executed in Moscow, having been brazenly kidnapped by the Soviet NKVD from exile in France.

Miller opposed the 1917 Russian Revolutions (both of them) and ended up on the wrong side of the ensuing civil war as Aleksandr Kolchak‘s man in Archangel.

There, Miller (he was half-German) was the beneficiary of the Entente powers’ anti-Soviet incursion of British, French, American and Canadian troops.

These powers soon found that their respective peoples, wearied by the late world war, had little appetite for spilling more blood in the service of enthroning a Romanov, and cut bait in 1920.

Miller wisely did likewise, and watched the great workers’ and peasants’ republic take shape from the safety of Paris — where, in the 1930s, he chaired the anti-communist Russian All-Military Union (ROVS).

Soviet intelligence had infiltrated this body, however, and hatched a bold plot* to shanghai Miller and smuggle him out of the country in order to cause ROVS leadership to pass to the Soviets’ own agent, Nikolai Skoblin. Although they got Miller, they didn’t quite pull off the putsch, since the wary general had left behind a note outlining his suspicions of Skoblin in the event foul play should befall him.

Imprisoned at Lubyanka, Miller was personally interrogated by NKVD boss Nikolai Yezhov, but according to Vladislav Goldin and John Long,

little or nothing of what Miller had to report about the recent activities of the ROVS was unknown to the NKVD … the leaders of the NKVD found themselves saddled with a prominent prisoner of no significant value to Soviet intelligence and from whose capture, at the same time, nothing useful could be derived by way of publicity or propaganda.

The fall of Ezhov sealed the doom of General Miller, whose abduction had from the outset been his inspiration. In these circumstances, given his continuing uselessness to the NKVD, Miller’s elimination became an inevitable element in Commissar Beria‘s liquidation of the so-called Ezhovshchina, an operation which lasted from late 1938 through at least 1940. Although part of this undertaking involved the release of up to 200,000 of Ezhov’s prisoners, no such option was available in the case of General Miller for whose disappearance the Soviet government had consistently denied any responsibility. Accordingly, on 11 May 1939, after more than nineteen months of agonizing solitary confinement, Commissar Beria, with no viable alternative, ordered the trial and execution of the long-suffering General Miller in a process, ironically, that was fully implemented in less than twenty-four hours.

[it was] an ill-conceived, poorly executed and totally unnecessary adventure that, in the end, failed to benefit any of its apparent perpetrators.**

Skoblin, for his part, fled, disappearing to a still-unknown fate. His wife, Nadezhda Plevitskaya, copped a 20-year sentence for helping arrange the kidnapping, and died in prison.

They may not have gotten ROVS, but at least they made celluloid. Skoblin’s shadowy activities in France in this period are the inspiration for the 2004 French film Triple Agent.

* Georgy Kosenko, who we’ve previously met in these pages, helped orchestrate the kidnapping. (Times being dangerous as they were, the wheel of Red Terror turned against Kosenko so quickly that Miller actually outlived him.)

** Goldin, Vladislav I. and Long, John W. “Resistance and Retribution: The Life and Fate of General E.K. Miller”, Revolutionary Russia, 12:2 (1999), pp. 19-40.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1953: Lavrenty Beria, Stalin henchman

6 comments December 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Stalin’s feared minister Lavrenty Beria was shot — finally on the receiving end of the cruelty he had administered to countless Soviet citizens.

Lavrenty Pavlovich was, like Stalin, a Georgian peasant, albeit one generation younger.

He won his way into Stalin’s confidence from the 1920’s, and in 1938 replaced Nikolai Yezhov as head of the KGB predecessor NKVD. Yezhov did much of the bloody work of the Great Purge, and was himself in turn purged. The cunning Beria must have taken note.

Though his initial project was to clean up the excesses of the Yezhovshchina — releasing thousands of innocent convicts, making the gulag camps less homicidal and more effective and keeping prisoners alive long enough to get some work out of them, that sort of thing — it wasn’t long before Beria cast a terrifying shadow of his own. (Beria was Yezhov’s deputy, so it’s not like he walked into the job without the requisite qualifications for mass murder.) He wrote the memo proposing the execution of Polish officers that led to the Katyn massacre.

To the more everyday repressive operations of the Soviet secret police, Beria added his notorious (perhaps propagandistically exaggerated?) personal peccadilloes: nothing to trouble the boss, just a little penchant for seducing, or raping, and at his pleasure murdering, comely young lasses.

Soviet author Sergei Dovlatov sketched his character in this imagined vignette (translated by Executed Today friend Sonechka from the Russian original here):

As is well known, winsome high school girls were delivered to Lavrenty Beria’s house. Then his chauffeur presented a bouquet of flowers to the next victim. And rendered her home. This was an established ceremony. Suddenly, one of the damsels became unruly. She began to struggle and scratch. In short, held her ground and did not succumb to the charms of the Internal Affairs minister. Beria told her:

-You can leave.

The young woman descended the stairs. The chauffeur, not expecting such a turn of events, handed her over the prepared bouquet. The girl, somewhat more composed now, addressed the minister who was standing on the balcony:

-You see, Lavrenty Pavlovich! Your chauffeur is more courteous than you are. He gave me a bouquet of flowers.

Beria sneered and dully uttered:

-You are mistaken. It is not a bouquet. It is a funeral wreath.

More consequential for his fate was his position among the handful of Stalin’s closest associates, in which capacity he maintained himself for a remarkably extended period of time. This made him one of the people with a shot at succeeding Stalin, which in turn put him in the middle of the furious political infighting Uncle Joe was pleased to subject his subordinates to.

And the natural enmity between sovereign and heir — the one whose interest is the other’s death — may have even led Beria to poison Stalin in March 1953 when he was on the verge of a falling-out himself. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (he of the pact, and the cocktail) remembered in his memoir Beria boasting after Stalin’s sudden and mysterious death,

“I did him in! I saved all of you!”

Briefly the official #2 man in the post-Stalin state, he would again preside over a political liberalization that belied his monstrous personal reputation.

But this pallbearer of Stalin soon followed his former master to the grave. Outmaneuvered by rivals Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, and Molotov, Beria was purged as a traitor in the summer of 1953 and secretly executed Dec. 23, 1953 with six confederates after a summary trial before the Supreme Court. (One of the expedients laid at his feet in that affair was a set of executions he had ordered in a 1941 purge).

According to a chapter by Michael Ross and Anne E. Wilson in Memory, Brain and Belief, after Beria’s fall, subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia

were instructed to destroy the article on Beria and were provided additional information on the Bering Strait to fill the gap in the pages.

Beria’s heirs actually applied to the post-Soviet government for a reversal of the conviction under laws granting victims of politically motivated prosecutions right of redress. The Russian judiciary turned them down.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Politicians,Power,Russia,Shot,The Worm Turns,Torture,USSR

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