Genrikh Yagoda was born into a Jewish family in Rybinsk, on 7th November, 1891. After leaving school he worked as an apprentice engraver. His employer was the father of Yakov Sverdlov. Yagoda came under the political influence of Sverdlov and in 1907 he was encouraged to join the Bolsheviks. Yagoda also married Sverdlov's niece Ida Averbach.
After the successful October Revolution in 1917 Yagoda joined the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka). Felix Dzerzhinsky was head of the organization. Dzerzhinsky later commented: "In the October Revolution, I was a member of the Military Revolutionary Committee, and then I was entrusted with the task of organizing the Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Sabotage and Counterrevolution I was appointed its Chairman, holding at the same time the post of Commissar for Internal Affairs."
Dzerzhinsky explained in July 1918: "We stand for organized terror - this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. When confronted with evidence criminals in almost every case confess; and what argument can have greater weight than a criminal's own confession."
Victor Serge argued: "I believe that the formation of the Chekas was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918 when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads. All evidence indicates that revolutionary tribunals, functioning in the light of day and admitting the right of defence, would have attained the same efficiency with far less abuse and depravity. Was it necessary to revert to the procedures of the Inquisition?"
In September, 1918, Felix Dzerzhinsky instigated the Red Terror that followed the attempt by Dora Kaplan on the life of Lenin. Dzerzhinsky reported "Our enemies are now suppressed and are in the kingdom of the shadows." Lev Kamenev admitted: "Not a single measure of the Soviet government could have been put through without the help of the Cheka. It is the best example of communist discipline."
In 1922 Cheka was replaced by the All-Union State Political Administration (OGPU). On the death of Dzerzhinsky in 1926, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky became the new head of the organization and Yagoda became his first deputy. It has been argued by Edvard Radzinsky, the author of Stalin (1996: "Though Menzhinsky had a hand in all the dreadful deeds of the Red Terror, he fastidiously absented himself from the torture chamber and from executions... He became the effective head of the Bolshevik secret service."
In November, 1929, Nickolai Bukharin, was removed from the Politburo. Stalin now decided to declare war on the kulaks. The following month he made a speech where he argued: "Now we have the opportunity to carry out a resolute offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their production with the production of kolkhozes and sovkhozes… Now dekulakisation is being undertaken by the masses of the poor and middling peasant masses themselves, who are realising total collectivisation. Now dekulakisation in the areas of total collectivisation is not just a simple administrative measure. Now dekulakisation is an integral part of the creation and development of collective farms. When the head is cut off, no one wastes tears on the hair."
On 30th January 1930 the Politburo approved the liquidation of kulaks as a class. Vyacheslav Molotov was put in charge of the operation. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003), the kulaks were divided into three categories: "The first category… to be immediately eliminated; the second to be imprisoned in camps; the third, 150,000 households, to be deported. Molotov oversaw the death squads, the railway carriages, the concentration camps like a military commander. Between five and seven million people ultimately fitted into the three categories." Thousands of kulaks were executed and an estimated five million were deported to Siberia or Central Asia. Of these, approximately twenty-five per cent perished by the time they reached their destination.
During 1930 this policy led to 2,200 rebellions involving more than 800,000 people. Lazar Kaganovich and Anastas Mikoyan led expeditions into the countryside with "brigades of OGPU troopers and armoured trains like warlords". Lavrenti Beria, who was involved in this operation, recalled: "When we Bolsheviks want to get something done, we close our eyes to everything else."
Yagoda's men were involved in this operation and according Raphael R. Abramovitch, the author of The Soviet Revolution: 1917-1939 (1962), Yagoda told Stalin that the "only way of dealing with the kulaks was with bullets.One OGPU official admitted: "We have executed some twenty or thirty thousand persons, perhaps fifty thousand. They were all spies, traitors, enemies within our ranks, a very small number in proportion to the persons of this kind then in Russia. We instituted the red terror at a time of war, when the enemy was marching upon us from without and the enemy within was preparing to help him. Scotland Yard executed spies and traitors also in war time."
