The Rise of Stalin's "Iron Fist"

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09205-9


Soviet Organizational Acronyms and Abbreviations.......................ix
Notes on Terminology...................................................xi
A Note on Sources......................................................xv
INTRODUCTION  Constructing the Commissar...............................xvii
ONE  Epilogue as Prologue: The Commissar at Work.......................1
TWO  The Making of a Bolshevik.........................................14
THREE   In the Provinces...............................................36
FOUR  The Party Personnel System.......................................68
FIVE  Sorting Out the Comrades.........................................96
SIX  Yezhov on the Job: "Cadres Decide Everything".....................115
SEVEN  Yezhov and the Kirov Assassination..............................135
EIGHT   Enemies Large and Small........................................156
NINE  Angling for the Job..............................................179
Illustrations follow page 134

Chapter One

Epilogue as Prologue THE COMMISSAR AT WORK

On 25 September 1936 Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov, a pleasant and friendly little man who danced well and entertained guests with a fine baritone singing voice, was appointed head of the Soviet secret police (NKVD). He was a forty-one-year-old former factory worker and the son of a worker, born in 1895, the year that Marconi invented radio, Gillette perfected the safety razor, and Roentgen demonstrated X-rays. Yezhov was younger than the Stalin generation of Old Bolsheviks that controlled the party-Joseph Stalin was sixteen years his senior-but roughly the same age as the younger cohort of Stalinist insiders. He was two years younger than L. M. Kaganovich, one year younger than Khrushchev, and one year older than A. A. Zhdanov. He was three years older than Chou En-Lai, two years younger than Mao Zedong, six years younger than Hitler, and eleven years older than Adolf Eichmann. He was four years older than his successor-to-be, L. P. Beria.

Yezhov was known as a quiet fellow, a modest, self-educated former worker whom friends called "Nicky the bookworm." His predecessor at NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, was widely disliked and distrusted as a venal and corrupt cop (a "reptile," as one of Stalin's lieutenants called him), who blackmailed his subordinates into obedience and who fabricated cases against innocent victims. Yezhov, on the other hand, had made his career in the Communist Party, not in the police. He had long been a personnel specialist there; he knew everyone and everyone liked him. It was widely assumed at the time that an honest party man with a good reputation would restore honest supervision to that nest of crooked cops, would refuse to fake cases, and would generally clean up the NKVD. N. I. Bukharin, a leading former anti-Stalin dissident who knew Yagoda's frame-ups, thought that Yezhov would not fabricate cases. One of Stalin's lieutenants called Yezhov a "solid party worker," and another wrote to his friend, "Things will go well with Yezhov at the helm." They did not.

As soon as he took over the NKVD, Yezhov put the persecution of former ideological dissidents into high gear. A month earlier he had helped organize the first of the three Moscow show trials, in which sixteen defendants, including G. E. Zinoviev, L. B. Kamenev, and other of Lenin's most well-known comrades had been forced to admit to treason. They pleaded guilty, asked for no mercy, and were all shot. Prosecutor A. Ya. Vyshinsky's concluding speech captures the hysteria of the times:

Before us are criminals, dangerous, hardened, cruel and ruthless towards our people, towards our ideals, towards the leaders of our struggle, the leaders of the land of Soviets, the leaders of the toilers of the whole world! The enemy is cunning. A cunning enemy must not be spared. The whole people rose to its feet as soon as these ghastly crimes became known. The whole people is quivering with indignation and I, as the representative of the state prosecution, join my anger, the indignant voice of the state prosecutor, to the rumbling of the voices of millions! ... I demand that dogs gone mad should be shot-every one of them!

Yezhov took each spent bullet from the execution, carefully wrapped it in paper, labeled it with the victim's name, and put it in his desk drawer.

To prepare the party for the trial, Yezhov had written a dramatic letter to all party organizations, "Concerning the Terroristic Activity of the Trotskyist-Zinovievist Counterrevolutionary Bloc," dated 29 July 1936. He wrote,

It can be considered an established fact that Zinoviev and Kamenev were not only the fomenters of terrorist activity against the leaders of our party and government but also the authors of ... preparations for attempts on the lives of other leaders of our party and, first and foremost, on the life of Comrade Stalin.

Now, when it has been proven that the Trotskyist-Zinovievist monsters unite in their struggle against Soviet power all of the most embittered and sworn enemies of the workers of our country-spies, provocateurs, saboteurs, White Guards, kulaks, and so on, when all distinctions between these elements, on the one hand, and the Trotskyists and Zinovievists, on the other hand, have been effaced-all party organizations, all party members must come to understand that the vigilance of Communists is necessary in every area and in every situation. The indelible mark of every Bolshevik in the current situation ought to be his ability to recognize and identify the enemies of the party, no matter how well they may have camouflaged their identity.

