The diminutive figure of Nikolay Ezhov, known as the “iron hedgehog” (his name is derived from the Russian ezh, “hedgehog”) and, more chillingly, as the “bloodthirsty dwarf,” would seem an unlikely candidate for the role of mass murderer. But like his predecessor at the head of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, Ezhov, who masterminded the hellish final years of mass terror, undertook his task with considerable aplomb; in true Stalinist style he “overfulfilled the plan” and exceeded his execution quotas.
A bureaucrat of limited intelligence, who had joined the Bolsheviks in 1917 and served as a political commissar during the civil war, Ezhov had a narrow political understanding. He was no expert in the more subtle techniques of political subterfuge, and like others of his kind who lacked Machiavellian skills and needed to stay one jump ahead of Stalin, he resorted to a particular style of terrified, obsessive loyalty. He stuck like a limpet to Stalin, as though some measure of protection could be gained from close proximity with the very person who could, at a whim, destroy him. Like other instigators of mass murder throughout history, Ezhov compensated for his lack of physical stature with a pathological cruelty and the use of brute terror. As a bred-in-the-bone Party man, he soon became one of Stalin’s creatures and rose through the ranks to be elected to full membership of the Central Committee in 1934 (without going through the generally obligatory candidate stage) and became a member of the Orgburo the same year. In January 1935 he took over the post left vacant by the assassinated Sergey Kirov as secretary of the Leningrad Communist Party. Stalin now had Ezhov in position, ready to undertake an important new role.
In 1936, when head of the NKVD Genrikh Yagoda fell from favor for failing to identify and arrest sufficient numbers of the “Trotskyist-Zinovievite bloc,” Stalin, much in the spirit of his earlier exhortations to raise the rate of industrialization, made it known that the rate of arrests was lagging behind by four years. Ezhov was now appointed to Yagoda’s post at the NKVD and given the newly created title of general commissar for state security, as well as becoming a candidate member of the Politburo. He soon set about escalating the rate of arrests and had no difficulty in finding enemies of the state everywhere, initiating the phase of mass purges named after him as the Ezhovshchina of 1936–1938.
During this time, Ezhov reported daily to Stalin, and together they would go through the lists of who in the Soviet political elite was to be purged and what the sentence should be. In this manner Ezhov, with his passion for quotas, contrived to rid the Soviet Union of the cream of its nomenklatura, in particular, its Red Army officer class and most of the regional leadership of the Communist Party, as he passed the lists of thousands of death sentences for Stalin’s signature. During 1937–1938 alone, Ezhov submitted 383 such lists with the names of 44,000 people. Recently, revisionist historians have demurred on just how many death sentences Stalin personally endorsed. They also question the actual extent to which he was aware of the number of death sentences being carried out, arguing that it was Ezhov (who was known to have a sadistic streak) who turned the Ezhovshchina into his own personal crusade and who was thus the true agent of many of its excesses. There may be some truth in the suggestion that in the last period of frenzied purging, 1937–1938, the repressions were on too vast a scale for Stalin to have control over all of them, but there is obviously an inherent danger in any attempt at minimizing Stalin’s fundamental culpability by shifting responsibility to Ezhov.
Eventually Ezhov’s excess of zeal in killing so many people led to his rapid moral degeneration and a physical decline into chronic alcoholism. Stalin himself now stepped in and called a halt to the rate of repression, which had so depleted the ranks of certain professions that the country was threatened with economic collapse. Ezhov, of course, had already set himself up as the ideal scapegoat. By the autumn of 1938 his role in the NKVD had already been taken over by Lavrenty Beria. In December Ezhov was dismissed. He was subsequently relegated to the post of commissar for water, and it was at this commissariat that he was arrested on 10 April 1939 on charges of espionage and conspiracy. Ezhov’s fate was not made known to the public; he simply disappeared, since Stalin did not wish to advertise the fact that his second successive head of the NKVD (Yagoda had been shot in March 1938) had turned out to be an “enemy of the state.” Ezhov was shot on 4 February 1940 after supposedly requesting that Stalin be told “that I shall die with his name on my lips.” Soon afterward, his figure was carefully airbrushed from all the official photographs of him and Stalin together.
In 1999, Ezhov’s adopted daughter, Nataliya Khayutina (whose own parents were shot, probably on Ezhov’s orders), launched a campaign to clear his name, insisting that he had been “blinded by his love for Stalin,” who had turned him into a “beast.”The father she had known had taught her to skate, ride a bicycle, play tennis, and had brought her gifts of furry toys.“Why did he commit those crimes? He adopted me and loved me. How could he be so brutal?” she asked in bewilderment.
Further reading: Robert Conquest. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. London: Pimlico, 1992;
Boris Levytsky. The Uses of Terror: The Soviet Secret Police, 1917–1990. New York: Coward, McGann & Geoghegan, 1972.