Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


Chapter 45. Disposing of Ezhov

George’s son had done his work so thoroughly that he was considered too good a workman to live—and was, in fact, taken and tragically shot at twelve o’clock that same day— another instance of the untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion. . . .

Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

EZHOV KNEW his game was up in April 1938, when he was also made commissar of water transport, rather as Iagoda had been transferred to communications; the previous water transport commissar had been shot within a month of appointment. For two months Ezhov nevertheless plunged into water transport, as only he knew how, arresting much of the commissariat and bringing in his NKVD men to replace them.

NKVD overseas operations had suffered in the purges. Ezhov had failed to kill Trotsky, although he had infiltrated Trotsky’s inner circle in Paris and stolen parts of his archives. Ezhov’s last competent agent was Sergei Shpigelglas, who specialized in liquidating defectors and émigrés. Shpigelglas’s final action was to murder Trotsky’s son, Lev Sedov, as the latter convalesced from an appendectomy.48 This last murder was counterproductive: it alerted Trotsky and made him warier. Shpigelglas also left such a blatant trail of blood that he damaged Franco–Soviet and Swiss–Soviet relations.

Worse for Ezhov’s reputation were the defections of some NKVD men he had recalled to Moscow in order to arrest. Giorgi Liushkov on June 12, 1938, went over to the Japanese, Aleksandr Orlov on July 14, to the Americans. Liushkov published in Japanese frank accounts of Stalin’s crimes. Orlov offered Ezhov and Stalin a deal: he would keep quiet about Stalin’s crimes in exchange for the lives of his relatives; if he or they disappeared, his lawyers would reveal what the NKVD had done in Spain and in the USSR.

Voroshilov, who had caught the change in Stalin’s mood, began talking of the NKVD as forcing everyone, regardless of guilt, to confess. Within the NKVD Ezhov had shot by August any subordinates who might testify against him, even his staunchest henchmen Zakovsky of Leningrad and Lev Mironov of Siberia, while Stalin was disposing of others—launching Frinovsky, too, into water as commissar for the navy. Like Iagoda before him, Ezhov seemed to take no steps to avert his fate. He had even fewer options than Iagoda: there was nobody left alive with whom he could have plotted a coup, there were no old Bolsheviks to whom he could gravitate. His own Cheka feared and hated him; Ezhov had murdered his own appointees, not to mention the old guard. He was alone except for a few old companions with whom he could seek solace in vodka and sodomy. The only person he still loved was his eight-year-old foster daughter, and she could hardly have comforted or advised him.

On August 22 Stalin appointed Lavrenti Beria, who was already boss of Georgia and de facto NKVD satrap for all Transcaucasia, head of the NKVD directorate of state security. Now that Lominadze and Orjonikidze were dead, Stalin had in Moscow no close ally to whom he could speak privately in Georgian. He had watched and promoted Lavrenti Beria for nearly fifteen years and had groomed him to succeed Ezhov, just as Ezhov had been chosen to replace Iagoda.

Beria finished his purges in Georgia in September 1938 and handed over the remnants of the Georgian party and intelligentsia to the easier-going Kandid Charkviani and its NKVD to Akvsenti Rapava, a Mingrelian cobbler’s son who had crushed Abkhazia after Lakoba’s murder. He then came to Moscow and saw Ezhov straightaway; their affable relationship in Lakoba’s villa six years before now became a standoff. Beria had brought his NKVD men from Georgia, figures as vile as Ezhov’s. Without Beria’s countersignature, Ezhov could issue no orders. Holed up in his dacha with wife, daughter and nanny, Ezhov was now drinking too heavily to counterattack. From September 1938 Ezhov’s remaining associates fell victim to Beria. On Red Square on November 7 Beria stood in Ezhov’s place. The faked suicide and flight of Aleksandr Uspensky that same month was another nail in the Ezhov coffin.

