|“||There will be some innocent victims in this fight against Fascist agents. 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.||„|
|~ Nikolai Yezhov|
Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov (1895 - 1940) was the head of the Soviet Union's internal affairs department, the NKVD, from 1936 to 1938. Having risen to this position after his success in framing two Russian opposition leaders after the murder of government official Sergei Kirov, Yezhov was responsible for organising and directing the Great Purge, starting with the torture of former NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda after Yezhov's men planted evidence in his office to make it look like he was planning to kill Joseph Stalin. From 1937-38, when Yezhov was head of the NKVD, at least 50%, and possibly as many as 75% of Soviet officials were either executed or sent to Gulags on false evidence, including members of the NKVD appointed by Yezhov himself. 681,692 people were shot for 'crimes against the state' during Yezhov's tenure, and at least 140,000 more starved or froze to death in the gulags. The huge amount of people killed under Yezhov's orders and his sadistic nature combined with how short he was earned him the nickname "the bloody dwarf".
However, Yezhov's mass murder of Old Bolsheviks who he perceived as disloyal eventually led to his downfall when Stalin decided he had become too powerful and seen too much of the truth about his regime. Unfortunately for Yezhov, Stalin was provided with an excuse to kill him after he allowed a high-ranking official named Genrikh Lyushkov to defect to Imperial Japan. In order to remove Yezhov from his position as head of the NKVD and replace him with Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin relocated one of Yezhov's deputies to another department. Another deputy, Alexander Uspensky, vanished, most likely a victim of the Purge. Yezhov was successfully removed and later imprisoned, with Beria replacing him as NKVD chief.
After his arrest, he was tortured into confessing to spying, governmental incompetence, embezzlement and sabotage. He was quickly tried and found guilty in secret by Soviet judge Vasily Ulrikh and sentenced to death on February 2, 1940. Two days later, he was brought to a secret execution chamber in Moscow, built according to his own specifications, and shot by either Ivan Serov or Vasily Blokhin. He was cremated and his ashes dumped in an unmarked grave.
- Due to Stalin ordering that Yezhov should be removed from all pictures featuring him after his execution, he became known as The Vanishing Commissar among historians.
- As his death was never made public, some believed him to still be alive and in an insane asylum as late as 1948.
- During interrogation, Yezhov admitted to a long history of sexual impropriety, including homosexuality. Post-Soviet investigations have concluded that this was indeed the case.
- Yezhov is probably the single person in history most responsible for the deaths during the Great Purge, with the gulag population tripling in size in just two years under his command.