On Yezhov

“For a while in 1939 he [Yezhov] still retained the token position of Commissar of Water Transport but rarely attended meetings. When he did so he never intervened but spent his time making paper birds or planes, launching them into the air and then scrabbling under chairs to retrieve them. When the NKVD finally came to arrest him, he stood up, placed his gun on the table, and declared: ‘How long have I been waiting for this!'”

 — D. Reynolds, W.F. Kimball and A.O. Chubarian. Allies at War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 1994. p. xviii.

“But hidden from public view, ugly changes were unfolding within the Central Committee. At another plenary session, called in December 1936, Ezhov once again held center stage, launching a new series of dramatic charges that involved more former opposition leaders. At the August trial Zinoviev and Kamenev had mentioned a ‘reserve center’ of terrorists that existed in addition to the ‘basic center’ of the Zinovievite-Trotskyite bloc. In the reserve group were Piatakov; Radek… Piatakov ‘admitted’ that in spring of 1931 he had met in Germany with Trotsky’s son Sedov, who passed him a directive on terror in the Soviet Union. According to Ezhov, Piatakov told the police after his arrest that ‘I, unfortunately, gave my agreement.’ Here the stenographic record notes ‘noise, movement in the hall.’ Beria once more interrupted: ‘Bastard!’ Ezhov responded, ‘Worse than a bastard.’

Piatakov, he continued, then set up terrorist organizations through his Trotskyite friends but did not yet give them the order to act. That came only in 1935-36, ‘more accurately at the beginning of 1936,’ after which these groups tried to assassinate Molotov, Ordzhonikidze, and Kaganovich. There was also a plan to poison all the leaders of the government at a Kremlin banquet. ‘You understand, comrades,’ Ezhov went on, ‘that I am speaking here only of those facts in the direct testimony [of the arrestees] and of confirmed facts.’ Ominously, he announced that ‘I assume that we have many, many undiscovered cases.’

He then read a number of excerpts from prisoners’ statements, in which they admitted causing accidents in military factories and on railroads… At this point a connection to Bukharin begun to surface… At that, Bukharin, present as a candidate member of the Central Committee, asked to speak; he was ignored. Ezhov continued that other sources had confirmed the testimony about knowledge by the Right of terrorist plans….

Before turning to Bukharin’s reply, let us consider the state of mind of the other Central Committee members at this point… To come to the decision that Ezhov was lying, those present… had to conclude that the testimony gathered by the police was false, which could only mean that those arrested, who had all served in high positions in the party for years, had been tortured. Such a possibility was as yet unthinkable: no precedent existed for torturing party members who had been in good standing until their arrests…. And striking at former oppositionists had little to do with the vast majority of the Central Committee in 1936, which had never resisted Stalin. Thus the cases of Piatakov, Sokol’nikov, Serebriakov, Bukharin, and others did not suggest that Stalin had a broader attack on the party in mind. For all these reasons, it would have been both psychologically safer and more logical to accept what the top leadership was saying. And who could know for sure that the confessions were false?

In fact, not only staunch Stalinists but also Bukharin accepted the charges against many others, though of course not against themselves. Bukharin tried to play by Stalin’s rules in defending himself to the Central Committee when he was allowed to speak, on the same day that Ezhov had presented his charges. The former rightist and ‘favorite of the party,’ as Lenin had called him, began on a personal note: ‘Comrades, it is more than difficult for me to speak, for perhaps I am speaking for the last time before you.’ He urged greater vigilance throughout the party and help for the ‘corresponding organs,’ that is, the police, in wiping out ‘the bastard who is busy with wrecking acts.’ He remarked that he was happy all this had surfaced before the coming war. ‘Now we can win.’

Beria then broke in to sneer, ‘You would do better to say what your participation was in this affair. You say what you were doing there.’

Bukharin replied that ‘everything is a lie.’ After meeting with Sokol’nikov at the time of the August trial, Stalin’s aide Kaganovich had told Bukharin that the leadership believed he had nothing to do with the terrorist affairs. Then the procuracy had informed him that the investigation of his activities was closed. Kaganovich interrupted to say that decision had been juridical but that now the matter was political. Obviously, loose standards would apply in this kangaroo court.

Bukharin, now adopting a somewhat pathetic tone, responded by saying, ‘For God’s sake, don’t interrupt me.’ He denied having political conversations with Sokol’nikov or the journalist Sosnovskii. He claimed he had never read the Riutin Memorandum. True, in 1928-29 he had ‘conducted an oppositionist struggle against the party.’ Yet neither at that time nor afterward had he ‘one atom of a conception of platforms or [specific political] aims.’ He asked plaintively, ‘Do you really think that I’m that kind of person? Do you really think that I can have something in common with these diversionists, with these wreckers, with these scoundrels after 30 years of my life in the party and after everything? This is really some kind of madness.’

