Birthday: May 1, 1895
Died At Age: 44
Sun Sign: Taurus
Also Known As: Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov
Born Country: Russia
Born in: St. Petersburg, Russian Empire
Famous as: Top Official of Soviet Secret Police
Spouse/Ex-: Antonia Titova, Yevgenia Feigenberg, Antonia Titova (m. 1919 - div. 1930)
children: Natalia Khayutina, Natalia Nikolaevna Yezhova
Died on: February 4, 1940
place of death: Moscow, Russia
Cause of Death: Execution
Who was Nikolai Yezhov?
Nikolai Yezhov served as a top official in the Soviet secret police under the rule of Joseph Stalin. With Stalin’s blessings, he quickly rose among the ranks to head the NKVD (Interior Ministry of the Soviet Union) during the most active period of the Great Purge. His time at the helm oversaw indiscriminate mass arrests and executions of not just Stalin’s political opponents but also that of military officials and common citizens. During his reign of terror, prison population swelled and the infamous Gulags and death camps in the country tripled. He was responsible for an estimated seven-million arrests, of which a million were executed and another two million faced excruciating deaths working in inhuman conditions in death camps. Such was his impact that when the de-Stalinization campaign began in the 1950s, his time in office was termed “Yezhovshchina” which translates to ‘The Times of Yezhov’. But his fall was as swift as his rise to power. He was forced out of office, arrested, tortured and then executed.
Childhood & Early Life
Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov was born on 1 May 1895 into a working-class family. While Soviet state records say his place of birth to be St. Petersburg, other sources claim he was born in Lithuania.
He barely completed his primary school education before taking up a job as a tailor’s assistant. A couple of years after, he changed his profession to become a factory worker.
In June 1915, he volunteered to serve in the Tsarist army, but his short height (4-feet 11-inches) and limp meant he was deemed unfit for military service and was thus transferred to Vitebsk to work in the rear artillery workshop there.
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Six months prior to the 1917 February Revolution, Nikolai Yezhov joined the Bolsheviks Party, and served in the Red Army during the Civil War.
In the 1920s, Yezhov served in Mari province and Kazakhstan as party secretary and his good work there saw him get transferred to Moscow in 1927 where he became involved in policy making for the Party’s Central Committee.
In 1934, Sergey Kirov, the Bolshevik chief of Leningrad was shot dead by a gunman. This proved a turning point in Yezhov’s career as he was given the responsibility by Stalin to implicate opposition leaders, Zinoviev and Kamanev and their supporters. Through coercion and torture, he was successful in extracting confessions out of the them, subsequently leading to their executions.
As reward, he was appointed secretary of the Central Committee in 1935 thus giving him the power to supervise NKVD (English translation – People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs), the Soviet’s state security apparatus.
In 1936, he was appointed head of NKVD, after Stalin removed the incumbent Genrikh Yagoda from the post. In December 1936, he established the Administration of Special Tasks (AST) within NKVD and filled the unit with nearly 300 of his trusted men from the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The idea was to gain total control of the NKVD and ensure sensitive assignments were carried out with utter efficiency and loyalty.
Stalin’s next task for him was to implicate Genrikh Yagoda as a German spy, one which he achieved with remorseless zeal. To create the grandiose plot, he had the NKVD sprinkle mercury on Yagoda’s office curtains which was then used as evidence to charge Yagoda as a traitor who wished him and Stalin dead.
In October 1937, Yezhov formally became a candidate member of the Politburo. In 1938, he was given additional responsibility of People’s Commissar for Water Transportation, which would be the last high point of his career.
On 13 June 1938, Genrikh Lyushkov, NKVD chief in the Far East defected to Japan. During the purges, Yezhov kept Lyushkov safe and therefore rightly suspected that the blame for the latter’s defection would fall on his head.
His suspicions were not unfounded as on 22 August 1938, Lavrenty Beria was named his deputy, a colleague he had once tried to arrest but failed. Beria began usurping his authority with Stalin’s blessing in NKVD governance matters, indicating that Yezhov had fallen out of favour with the dictator.
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By March 1939, he was relieved of all his Central Committee posts. 9 April 1939 was his last day in office. He was arrested the next day and sent to Sukhanovka prison.
In prison, he was tortured and confessed to charges of espionage, sabotage, conspiracy against the motherland and sodomy. He faced a secret trial and was sentenced to death on 2 February 1940.
On 4 February 1940, Nikolai Yezhov was shot by the future KGB chairman Ivan Serov.
Under Nikolai Yezhov’s tenure as the head of NKVD, the Great Purge reached its zenith in 1936–1938, where roughly 50–75% of the officers serving in the Soviet military as well as comrades in the Communist Party were stripped of their positions and sent to prison, Siberian Gulag camps or simply executed. An even greater number of civilians faced similar fate on charges of ‘wrecking’ or disloyalty based on non-existent and flimsy evidence.
Even the security apparatuses like the NKVD were not spared. There too, officials were first removed, then tried and executed. They included not just those appointed by his predecessors, Yagoda and Menzhinsky, but also his own appointees.
Family & Personal Life
Nikolai Yezhov married Antonia Titova, a Marxist in 1919, who he later divorced in 1930 to get married to Yevgenia Feigenburg, Chief Editor of ‘USSR in Construction’, who was well known in the creative circles of the Soviet Union.
The couple adopted a daughter from a children’s home and named her Natalia. However, after Yezhov’s death, Natalia was sent back to an orphanage and her surname was changed to Khyutina to bury any association with her foster father.
In the wake of his impending arrest, he asked Yevgenia for a divorce. Seeing how her marriage was failing, as well her close aides, and lovers were being arrested and tried, she committed suicide on 19th November 1938 by overdosing on sleeping pills.
Facing execution, he was shot on 4 February, 1940 in a basement of a small NKVD station in Moscow and was immediately buried in an unmarked grave.
The basement where he was shot had a sloping floor to aid in hosing down the blood after executions. Ironically, the building was built exactly to Yezhov’s specifications.