As soon as the 1936 trial was completed, Yezhov began a dragnet of further arrests. Known associates of the trial's leading defendants who had long ago broken with the dissident leaders Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Bukharin were rounded up and subjected to harsh interrogations in the cellars of NKVD prisons. Yezhov bombarded Stalin with transcripts of their interrogations. Through a combination of tactics that included threats to their families, appeals to their party loyalty, sleep deprivation, and physical torture, each was forced to admit to membership in some sinister underground conspiracy and to name other coconspirators. In turn, these others were rounded up and subjected to the same process. The circle of victims from former oppositionist circles expanded rapidly.

The first show trial had featured former leftist anti-Stalin figures Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev as defendants. (Left oppositionists had thought Stalin too conservative.) They were said to have allied with Lev Trotsky, who had been abroad in exile since 1929, to plot the assassination of Stalin and the overthrow of the government. The trail of NKVD interrogations of their former followers gradually led to arrests of former right-wing oppositionists in the fall of 1936. (Right oppositionists, led by Nikolai Bukharin, Aleksei Rykov, and Mikhail Tomsky, had thought Stalin too radical.) By the end of 1936 thousands of former dissidents were under arrest and confessing to all kinds of conspiracies. At the end of the year, Yezhov addressed the Central Committee and directly accused not only the Trotskyists but also followers of Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky of being part of the monstrous conspiracy:

Many attempts were made to carry out terrorist acts of assassination. Comrades, it is well known to you that already at his investigation Zinoviev testified that the rightists Rykov, Tomsky, Bukharin, and Uglanov, at least so far as he knew about it, shared the views of the Trotskyist-Zinovievist bloc in their entirety and were informed of it.... Now this has been corroborated not only by the testimonies of Trotskyists and Zinovievists but also by the more concrete cases of the rightists recently arrested.... As for the work of the Cheka [NKVD], Comrades, I can only assure you that we shall pull up this Trotskyist-Zinovievist slime by the roots and physically annihilate them.

Yezhov's move against Bukharin shocked the party. The popular Bukharin had been factual coleader of the party along with Stalin in the 1920s. Unlike Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Trotsky, who were considered odious and suspicious has-beens, Bukharin enjoyed a more positive reputation. Lenin had called him the "favorite of the party," and as late as 1936 Stalin called him by the familiar "you" (ty). His opposition to Stalin at the end of the 1920s had not been as pointed and insulting as had that of the left. He had made his peace with Stalin quickly, and in the 1930s was still a prominent and even well-liked leader, a candidate member of the Central Committee, and the editor of the government newspaper Izvestiia. Now Yezhov was accusing him of treason. At the following meeting of the Central Committee in February-March 1937, Yezhov renewed his attacks on Bukharin and secured his arrest and interrogation for a future trial.

Meanwhile, Yezhov's police assault on the left continued, and in January 1937 the second show trial featured the former leftist leaders G. Piatakov, K. Radek, and fifteen others in the dock. As in the first trial, the defendants pleaded guilty, and most received death sentences. Referring to Piatakov, Yezhov said, "These swine must be strangled! We cannot deal with them calmly." With the arrest of each former dissident, the circle of suspects widened, and Yezhov ordered the arrest of them all, both leftists and rightists.

With a Bolshevik voluntarism that did not worry about legal niceties, Yezhov recommended brutal punishments for those he arrested. He suggested shooting Piatakov and Radek without any trial. In the fall of 1936 he wrote to Stalin dividing those he had arrested into categories: "The first category, to shoot.... The second category, ten years in prison plus ten years in exile.... We should shoot a pretty large number. Personally I think that this must be done in order to finally finish with this filth. It is understood that no trials will be necessary. Everything can be done in a simplified process."

Meanwhile, Yezhov had begun to build treason cases against Yagoda's former NKVD leadership. He did this gradually, because to go after all of Yagoda's men would leave the NKVD without experienced officials, and Yezhov needed them for the time being. But slowly he "turned" several of Yagoda's deputies to his cause and then arrested the others. Over the course of the next year, all of Yagoda's former lieutenants would be accused of treason and would join the growing numbers in NKVD jails. Yagoda himself was arrested in March 1937 and joined Bukharin, Rykov, and others in the dock of the third Moscow show trial the following year. Yezhov claimed that all the former NKVD leaders were German spies and is said to have demanded "purging, purging, and more purging!" More than two thousand of them were arrested, and most of these were summarily shot.

Yezhov drove his interrogators hard to get the maximum number of confessions from those arrested. He ordered his subordinates to prepare invented confessions for those arrested even before the interrogations. He often attended the brutal interrogations personally, exhorting his subordinates to "beat the necessary testimony out of them" and to force the accused to sign the prepared confessions. Later, he changed and edited those confessions to "improve" them. Once when the future Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited Yezhov's office, the NKVD chief proudly showed Khrushchev blood spatters on his uniform that he had gotten while attending an interrogation.