The kulaks responded by destroying their own livestock. The Russian historian, Roy A. Medvedev, has argued in Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (1971): "Influenced by kulak agitation, many peasants, before joining the collective farms, began to slaughter their livestock: cows, sheep, pigs, even poultry. Just in February and March, 1930 around 14 million head of cattle were destroyed; also one-third of all pigs and one-fourth of all sheep and goats." The government decreed that kulak property could be confiscated if they destroyed livestock, but the killing continued.
Stalin gave instructions that concentration camps should not just be for social rehabilitation of prisoners but also for what they could contribute to the gross domestic product. This included using forced labour for the mining of gold and timber hewing. Stalin ordered Vladimir Menzhinski, the chief of the OGPU, to create a permanent organisational framework that would allow for prisoners to contribute to the success of the Five Year Plan. People sent to these camps included members of outlawed political parties, nationalists and priests.
In the summer of 1932 Joseph Stalin became aware that opposition to his policies were growing. Some party members were publicly criticizing Stalin and calling for the readmission of Leon Trotsky to the party. When the issue was discussed at the Politburo, Stalin demanded that the critics should be arrested and executed. Kirov, who up to this time had been a staunch Stalinist, argued against this policy. When the vote was taken, the majority of the Politburo supported Kirov against Stalin.
Yagoda was a close friend of Joseph Stalin and in 1934 he was put in charge of the Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). One of his first tasks was to remove Stalin's main rival for the leadership of the party. Sergy Kirov had been a loyal supporter of Stalin but he grew jealous of his popularity. As Edward P. Gazur has pointed out: "In sharp contrast to Stalin, Kirov was a much younger man and an eloquent speaker, who was able to sway his listeners; above all, he possessed a charismatic personality. Unlike Stalin who was a Georgian, Kirov was also an ethnic Russian, which stood in his favour."
At the 17th Party Congress in 1934, when Sergy Kirov stepped up to the podium he was greeted by spontaneous applause that equalled that which was required to be given to Stalin. In his speech he put forward a policy of reconciliation. He argued that people should be released from prison who had opposed the government's policy on collective farms and industrialization. The members of the Congress gave Kirov a vote of confidence by electing him to the influential Central Committee Secretariat.
Joseph Stalin now found himself in a minority in the Politburo. After years of arranging for the removal of his opponents from the party, Stalin realized he still could not rely on the total support of the people whom he had replaced them with. Stalin no doubt began to wonder if Kirov was willing to wait for his mentor to die before becoming leader of the party. Stalin was particularly concerned by Kirov's willingness to argue with him in public. He feared that this would undermine his authority in the party.
As usual, that summer Kirov and Stalin went on holiday together. Stalin, who treated Kirov like a son, used this opportunity to try to persuade him to remain loyal to his leadership. Stalin asked him to leave Leningrad to join him in Moscow. Stalin wanted Kirov in a place where he could keep a close eye on him. When Kirov refused, Stalin knew he had lost control over his protégé. According to Alexander Orlov, who had been told this by Genrikh Yagoda, Stalin decided that Kirov had to die.
Yagoda assigned the task to Vania Zaporozhets, one of his trusted lieutenants in the NKVD. He selected a young man, Leonid Nikolayev, as a possible candidate. Nikolayev had recently been expelled from the Communist Party and had vowed his revenge by claiming that he intended to assassinate a leading government figure. Zaporozhets met Nikolayev and when he discovered he was of low intelligence and appeared to be a person who could be easily manipulated, he decided that he was the ideal candidate as assassin.
Zaporozhets provided him with a pistol and gave him instructions to kill Kirov in the Smolny Institute in Leningrad. However, soon after entering the building he was arrested. Zaporozhets had to use his influence to get him released. On 1st December, 1934, Nikolayev, got past the guards and was able to shoot Kirov dead. Nikolayev was immediately arrested and after being tortured by Genrikh Yagoda he signed a statement saying that Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Ivan Smirnov had been the leaders of the conspiracy to assassinate Kirov.
