The Cheka, NKVD & KGB The Troika of Death
Redwan bin Abdul Baten
February 4, 1940. At the order of the new Chief of NKVD, a prisoner was ordered to undress himself and then was brutally beaten by the guards. To the prisoner, it was déjà vu; as he himself had given the same orders to the guards just two years back: to beat and humiliate his predecessor before his execution. But this was now, and he was being carried into the execution chamber- semi-conscious, hiccupping and weeping uncontrollably.
That same day, he was executed by the future KGB chairman Ivan Serov, probably in the basement of a small NKVD station on Varsonofevskii Lane in Moscow. The main NKVD execution chamber in the basement of the Lubyanka was deliberately avoided to ensure total secrecy. His body was immediately cremated and the ashes dumped in a common grave at Moscow’s Donskoi Cemetery. The execution remained secret, and as late as 1948, Time had reported that “Some think he is still in an insane asylum.
The person was Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov, the senior figure in the NKVD, the secret police of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin during the period of the ‘Great Purge’ during the 1930s. His reign is sometimes known as the “Yezhovshchina”, a term coined during the de-Stalinization campaign of the 1950s. After presiding over mass arrests and executions during the Great Purge, Yezhov himself became its victim. By the beginning of World War II, his status within the Soviet Union became that of a ‘political unperson’. Among art historians, he has the nickname- “The Vanishing Commissar”, due to the retouching of an official photo which saw him erased from Stalin’s side after his execution.
Yezhov is but one of the many high ranking ‘Comrades’ of the Soviet Communist era who were ‘made an example of’ by the brutal Bolshevik government of Lenin and Stalin. The romantic picture of ‘Revolutionary Communism’ that Mr. Marx and Mr. Engels had drawn before the world had been translated into reality, but at the cost of the lives of millions, who were either brutally murdered in the name of suppressing ‘Counter-revolution’, or were met by the angel of death at the ‘Gulag’s, which saw the imprisonment of millions including former communist leaders and peasants alike.
Intelligence agencies all over the world are usually established with keeping one objective in mind, which is: the collection, sorting and analyzing of ‘Intelligence’, upon which the course of an action is determined. Most of the well-known intelligence agencies fulfill this specific set of goals, the accuracy of which determines the fate of a nation. The agencies are involved in covert, high risk operations home and abroad, details of which are courted as the most sensitive national secrets. Historically, the Russian intelligence agencies however have deterred from this usual path of ‘Intelligent’ work. The Russians, whether due to their uncontrollable affection for ‘Vodka’ or for some other reason, never actually have fallen into the ‘silent’ criteria of secrecy. Their march along the corridors of history has mostly been dominated by large scale operations, the end of which usually was the translation of the literal term ‘river of blood’ into brutal reality.
Yezhov once wrote a paper on Stalinism in which he argued that,
‘Since political unorthodoxy was impossible in a perfect Communist state (such as the USSR), any form of political opposition to Stalinist policies was actually evidence of conspiracy by “disloyal elements” to overthrow the Soviet state, thus requiring violence and state terrorism to “root out” these “enemies of the People”.
After being appointed the chief of the NKVD, the previous chief of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, had become Yezhov’s first target as because he had been too slow to eliminate the old Bolsheviks in the purges ordered by Stalin, a task he did with remorseless zeal. Destruction of the old bolshevik cadres as well as Yagoda himself — all potential or imagined enemies of Stalin – was not a problem for Yezhov. Yezhov was just the man Stalin needed to intensify the terror and get rid of potential opponents. Ordered by Stalin to create a suitably grandiose plot for Yagoda’s show trial, Yezhov ordered the NKVD to sprinkle mercury on the curtains of his office so that the physical evidence could be collected and used to support the charge that Yagoda was a German spy, sent to assassinate Yezhov and Stalin and restore capitalism. He also personally tortured Yagoda to extract his confession. As a final insult to his former mentor, Yezhov ordered Yagoda to be stripped naked and severely beaten by the guards at the Lubyanka before being dragged into the execution chamber and shot, a fate which he himself would share not much time after.