Winding up the terror was presented to the public as redressing the balance between Andrei Vyshinsky’s law-abiding judiciary and the lawless NKVD. Ezhov had unsettling meetings at the Kremlin and in his own office with both the scheming Vyshinsky and the crusading Sholokhov. These discussions led on November 17 to a resolution, “On Arrests, Procuracy Supervision, and Conduct of Investigation,” as a result of which the NKVD was no longer prosecutor, judge, and executioner. In theory if not practice the NKVD would arrest, they would torture, and they would execute; Vyshinsky’s organs now took over the intermediate processes of indictment and trial. Local troikas lost their right to shoot prisoners. The Politburo disavowed their own “unfounded arrests” as the work of “foreign spies and enemies of the people.”

Both Ezhovs were desperate. Evgenia had been mentally ill since May and had rarely left the dacha. Ezhov challenged her about her affairs with Sholokhov and Babel. Ignoring his own sexual intercourse with her friends and their daughters, with his subordinates and their wives, he decided to divorce her. She appealed to Stalin on September 19, 1938, to reconcile her husband to her. Ezhov abandoned divorce proceedings but shot both of his wife’s previous husbands, her closest confidante’s husband, and her former boss.

On October 29 Evgenia was sent to a sanatorium. She left a note at home: “Darling Kolia. I beg you, I insist you have all my life checked out. I can’t reconcile myself to the thought that I am suspected of two-faced behavior and crimes I have not committed.” She again appealed to Stalin: “Dear, beloved Comrade Stalin, I may be calumnied, slandered, but you are dear and close to me. . . . Let my freedom, my life be taken, I won’t object, but I shan’t give up my right to love you. . . . I feel I am a living corpse. . . .” On November 21, she died of an overdose of sleeping tablets which she had asked Ezhov to bring her. Ezhov’s oldest friend and long-standing lover, Vladimir Konstantinov, later testified that Ezhov had said, “I had to sacrifice her to save myself.”

After Evgenia’s funeral—which he did not attend—Ezhov brought a letter of resignation with him to a four-hour meeting with Stalin, Molotov, and Voroshilov. Accused of doing too much, Ezhov blindly flagellated himself for having done too little, for “lack of Bolshevik vigilance” in leaving so many spies and conspirators untouched, in letting Liushkov and Uspensky escape arrest, in failing to consult the party. By December Ezhov had only three posts left: secretary of the Central Committee, chairman of the Party Control Commission, and commissar for water transport. He never entered Stalin’s office again. He appeared at some public occasions, but Stalin did not shake his hand. Ezhov went on another binge with Vladimir Konstantinov and others.

He should have spent the new year handing over the Lubianka to its new master but was too drunk to turn up and left behind the dossiers he had compiled on Politburo figures. Beria gathered the evidence to destroy him. In Ezhov’s office were found hidden behind books six vodka bottles, three full, two empty, and one half empty, and the four used revolver bullets wrapped in paper inscribed “Kamenev,” “Zinoviev,” and “Smirnov” (shot twice). Ezhov owned more handguns than Iagoda, but his library contained only 115 books. Even water transport was now beyond Ezhov; he was formally reprimanded for incompetence by Molotov. On January 21, 1939, Ezhov’s picture appeared for the final time in Pravda and he attended his last Politburo meeting eight days later. He was not elected to, and not allowed to speak at, the eighteenth party congress in March; a penciled plea to Stalin for a talk was ignored. His arrest on April 10 went unreported. Those following the announcement of appointments merely saw new commissars of sea and river transport. Ezhov and his commissariat vanished. The citizens of Ezhovsk-Cherkessk woke up on April 11, 1939, to find their town renamed Cherkessk.

