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Yezhov: The Rise of Stalin's "Iron Fist".

Yezhov: The Rise of Stalin's "Iron Fist". By J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. Pp. xxv, 283. $35.00.)

Nikolai Yezhov [1895-1940] was head of the Soviet secret police (NKVD) from 1936-1938. He presided over the Great Terror of 1937-1938, during which more than 1.5 million people were arrested and 700,000 shot. Before Yezhov led the NKVD, he was chief of personnel assignments for the entire Soviet Communist Party [1930-1936] and he helped direct the 1930s party membership purges. Yezhov had little formal education; in his youth, he was a factory worker and soldier. His career as a party administrator began in the early 1920s in largely non-Slavic areas of the USSR. Efficient, hardworking, and thorough, he rose quickly. Leadership of the investigation of the assassination of Leningrad party chief Sergei Kirov was Yezhov's stepping stone to the position of NKVD chief. After Stalin ended the Terror, he replaced Yezhov as head of the NKVD and had him arrested and shot in February 1940.

This is a partial biography, focusing on Yezhov's rise through the party ranks. J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov's coverage complements that of Marc Jansen and Nikita Petrov's Stalin's Loyal Executioner: People's Commissar Nikolai Ezhov, 1895-1940 (Stanford, 2002), which concentrates on Yezhov's role in the Terror. While Jansen and Petrov conclude that Yezhov was a depraved tool of Stalin, selected for his brutality and willingness to follow orders, Getty and Naumov argue that Yezhov was promoted chiefly due to his skill in selecting party cadres. Furthermore, he was a workaholic who took initiative to realize his own ambitions while also serving Stalin's goals. To explain Yezhov's fervent implementation of the terror, Getty and Naumov argue that he was a Communist true believer and a captive of binary thinking who could see no middle ground between "us" and "them," between the class enemy and the disciplined party member. Revealingly, Yezhov's boss, Ivan Moskvin, assessed him as one who "does not know how to stop ... when it is impossible to do anything and you have to stop" (108). During the Terror, when "the highest priority was to get the accused to name names," Yezhov would stop at nothing to achieve this goal (220).

Getty and Naumov have relied heavily on official documents in Yezhov's open file in the former Communist Party archive, which contains very little of a personal nature. The authors painstakingly re-create the political, social, and cultural context that might have shaped Yezhov, but Yezhov as a person almost disappears into the background in the first few chapters. The documents on which Getty and Naumov rely appear to depict Yezhov as initiator of many aspects of the Terror, with Stalin authorizing it, yet Yezhov frequently met with Stalin for oral instructions and there is no record of what was said in those meetings. Many sources relating to Yezhov's life and work remain classified.

The authors' style is clear and engaging and their discussion of context is based on careful reading of the most recent literature by historians of late tsarist and early Soviet Russia. Therefore, this book can be enjoyed by a general audience and is a valuable resource for both undergraduate and graduate classes.

Barbara Allen

La Salle University

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Author:Allen, Barbara
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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