Molotov: Kamenev and Zinoviev were also in the party for their whole lives.
Bukharin: . . . Many people here know me.
Molotov: It’s hard to know a soul . . .
Bukharin: Why didn’t they [the wreckers] harm the party from the other end, to ruin a lot of honest people and get their hooks into them? Why, tell me? (Noise, movement in the hall). . . . How to defend oneself in such cases [against the testimony of others]? How to find a defense here?

His specific counterthrusts were weak…. Bukharin confessed that he had talked frankly with Karl Radek, who, he agreed, was a traitor. Striking another pathetic note, he admitted having spoken to Radek only because he, Bukharin, was completely alone, and in those circumstances a person ‘will be drawn to any warm place.’ When Stalin asked Bukharin why people would lie about him, he replied that he did not know. Bukharin acknowledged that there had been a Right Center, which would have been unnecessary if it was Stalin’s fictitious creation. But, Bukharin went on, he had not seen one of its key members for years and did not know another, one Iakovlev… All that Bukharin really counted on was his long service to the party and his personal honor; he asked people to take his word about his honesty over the testimony of numerous others. And he himself said that he had struggled in the late 1920s against pressure on the peasants. But by 1936 it appeared, correctly or not, that the policy, culminating in collectivization, had enabled industrialization to take off.

Again, to accept Bukharin’s words required any listener to reject Stalin and to think the worst of him. And yet Bukharin had accepted the gist of what Ezhov had said, including, especially, the need to hunt for enemies. Bukharin had recognized wrecking by Zinoviev, Kamenev, and others; he had acknowledged that there was a Right Center of opposition, and he had been the clear leader of the Right…. Finally Molotov mounted the rostrum to sum up the position of the leadership. Of all that he had heard from Bukharin and Rykov, he said, only one thing was correct: it was necessary to investigate the matter in the most attentive way… Bukharin was politically dead; in little more than a year, he was tried and executed.

One more document from his case requires discussion: a letter he wrote to Stalin while in prison, dated December 10, 1937. In it he begged the Gensec to allow him either to work at some cultural task in Siberia or to emigrate to America, where he would be a faithful Soviet citizen and would ‘beat Trotsky and company in the snout.’ …

More important for understanding his fate and the course of the Terror was his admissions that some sort of ‘conference’ of his young followers had occurred in 1932. Apparently one of them had said in Bukharin’s presence that he wished to kill Stalin. Bukharin now acknowledged that he had been ‘two-faced’ about his followers and had not informed the authorities of their discussions. He had believed at this time, he claimed, that he could lead them back to the party. As for the accusations that he was linked to foreign espionage services and had fostered terrorism, all that was false. But by this time Bukharin had lied repeatedly to Stalin and the whole Central Committee. Even though his behavior did not warrant the death penalty, Stalin had serious reason to distrust him.”

 — Robert W. Thurston. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1996. pp. 36-42.

“It appears that in late 1936 Ordzhonikidze had wavered in his judgment of his longtime subordinate, Piatakov. In a speech Ordzhonikidze gave in early December, he departed from his notes to say that he had spent many sleepless nights wondering how wrecking could have occurred in the Commissariat of Heavy Industry. He asked Bukharin, ironically, what he thought of Piatakov and appeared to agree with the reply that it was hard to know when the latter was telling the truth and when he was speaking from ‘tactical considerations.’ According to Bukharin’s wife, Anna Larina, Ordzhonikidze met with Piatakov in prison at this point and asked him twice if his testimony was entirely voluntary. Upon receiving the answer that it was, Ordzhonikidze appeared shaken. If he had doubts about a man he had worked with and trusted for years, those in the CC who were more distant from Piatakov certainly felt surer of his guilt… the question for members of the party’s elite would therefore have been not whether treason had existed but its present scope.”

 — Robert W. Thurston. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1996. p. 46.

“According to a memorandum left by a delegate to the Eighteenth Party Congress, which opened in March 1939, Ezhov was still free then, though several of his top aides had been arrested. At a meeting of the Council of Elders, apparently an informal group of top delegates within the Central Committee, Stalin called Ezhov forward. The Gensec asked him who various arrested NKVDists were. Ezhov replied:

‘Joseph Vissarionovich! You know that it was I—I myself!—who disclosed their conspiracy! I came to you and reported it. . . .’