Ezhov was taken to the secret prison of Sukhanovka outside Moscow, which he himself had had converted from a monastery and in which the church had been converted to an execution chamber with an oil-fired crematorium where the altar had been. Ezhov had hysterics; he was beaten. He was interrogated by Beria’s deputy Bogdan Kobulov, then by Kobulov’s assistant, the sullen and vicious Boris Rodos.49 Rodos had crippled other detainees and was warned not to kill this frail, tubercular alcoholic. Ezhov was charged with spying, conspiring to overthrow the government, murder, and, worse in Stalin’s eyes, sodomy. Ezhov penciled an appeal to Beria: “Lavrenti! Despite all the harshness of the conclusions that I have deserved and which party duty compels me to accept, I assure you in all conscience that I remain devoted to the party, to Comrade Stalin, to the end. Yours, Ezhov.”

Mentally and physically painful interrogations went on throughout June; Ezhov admitted virtually everything. In July questioning shifted from treason to degeneracy. None of this—unlike Iagoda’s sins—was made public, although because of Beria’s prurience and desire to disillusion Stalin with his “little blackberry,” Ezhov was forced to write his sexual autobiography. After that, the accusations of sabotage seemed banal.

In autumn 1939 Ezhov was handed over to a quieter interrogator, Esaulov, a man who neither hit prisoners nor drank before interrogating them. Ezhov now retracted his confessions to spying. In January 1940 he nearly died of pneumonia and kidney disease and had to be rushed to the hospital. Back at Sukhanovka, Ezhov was handed over to Military Procurator N. P. Afanasiev, who would oversee both trial and execution. On February 1, 1940, Ezhov was charged with five capital crimes. He threatened to retract his confession in court unless he could talk to a member of the Politburo. Ezhov was taken to Beria’s office in the prison. Beria gave Ezhov the first glass of vodka he had tasted in nine months and promised that his relatives would live—Ezhov’s brother Ivan and at least one nephew had in fact been shot two weeks previously. As for Beria’s reassurance, “Don’t think you will inevitably be shot. If you confess and tell everything honestly, your life will be preserved,” Ezhov knew its value; he had often given such promises.

The next day, February 3, Ezhov was tried by Ulrikh, who had a year ago brought him brandy and flowers. Ezhov admitted everything except terrorism and espionage—sodomy had been dropped from the charges. He was allowed an unusually long last word of twenty minutes. He complained of Rodos’s beatings; he admitted only neglect, in purging too few—14,000—in the NKVD. If he had been a terrorist, he could have easily killed members of the government with his own “technology.” His moral degeneracy, he argued, was irrelevant; he had worked like an ox. He ended:

Shoot me peacefully, without agonies. Neither the court nor the Central Committee will believe I am innocent. If my old mother is still alive, I ask for her old age to be provided for and for my daughter to be brought up. Please do not repress my relatives, my nephews, since they are guilty of absolutely nothing. . . . Please tell Stalin that everything that has happened to me is just a coincidence of circumstances and it is quite possible that enemies whom I missed have had a hand in it. Tell Stalin that I shall be dying with his name on my lips.50

The judges pretended to deliberate for half an hour. Ezhov fainted at the verdict, then scrawled a petition for mercy; it was read out over the telephone to the Kremlin and rejected. Ezhov was taken in the dead of night to a slaughterhouse he himself had built near the Lubianka. Dragged screaming to a special room with a sloping cement floor and a log-lined wall, he was shot by the NKVD’s chief executioner, Vasili Blokhin. Beria gave Stalin a list of 346 of Ezhov’s associates to be shot. Sixty of them were NKVD officers, another fifty were relatives and sexual partners.

Ezhov’s mother, Anna Antonovna, and sister, Evdokia Babulina-Ezhova, survived. The Ezhovs’ adopted daughter, Natalia, was, like Iagoda’s son, taken to a provincial orphanage and given a new surname. In 1958 she voluntarily went to live in the GULAG world of the Kolyma, where she taught music. All her life Natalia Khaiutina has demanded Ezhov’s rehabilitation, arguing that he was no more guilty of murder than other Politburo members who did Stalin’s bidding.