Alexander Orlov, also Jewish by birth, attributed the following conversation to Yagoda during his last days at the Lubyanka prison before his execution. When asked by his interrogator if he believed in God, Yagoda replied, "From Stalin I deserved nothing but gratitude for my faithful service; from God I deserved the most severe punishment for having violated his commandments thousands of times. Now look where I am and judge for yourself: is there a God, or not..."
Genrikh Yagoda was born Heinrich Yehuda in Lodz, present-day Poland, then part of the Jewish Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire. Along with Lazar Kaganovich, he was one of the few Jews to rise to political prominence during the Stalin years. During his brief ascendancy Yagoda has been credited with orchestrating the murders of Sergey Kirov, Maxim Gorky, and several other leading political figures.
Like Nikolay Ezhov, who supplanted him, Yagoda learned his trade at the Cheka (the prototype of the Soviet secret police), which he joined in 1920. During his early career he had aligned himself with the right wing and for a while had been a supporter of Nikolay Bukharin. He was to compensate for this political lapse later by organizing the show trial of his erstwhile colleague.
As deputy head of the secret police from 1924 to 1934,Yagoda organized the building of the White Sea–Baltic Canal (which was built by slave labor from the Gulag at breakneck speed between 1931 and 1933). For his distinguished contribution to the canal’s construction he was later awarded the Order of Lenin. Soon after, he became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Thus, in 1934, Yagoda was well placed for the assumption of directorship of the NKVD (as the secret police was then known) and for the inauguration of years of political terror and repression that followed.
Documentary evidence that Stalin gave instructions to Yagoda to organize the assassination of Kirov has yet to be found, although several historians, Robert Conquest and Edvard Radzinsky included, asserted that Stalin gave verbal instructions to this effect. In his 1989 memoirs Nikita Khrushchev also revealed his belief that “the murder was organised by Yagoda, who could have taken this action only on secret instructions from Stalin, received face to face.” While more recent archival evidence suggests that the killing may after all have been the act of a lone and crazed jealous husband (Kirov had been having an affair with the man’s wife), it is more than possible that the assassin, Leonid Nikolaev, a highly neurotic and unstable figure, was being manipulated behind the scenes and that Yagoda was the one pulling his strings. Yagoda had already done his fair share of string pulling in inducing the playwright Maxim Gorky and the composer Sergey Prokofiev to return to the Soviet Union from their self-imposed exile abroad.
Yagoda had worked as a chemist before the revolution. When he was head of the NKVD, rumors persistently circulated that his interest in chemistry had led to his setting up a secret experimental laboratory in the Lubyanka prison, where he oversaw the refinement of the use of drugs and hypnosis on prisoners and the development of subtle poisons for the elimination of political undesirables (thus the long-held rumor that Gorky had been poisoned).
For a while Yagoda held Stalin’s ear. For example, Yagoda took great delight in repeating Osip Mandelstam’s derogatory poem about Stalin to the Great Leader himself in 1933, which resulted in the poet’s arrest. At Stalin’s behest, Yagoda set up the first major purge trial, held in Moscow in August 1936, of the Old Bolsheviks Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. But by now Stalin had become impatient with the slow rate at which the NKVD was rooting out the enemy within. He sent a famous telegram to the Politburo in which he declared that “Yagoda has definitely proved himself incapable of unmasking the Trotskyite-Zinovievite bloc. The OGPU is four years behind in this matter.” Soon after, Yagoda was removed from his post and replaced by Nikolay Ezhov.
Relegated to a lesser job after his removal from the NKVD, Yagoda now languished as people’s commissar for posts and telegraph until his arrest came in April 1937. Now he, too, became a major defendant at the show trial of Trotskyites held in March 1938 along with (ironically) Nikolay Bukharin, Aleksey Rykov, and Nikolay Krestinsky. Yagoda appears to have put up little resistance to the long list of crimes to which he now found himself compelled to confess. Ironically, in his case many of them were probably true, such as his complicity in the murder of Kirov as well as those of Valeriyan Kuibyshev, and eventually Gorky’s son Maxim Peshkov—in the latter three cases through his involvement in the deliberate mismanagement of medical treatment given them at the time of their deaths.
According to writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, at his trial Yagoda begged Stalin directly for mercy (possibly acknowledging the fact that Stalin is known to have watched the trials from behind a hidden screen) with the outburst, “I appeal to you! For you I built two great canals!” (the Moscow-Volga Canal being his second achievement). But nothing could save him, and he was shot in the Lubyanka on 15 March 1938. He has never been rehabilitated.
Further reading: Boris Levytsky. The Uses of Terror: The Soviet Secret Police, 1917–1990. New York: Coward, McGann & Geoghegan, 1972;
Vitaly Shentalinsky. The KGB’s Literary Archive: The Discovery of the Ultimate Fate of Russia’s Suppressed Writers. London: Harvill Press, 1995.