According to Alexander Orlov: "Stalin decided to arrange for the assassination of Kirov and to lay the crime at the door of the former leaders of the opposition and thus with one blow do away with Lenin's former comrades. Stalin came to the conclusion that, if he could prove that Zinoviev and Kamenev and other leaders of the opposition had shed the blood of Kirov". Victor Kravchenko has pointed out: "Hundreds of suspects in Leningrad were rounded up and shot summarily, without trial. Hundreds of others, dragged from prison cells where they had been confined for years, were executed in a gesture of official vengeance against the Party's enemies. The first accounts of Kirov's death said that the assassin had acted as a tool of dastardly foreigners - Estonian, Polish, German and finally British. Then came a series of official reports vaguely linking Nikolayev with present and past followers of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and other dissident old Bolsheviks."
Yagoda now had the task of persuading Kamenev and Zinoviev to confess to their role in the death of Kirov as part of the plot to assassinate Stalin and other leaders of government. When they refused to do this Stalin had a new provision enacted into law on 8th April 1935 which would enable him to exert additional leverage over his enemies. The new law decreed that children of the age of twelve and over who were found guilty of crimes would be subjected to the same punishment as adults, up to and including the death penalty. This provision provided NKVD with the means by which they could coerce a confession from a political dissident simply by claiming that false charges would be brought against their children.
Edward P. Gazur, the author of Alexander Orlov: The FBI's KGB General (2001), claims that Alexander Orlov later admitted: "In the months preceding the trial, the two men were subjected to every conceivable form of interrogation: subtle pressure, then periods of enormous pressure, starvation, open and veiled threats, promises, as well as physical and mental torture. Neither man would succumb to the ordeal they faced." Stalin was frustrated by Stalin's lack of success and brought in Nikolai Yezhov to carry out the interrogations.
Orlov, who was a leading figure in the NKVD, later admitted what happened. "Towards the end of their ordeal, Zinoviev became sick and exhausted. Yezhov took advantage of the situation in a desperate attempt to get a confession. Yezhov warned that Zinoviev must affirm at a public trial that he had plotted the assassination of Stalin and other members of the Politburo. Zinoviev declined the demand. Yezhov then relayed Stalin's offer; that if he co-operated at an open trial, his life would be spared; if he did not, he would be tried in a closed military court and executed, along with all of the opposition. Zinoviev vehemently rejected Stalin's offer. Yezhov then tried the same tactics on Kamenev and again was rebuffed."
In July 1936 Yezhov told Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev that their children would be charged with being part of the conspiracy and would face execution if found guilty. The two men now agreed to co-operate at the trial if Stalin promised to spare their lives. At a meeting with Stalin, Kamenev told him that they would agree to co-operate on the condition that none of the old-line Bolsheviks who were considered the opposition and charged at the new trial would be executed, that their families would not be persecuted, and that in the future none of the former members of the opposition would be subjected to the death penalty. Stalin replied: "That goes without saying!"
The trial opened on 19th August 1936. Five of the sixteen defendants were actually NKVD plants, whose confessional testimony was expected to solidify the state's case by exposing Zinoviev, Kamenev and the other defendants as their fellow conspirators. The presiding judge was Vasily Ulrikh, a member of the secret police. The prosecutor was Andrei Vyshinsky, who was to become well-known during the Show Trials over the next few years.
At the trial Zinoviev said: "I would like to repeat that I am fully and utterly guilty. I am guilty of having been the organizer, second only to Trotsky, of that block whose chosen task was the killing of Stalin. I was the principal organizer of Kirov's assassination. The party saw where we were going, and warned us; Stalin warned as scores of times; but we did not heed these warnings. We entered into an alliance with Trotsky."
Kamenev's final words in the trial concerned the plight of his children: "I should like to say a few words to my children. I have two children, one is an army pilot, the other a Young Pioneer. Whatever my sentence may be, I consider it just... Together with the people, follow where Stalin leads." This was a reference to the promise that Stalin made about his sons.