Yagoda was but the first of many to die by Yezhov’s orders. Stalin had ordered the Great Purge as a series of campaigns for political repression and murder in the Soviet Union. Under Yezhov and his NKVD, the Great Purge reached its height during 1937–1938, with 50-75% of the members of the Supreme Soviet and officers of the Soviet military being stripped of their positions and imprisoned, exiled to the Siberian gulags or executed, along with a greater number of ordinary Soviet citizens, accused (usually on flimsy or nonexistent evidence) of disloyalty or “wrecking” by local Chekist troikas in order to satisfy Stalin and Yezhov’s arbitrary quotas for arrests and executions. Yezhov also conducted a thorough purge of the security organ NKVD, not only removing and executing many officials who had been appointed by his predecessor Yagoda, but even his own appointees as well. He admitted that innocents were being falsely accused, but dismissed their lives as unimportant so long as the purge was successful, in his words:
‘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 getting away. When you chop wood, chips fly.’
In Russian historiography the period of the most intense purge, 1937–1938, is called Yezhovshchina. In 1937 and 1938 alone, at least 1.3 million were arrested and 681,692 were shot for ‘crimes against the state’. The Gulag population swelled by 685,201 under Yezhov, nearly tripling in size in just two years, with at least 140,000 of these prisoners (and likely many more) dying of malnutrition, exhaustion and the elements in the camps (or during transport to them).
One of the tools that Yezhov used frequently was the NKVD troika or Special troika (‘Troika’ literally means “a group of three” in Russian). They were commissions of three persons who convicted people without trial. These commissions were employed as an instrument of extrajudicial punishment introduced to circumvent the legal system with a means for quick execution or imprisonment. Troikas are credited with the death sentences or exile of over 600,000 people.
Yezhov had accomplished Stalin’s intended task for the Great Purge: the public liquidation of the last of his Old Bolshevik political rivals and the elimination of any possibility of “disloyal elements” or “fifth columnists” within the Soviet military and government. From Stalin’s perspective, Yezhov (like Yagoda) had served his purpose but had seen too much and wielded too much power for Stalin to allow him to live.
On August 22, 1938 Georgian NKVD leader Lavrenty Beria was named as Yezhov’s deputy. Beria had managed to survive the Great Purge and the “Yezhovshchina” during the years 1936-1938, even though he had almost become one of its victims. Well acquainted with the typical Stalinist bureaucratic precursors to eventual dismissal and arrest, Yezhov recognized Beria’s increasing influence with Stalin as a sign his downfall was imminent, and plunged headlong into alcoholism and despair. As anticipated, Stalin in a report dated November 11, sharply criticized the work and methods of the NKVD during Yezhov’s tenure as chief, thus creating the bureaucratic pretense necessary to remove him from power. Stalin finally ordered Beria to denounce him at the annual Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. On March 3, 1939 Yezhov was relieved of all his posts in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The scapegoating of Yezhov allowed Stalin to end the ‘Great Purge’ while still retaining plausible deniability of his direction over it. This was further reinforced by Stalin’s decision to declare damnatio memoriae on Yezhov, a fate normally reserved for only the highest-ranking and most prominent of Stalin’s political enemies, and all evidence of his existence was quietly censored from State records and publications.
The long story described above can be attributed to as a summary of the activities of the NKVD or The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which acted as the public and secret police organization of the Soviet Union. Since its creation in 1934, the NKVD contained the regular, public police force of the USSR (including traffic police, fire fighting, border guards and archives) but is better known for the activities of the Gulag and the Main Directorate for State Security (GUGB), which eventually became the Committee for State Security (KGB). It conducted mass extrajudicial executions, ran the Gulag system of forced labor camps, suppressed underground resistance, conducted mass deportations of entire nationalities and Kulaks to unpopulated regions of the country, guarded state borders, conducted espionage and political assassinations abroad, was responsible for influencing foreign governments, and enforced Stalinist policy within communist movements in other countries. The main function of the NKVD was to protect the state security of the Soviet Union.
The NKVD also served as the Soviet government’s arm for the lethal persecution of Judaism, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Greek Catholics, the Latin Catholics, Islam and other religious organizations, an operation headed by Yevgeny Tuchkov.
The most unusual part of the NKVD’s achievements was its role in Soviet science and arms development. Many scientists and engineers arrested for political crimes were placed in special prisons, much more comfortable than the Gulag, colloquially known as sharashkas. These scientists continued their work in these prisons. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the famous Nobel laureate was also imprisoned in a sharashka, and based his novel The First Circle on his experiences there.
After the 2nd World War, the NKVD coordinated work on Soviet nuclear weaponry. The scientists were not prisoners, but the project was supervised by the NKVD because of its great importance and the corresponding requirement for absolute security and secrecy. Also, the project used information obtained by the NKVD from the United States.
(To be continued)