Stalin didn’t let him continue. ‘Yes, yes, yes! When you felt you were about to be caught, then you came in a hurry. But what about before that? Were you organizing a conspiracy? Did you want to kill Stalin? Top officials of the NKVD are plotting, but you, supposedly, aren’t involved. You think I don’t see anything?! Do you remember who you sent on a certain date for duty with Stalin? Who? With revolvers? Why revolvers near Stalin? Why? To kill Stalin? And if I hadn’t noticed? What then?!’

Stalin went on to accuse Yezhov of working too feverishly, arresting many people who were innocent and covering up for others.

Ezhov was arrested a few days later. Roy Medvedev reports that he was shot in July 1940, after being held in a prison for especially dangerous ‘enemies of the people.’ A recent Russian publication confirms that Ezhov was arrested in 1939 and shot in 1940, ‘for groundless repressions against the Soviet people.'”

 — Robert W. Thurston. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1996. pp. 116-117.

“More remarkable among the changes begun in late 1938, and incompatible with the idea that the population was to stay terrorized, is that the public now received broad notice of police misbehavior under Ezhov. Several open trials of NKVD men who had tortured victims during his tenure took place around the country… The last trial [in Leninsk-Kuznetsk] is particularly disturbing: the head of the city NKVD, another police officer, and a procurator had cooperated in ‘exposing’ a counterrevolutionary organization of children between the ages of ten and twelve. Placed in the dock themselves, the former enemy hunters could not produce a single fact in support of the charges they had pressed against the children. The court sentenced the procurator to five years and the two NKVDists to seven and ten years. There was no word on the fate of their victims.”

 — Robert W. Thurston. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1996. p. 128.

“Speakers at the Eighteenth Party Congress, held in March 1939, consistently suggested that the struggle against internal enemies was largely over. Beria… spoke about this problem mostly in the past tense and pointedly stated that troubles in the economy could not be explained solely by reference to sabotage… Perhaps the most remarkable speech of the congress was Andrei Zhdanov’s… The purges had allowed enemy elements inside the party to persecute honest members. Following his lead, the congress resolved to ban mass purges and to strengthen the rights of communists at all levels to criticize any party official….

Of course, Stalin’s words on the subject were the most important. At the Eighteenth Party Congress he indicated that internal subversion was largely a thing of the past and specifically noted that the punitive organs had turned their attention ‘not to the interior of the country, but outside it, against external enemies.’ Between the end of the congress in March 1939 and the German invasion in June 1941, he offered no more comments on spies and saboteurs. The official slogans for the May Day holiday in 1939 contained not a word about the NKVD or enemies but dwelt on the glories and responsibilities of the army, fleet, and border guards.”

 — Robert W. Thurston. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1996. pp. 130-131.

“At the height of the Terror, however, some quite ordinary crimes were called sabotage or wrecking. One such case involved a collective farmer who got drunk at a party in 1937 and punched another guest. Because the victim happened to be a Stakhanovite (a model worker), the local procuracy brought a charge of counterrevolutionary terrorism against the farmer.”

 — Robert W. Thurston. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1996. p. 138.

“Probably the most fundamental and basic ‘source’ on the plans of Stalin and the inner workings of Ezhov’s NKVD is that by Alexander Orlov. The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes is his ‘inside’ account of the Great Purges. Orlov is the source of… the subsequent show trials and is the ‘smoking gun’ of the Kirov killing. Orlov was an NKVD operative in the organization’s ‘Foreign Department,’ and one would therefore expect his information to be firsthand. However, during the entire period of the ‘Great Purges,’ Orov was an NKVD chief in Spain during the Civil War. He was in the Soviet Union only twice for briefly visits of a few days each, and his ‘information’ is based on corridor gossip he picked up among some of his NKVD friends during those brief visits. By his own admission, he knew little about what was happening in the Kremlin. He heard about the execution of Tukhachevskii on French radio.

… None of his information on the decisions and workings of the inner leadership can be considered firsthand primary source material…

… After Orlov defected to the United States, he worked for American intelligence, testifying before various congressional committees in the early 1950s… one might legitimately wonder whether his new friends, loyalties, and perspectives colored his account… the question of political bias only compounds the main problem with the Orlov source – the lack of proximity to events.”

 — J. Arch Getty. Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1985. pp. 211-212.

“The third objection to the theory that Stalin planned everything to create a climate of universal fear relates to the process of arrest itself. Except for a few well-publicized show trials in Moscow and in the localities, most arrests were carried out quietly and without publicity. The press in the period, while filled with editorials about maintaining vigilance, carried practically no lists or even mentions of those arrested. It is almost as if the authorities wanted to keep them a secret: hardly an effective plan to generate universal terror.”

 — Alec Nove. The Stalin Phenomenon. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1993. p. 134.

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