On 24th August, 1936, Vasily Ulrikh entered the courtroom and began reading the long and dull summation leading up to the verdict. Ulrikh announced that all sixteen defendants were sentenced to death by shooting. Edward P. Gazur has pointed out: "Those in attendance fully expected the customary addendum which was used in political trials that stipulated that the sentence was commuted by reason of a defendant's contribution to the Revolution. These words never came, and it was apparent that the death sentence was final when Ulrikh placed the summation on his desk and left the court-room."
The following day Soviet newspapers carried the announcement that all sixteen defendants had been put to death. This included the NKVD agents who had provided false confessions. Joseph Stalin could not afford for any witnesses to the conspiracy to remain alive. Edvard Radzinsky, the author of Stalin (1996), has pointed out that Stalin did not even keep his promise to Kamenev's sons and later both men were shot.
Joseph Stalin became angry with Yagoda when he failed to obtain enough evidence to convict Nickolai Bukharin. Yagoda was replaced by Nikolai Yezhov as head of the NKVD. In December 1936, Yezhov established a new section of the NKVD named the Administration of Special Tasks (AST). It contained about 300 of his own trusted men from the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Yezhov's intention was complete control of the NKVD by using men who could be expected to carry out sensitive assignments without any reservations. The new AST operatives would have no allegiance to any members of the old NKVD and would therefore have no reason not to carry out an assignment against any of one of them. The AST was used to remove all those who had knowledge of the conspiracy to destroy Stalin's rivals.
One of the first to be arrested by AST was Genrikh Yagoda and was accused of being involved in a plot with Leon Trotsky, Nickolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, Nikolai Krestinsky and Christian Rakovsky against Joseph Stalin. Yagoda was also accused of being the mastermind of the plot to assassinate Sergy Kirov and had secretly worked for the German intelligence service. Yagoda was alleged to have signed a confession that he was behind a plot to poison Stalin and members of the Politburo.
Genrikh Yagoda was found guilty and was executed in Moscow on 15th March, 1938.
When Yagoda contrived Kirov's death he had not realized that the Leader was thinking on the grand scale. He had envisaged no more than the removal of a single dangerous figure around whom hostile forces were beginning to rally.
The Leader had not initiated him into his cosmic plan. As a result, Yagoda hurried to arrest priests, ex-landowners, and so on, intending to lay Kirov's murder at the door of the usual culprits, the class enemy. Even the astute Radek missed the point, and started writing about the hand of the Gestapo killing a loyal Stalinist.
The Boss had to point out to Yagoda precisely where the main blow should fall: among the Zinovievites. Yagoda was too set in his ways and remained unconvinced. The Boss saw that he would never overcome his pious inhibitions when faced with the Leninist old guard. So he harnessed him to a diminutive fellow with a quiet voice, one Nikolai Yezhov, the chairman of the Party Control Commission.
Molotov described Yezhov as "Bolshevik from before the Revolution, worker by origin, never in any of the oppositions, Central Committee Secretary for some years, good reputation."
Secret file 510, in the archive of the former KGB, contains a curriculum vitae of this person of "good reputation":
"Yezhov, Nikolai Ivanovich. Bom May 1, 1895. Resident in Moscow, Kremlin. Social origin - worker. Education - incomplete primary.... In 1919 tried by military tribunal and sentenced to imprisonment for one year."
The Boss had first seen Yezhov during his excursion to Siberia to speed up grain deliveries and had subsequently introduced him into the apparatus of the Central Committee. By the beginning of the thirties Yezhov was already head of its Cadres Department. At the Seventeenth Congress he was elected to the Central Committee and to the vice-chairmanship of the Central Control Commission. In 1935 he became chairman of that body, and a secretary of the Central Committee.
Yezhov was typical of those who rose from nowhere to high positions in this period: semiliterate, obedient, and hardworking. His dubious past made him particularly eager to shine. Most important of all - he had made his career after the overthrow of the October leaders. Yagoda now served Stalin, but until recently had been the servant of the Party. Yezhov had served no-one but Stalin. He was the man to implement the second half of Stalin's scheme. For him there were no taboos.