Beginning in the spring of 1937, Yezhov turned his attention to persecuting foreign Communists who had sought refuge in Moscow. He ordered the roundup of virtually all former members of long-banned Russian socialist parties (Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, and others). He also ruthlessly purged the foreign members of the Communist International (Comintern). "The biggest spies are in the Comintern!" he declared, while devastating their foreign delegations resident in Moscow.

At the June 1937 plenum of the Central Committee, Yezhov gave an amazing speech in which he announced the discovery of a grand conspiracy that united leftists, rightists, Trotskyists, members of former socialist parties, army officers, NKVD officers, and foreign Communists. This "center of centers," he said, had seized control of the army, military intelligence, the Comintern, and the Commissariats of Foreign Affairs, Transport, and Agriculture. He claimed that it had its representatives in every provincial party administration and was thoroughly saturated with Polish and German spies. The Soviet government was hanging by a thread!

In June 1937 his axe fell on the Soviet military high command. On 11 June the world was shocked by the Soviet press announcement that eight of the most senior officers of the Red Army had been arrested and indicted for treason and espionage on behalf of the Germans and Japanese. The list included the most well-known field commanders in the Soviet military: Marshal M. N. Tukhachevsky (Deputy Commissar of Defense) and Generals S. I. Kork (commandant of the Frunze Military Academy), I. E. Yakir (commander of the Kiev Military District), and I. P. Uborevich (commander of the Belorussian Military District), among others. Arrested the last week of May, the generals were brutally interrogated by the NKVD and had "confessed" by the beginning of June. On 12 June, at an expanded session of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court, all were convicted, and they were shot the same day. In the nine days that followed, Yezhov arrested a thousand military officers. One week later, Yezhov received the Soviet Union's highest decoration, the Order of Lenin, "for his outstanding success in leading the organs of the NKVD in their implementation of governmental assignments." In 1937- 38 more than 9,500 officers were arrested, and 14,500 were expelled from the party for suspicious personal connections to conspirators.

The destruction of the party and state elite in the terror defies imagination. Yezhov issued orders "to confine all wives of condemned traitors," and even children over the age of fifteen years who were defined as "socially dangerous" were to be arrested. Lev Kamenev's sixteen-year-old son was executed. Paranoia and xenophobia reached new heights. Yezhov's police arrested anyone who had worked for a foreign firm in tsarist times. Speakers of the international language Esperanto were rounded up. Bird watchers in Leningrad were arrested-could the birds carry cameras to photograph border regions? Stamp collectors with foreign correspondents were put under surveillance and arrested.

In the course of this hysterical hunt for "enemies of the people," Yezhov spared no one. His first boss after the revolution, A. T. Uglov, was shot. Lev Razgon, Yezhov's boss and patron in the 1920s in the party personnel office, was also shot, along with his wife, who had fed the sickly Yezhov in those days. Yezhov personally ordered the arrest and execution of many of his former close friends and colleagues. Ya. A. Yakovlev and Lev Mar'iasin had worked closely and socialized with Yezhov in the 1920s. Yezhov had the latter tortured with particular cruelty, even ordering him beaten after he had confessed. He ordered the arrest and execution of everyone from his own former doctor to his mistress.

In July 1937 Yezhov turned his attention to purging outside the elite and directed the terror against ordinary citizens. On 30 July he composed the infamous NKVD order no. 447 "Concerning the punishment of former kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements." This order targeted former kulaks (well-to-do peasants exiled in 1930-32), as well as "church officials and sectarians who had been formerly put down, significant cadres of anti-Soviet political parties ... horse and cattle thieves, recidivist thieves, robbers, and others who had been serving their sentences and who had escaped and are now in hiding.... The organs of state security are faced with the task of mercilessly crushing this entire gang of anti-Soviet elements." As he had done in the past, he recommended harsh sentences by category and without trial:

a) To the first category belong all the most active of the abovementioned elements. They are subject to immediate arrest and, after consideration of their case by the troikas, to be shot.

b) To the second category belong all the remaining less active but nonetheless hostile elements. They are subject to arrest and to confinement in concentration camps for a term ranging from eight to ten years.... The investigation shall be carried out in a swift and simplified manner.

Yezhov prescribed "limits" of victims to be persecuted, broken down by province. In his initial order 75,000 were slated for summary execution and another 194,000 for confinement to camps. But by the time Yezhov was finished with this "kulak operation," 385,000 had been shot and 316,000 sent to camps. Nearly all of them were ordinary citizens, not members of the party-state elite. Practically anyone could be caught up in these vague categories, and huge numbers of innocents perished. Yezhov is reported to have told his investigators, "beat, destroy, without sorting out!" When a lieutenant asked what to do with elderly people who were arrested, Yezhov ordered them shot. Yezhov is said to have told one of his assistants, "better too far than not enough," and "if during this operation an extra thousand people will be shot, that is not such a big deal."


Excerpted from Yezhov by J. ARCH GETTY OLEG V. NAUMOV Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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