When you think of the Great Terror, Stalin immediately comes to mind, and rightly so.But what of Nikolai Ezhov
, the man who as head of the NKVD prosecuted Stalin reign of terror? We’ve learned a lot about Ezhov’s involvement in the Terror since the opening of Soviet archives in 1991. We know about his fanaticism, how he manufactured confessions, was present at his victims’ torture, and even kept the bullets that killed his victims, wrapped and labeled them, and tucked them in his desk. Less is known about Ezhov before he became the personification of Stalinist political violence.
To understand Ezhov’s life before the Terror, we have to turn to J. Arch Getty’s
book Ezhov: The Rise of Stalin’s Iron Fist
(Yale UP, 2008). Getty’s focus isn’t on Ezhov, Stalin’s “iron fist,” but on Ezhov the “good party worker.” In particular, Getty is interested in Ezhov’s meteoric rise through the Party ranks to become the head of the NKVD and, by 1936, the second most powerful person in the Soviet Union. Ezhov’s story is a mixture of hard work and ambition, patrons and clients, devotion, and Manichean political culture in post-revolutionary Russia. How did Ezhov successfully navigate all this? The answer to this question says less about Ezhov as an individual than it does about the Soviet system in the 1920s and 1930s.