At the height of the Terror Yezhov would be portrayed on thousands of posters as a giant in whose hands enemies of the people writhed and breathed their last. In the Central Asian republics, poets regularly described him as the batyr (epic hero). The epic hero was in reality a tiny man, almost a dwarf, with a feeble voice.
This was somehow symbolic.
Like Zhdanov, Malenkov, and others whom the Boss would from now on co-opt to the highest offices, Yezhov was merely a pseudonym for Stalin himself, a pathetic puppet, there simply to carry out orders. All the thinking was done, all the decisions were made, by the Boss himself.
While Yezhov familiarized himself with the way things were going, kept an eye on Yagoda, and gave him a prod when necessary, the Boss was drumming the plot of his thriller into the heads of his closest associates. And that is why afterward Bukharin said, "Two days after the murder Stalin sent for me and announced that the assassin, Nikolaev, was a Zinovievite."
On the instigation of Trotsky, preparations were now made for the assassination of members of the Government and leading figures such as Maxim Gorky. The length to which these criminals went in their desperate gamble was illustrated by this cynical crime of murdering one of the great figures of world literature. In raising this question originally, Trotsky had emphasised the need for taking measures to overcome the difficulty created for the conspirators by the fact that Gorky was a staunch adherent of the policy of the Party and the Soviet Government and personally very close to Stalin. Trotsky feared the tremendous influence of Gorky and the role that Gorky could play in winning sympathy and support from all liberal-minded people throughout the world for the Soviet Union. Yagoda, one of the accused, was assistant commissar in the Department for Internal Affairs. On a decision of the bloc he secured the co-operation of Dr. Levin to whose care Gorky’s health was committed. Trapping the doctor in a preliminary crime as partial means of ensuring docile obedience, Yagoda then proceeded systematically with the task of murdering Maxim Gorky, the idol of all the Soviet people and millions of lovers of literature and humanity the world over. How terribly he succeeded in this cold-blooded plan and how this plan was utilised to dispose of his own chief, thus making room for him in the position of Commissar of Internal Affairs, as well as of Kuibyshev and Gorky’s son, provided a sinister feature of the trial. There were moments during the taking of testimony on this aspect of the case when one’s blood almost “ran cold”.
Menzhinsky, the new head of the O.G.P.U. was, like his predecessor, Dzerzhinsky, a Pole. It was astonishing to find such a man at the head of the Secret Service in this period of mistrust, but Menzhinsky not, only displayed his contempt for the Party rank and file, but gloated over his delight in luxurious living. He was in almost every respect the antithesis of the men with whom he worked and he behaved in the manner of an idle dandy. He would even conduct interrogations lying on a settee draped in rich Chinese silks, manicuring himself while he put his questions. Yet he had inspired trust and was tolerated with amusement by Lenin, who called him "my decadent neurotic", and maintained in office by Stalin who dubbed him "my amiable, but watchful Polish bear".
With the minimum of fuss he kept his subordinates on their toes and, with prodding from Stalin, ordered a re-organisation of the collecting of foreign intelligence. The manner in which he did this suggests a certain amount of cynical indifference to the task. He called a meeting of departmental heads and let them talk unprompted while he continued with his manicuring. Each man gave his own views on where Russian espionage had gone wrong, analysed failures and suggested plans for the future. Then Menzhinsky nodded to a young man in the drab uniform of a Party worker.
"Comrade Yagoda," he said, "will now address you. He has the full confidence of Stalin."
The departmental heads were flabbergasted. They had never heard of Comrade Yagoda before, let alone seen him. Who was this upstart who enjoyed the patronage of Stalin?
Yagoda immediately attacked the whole espionage set-up, declared that Stalin was extremely annoyed by the way things had been handled and demanded that many of the names of key agents mentioned during the conference should be struck off the lists. He then announced what appointments he would make in their place.
It was an astonishing performance by a complete outsider. No doubt the departmental chiefs would have criticised him angrily, but Menzhinsky closed all further discussion with the words: "Comrade Yagoda has spoken. He has the complete confidence of Stalin and he will be my deputy forthwith. He will reorganise foreign espionage for us."
