Yezhov: The Rise of Stalin’s ‘Iron Fist’ by J Arch Getty & Oleg V Naumov - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

The Monster Hedgehog

Yezhov: The Rise of Stalin’s ‘Iron Fist’


Yale University Press 283pp £25 order from our bookshop

Yezhov means ‘Hedgehog’, although Stalin called him affectionately Yezhevichka, ‘little bramble’. Despite the implicit prickliness, there was momentary relief in the USSR when, in autumn 1936, Stalin appointed N I Yezhov head of the NKVD, as the secret police was then called. It seemed that at last a series of Polish gentry (Dzierżyński and Menzhinsky) and a Russian Jew of Polish origin (Yagoda) had given way to a diminutive working-class Russian lad, a friendly, sociable troubleshooter.

Within weeks this illusion was shattered: in the next two years Nikolai Yezhov despatched more people to torture and execution than possibly anyone in human history, and created an atmosphere of all-pervading terror that crippled the nation’s psyche for generations. Not until autumn 1938, when Stalin brought Lavrenti Beria to

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