Genrik Yagoda was a complete contrast to the aristocratic Menzhinsky. He was of peasant origin from Latvia, lacking in education, uncouth in manners and speech, but possessed of an obstinate streak that refused to take "no" for an answer and a ruthless determination not to allow any man who served under him to make a mistake more than once.
From the beginning Yagoda took the keenest interest in the Special Division of the Second Directorate, the section which liquidated enemies of the regime by murder. This section was for a time run by Nicolai Yezhoff, but it was Yagoda who ensured that the organisation was to be devoted entirely to dealing with Stalin's enemies. "The enemies of Stalin are the enemies of Russia," said Yagoda. "The enemies of others are of less account and can be dealt with by others. The Special Division is to ensure that no enemies of Stalin continue to live."
A continuing and curious feature of Soviet Intelligence has been that following a period of diplomatic successes and actual gains in prestige Russia has ruined her relations with other countries by taking grave risks in espionage and in having her spies captured and her networks destroyed. But in periods when Russia has been forced back on the defensive, when she has had to rebuild her networks from scratch and has been engaged in wars her Intelligence Services have brought off her greatest coups. In this respect she bears some resemblance to Britain, but only perhaps in that the Secret Services of each nation tend to improve beyond recognition in wartime and often fail badly in peace. But Britain's failures in peacetime have usually been due to spending too little money, employing unprofessional agents and in lack of co-ordination between espionage and counter-espionage sections. Russia's failures in peacetime have been caused by employing too many agents too obviously and in a tendency to over-confidence.
Yagoda had much purging of over-confident and unprofessional agents to carry out in the early thirties. Matters had come to a head by the arrests of three key agents, Rudolph Gaida, a Czech Legionnaire, in Prague in 1926, of Daniel Vetrenko, the head of the Polish network, in 1927, and of Bue and Euphony by the Swiss Police shortly afterwards. Every counter-espionage service in Europe was alerted to the peril in its midst: the Austrians closed in on the Vienna network and in May 1927, discovered that its leader was an official of the Soviet Legation named Balcony.
The first harbinger of change that came to his attention occurred within three weeks of his arrival in Spain, when, in the first week of October 1936, he was officially advised by the KGB Centre in Moscow that Genrikh Yagoda had been dismissed from his position as Chairman on 29 September and replaced by Nikolai Yezhov. Orlov was not surprised at this turn of events given the fact that Yezhov was Stalin's protégé, but questioned the tactic as Yagoda was fully aware of Stalin's role in the assassination of Sergei Kirov. Yagoda had not been arrested or charged with any crime but removed to the obscure position of Commissar of Communications. He had been denounced for his failure to tie Zinoviev and Kamenev directly to the Trotsky conspiracy and this was given as the official reason for his dismissal.
Orlov felt that Stalin was walking a tightrope in his manoeuvre to charge Yagoda with the Kirov assassination and thereby divert attention from himself as the true instigator of the plot. Yagoda had faithfully served Stalin since 1934, when he had become Chairman of the KGB, and had since been known as Stalin's eyes and ears. Even on the occasion of their last meeting several weeks before, Yagoda had been basking in the glory of his recent successes and gave no indication that his star was about to descend. Stalin's risk was high but the reward was well worth the effort: in the end, he would be able to claim that the KGB was rotten to the core with plotters against the leadership, and he would have yet another tool to legitimise the liquidation of those members of the KGB whom he perceived as standing in his way.
Yagoda's freedom was not long lasting as he was arrested and charged in April 1937, well in advance of the start of the last great purge show trial. The trial began on 2 March 1938, when Yagoda and the other principal defendants were generally charged with being a part of a conspiracy that had sided with the Western Powers to the detriment of the Soviet Government. In addition, Yagoda was singled out as the mastermind of the plot to assassinate Kirov and further that he had secretly worked for the German intelligence service. As if these charges were not substantial enough on their own, he was alleged to have signed a confession that he was behind a KGB plot to poison Stalin and members of the Politburo. Yagoda and the other conspirators were found guilty as charged and executed shortly after the conclusion of the trial.