(1/3) by /u/Entire_Cover
The inevitable question is whether or not there really existed, during Yezhov’s tenure, a subversive underground in the Soviet Union with “an undiscovered Trotskyist center…which had to be found and liquidated,” in the words of a former Assistant People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs Ya. S. Agronov, who received direct instructions from Yezhov. One of the first difficulties in answering this is that the “center,” as Agronov put it, that Yezhov was seeking is alternately described by other NKVD officials who were involved in these manhunts. For example, G. E. Prokofiev, a Deputy Peoples’ Commissar of Internal Affairs (like Agronov, another NKVD official), said the investigation Yezhov was conducting was directed “towards the discovery of underground revolutionary formations” and perhaps “of all the organizational links of the Trotskyists and the Zinovievists and to the discovery of terrorist groups.” Prokofiev’s description of the targets of the Yezhovshchina is clearly more general and nebulous: it includes a search for saboteurs or provocateurs only peripherally connected to Trotsky and his close agents. The diversity of the descriptions of the objects of Yezhov’s dragnet has only served to confuse and to play into the hands of those who seek to prove Yezhov was a villain, demented, pathological, or vice-ridden from the beginning. His own statement, quoted earlier, on Civil War confederates posing as loyal Communists after their defeat ca. 1921, who thereafter entered the state, Party, and security apparatuses - especially in rural areas far from Moscow’s scrutinizing eyes - as being his target is the clearest, most accurate, and most productive avenue of approach, especially in view of the statistical confirmation this has received. Having been a member of the “class of 1921” is the common thread that links all the varied descriptions of Yezhov’s targets, from “wrecker” to Old Bolshevik, from “Zinovievist” to “Menshevizing idealist,” from Japanese to German spy, descriptions that differed to conform to the context of the instructions containing them - many times ad hoc - that Yezhov and other police authorities issued. In the Great Terror, Yezhov was veritably continuing the Civil War because the Whites had only appeared to surrender: they had never really conceded, nor had they really given up the assistance they had received during the actual Civil War hostilities from the new-born Bolshevik regime’s foreign enemies, especially Germany, Japan, and Great Britain. (Recall, again, the above analogy with the American Civil War and what may be called the mock-surrender of the war-weary Confederates.)
In June of 1936, Stalin interrupted Yezhov at a Central Committee Plenum with what has come to be known as “Stalin’s inaudible remark.” Stalin complained to Yezhov about his having expelled too many Party members:
Yezhov: “Comrades, as a result of the verification of party documents, we expelled more than 200,000 members of the party.”
Stalin: [Interrupting:] Very many." [Stalin was criticizing Yezhov.]
Yezhov: “Yes, very many. I will speak about this…”
Stalin: “[Interrupting again:] If we expelled 30,000 [inaudible remark], and 600 former Trotskyists and Zinovievists it would be a bigger victory.”
At a time during which he enjoyed the full trust of Stalin, Yezhov debated him for nearly two years on the need for a severe repression or liquidation of his predecessor NKVD head, Genrikh G. Yagoda. In the fall of 1936, at the height of the Yezhovshchina, Stalin observed that the NKVD was about four years behind in uncovering the oppositionist underground. The blame for this was laid at Yagoda’s door, his non-feasance suspected of being due to complicity with counter-revolutionaries. Yagoda was suspected of being not a mere bungler, but an at best passive conspirator who consciously “looked the other way” to protect the old, enduring, resistant former White Guard that had once sought to defeat the Soviet system right out in the open.
That Yagoda was indeed at the critical center of such a network is borne out by detailed studies that pertain to the NKVD’s predecessor and successor organizations, such as The Soviet Secret Police, the Uses of Terror by Borys Lewytzkyj (Boris Levitsky), Soviet Secret Police by Simon Wolin and Robert Slusser, and Beria, Stalin’s First Lieutenant by Amy Knight. From these and other sources, the most reasonable extra-paradigmatic construction of events is as follows:
There existed a domestic underground counter-revolutionary network with strong foreign connections seeking the overthrow of the USSR. Yagoda was its (possibly passive) internal functional center. This network had a lineage that can be traced back to early counter-revolutionary factions (some even socialist) that had been assisted by foreign spy-rings, as documented by the CheKa for the earliest years of the Soviet State. Trotsky and other notable exiles were involved. The patience of this underground was uncommon (for the West). Yezhov was keener than Stalin in perceiving the threat this underground posed, and wanted to put his foot in a “revolving door” of tolerance for saboteurs that, in many cases, Stalin just kept allowing to turn. This was due to Yezhov’s unique background, and to brain-aging on Stalin’s part (to be described in what follows). Yezhov’s rock-ribbed efforts failed to reach the key personages in this underground. This underground finally prevailed at the time of the curtailment and reduction of the NKVD when the new NKGB (“KGB”) was formed, which backed Khrushchev. Khrushchev did not believe in Communism and began the dismantling of the Soviet system. Khrushchev’s efforts culminated with Gorbachev and finally Yeltsen: Bolshevism was destroyed. It is known that Yagoda and the OGPU (the Soviet Union’s State Political Administration, which had been reorganized from the Bolshevik’s original, multi-party secret police or CheKa) were opposed to peasant collectivization. Stalin was aware of this, resulting in personal friction between him and Yagoda right up to Yagoda’s very end when Stalin once threatened to “punch him in the kisser.” In July of 1934, the OGPU was abolished and its functions transferred to the all new NKVD or Peoples’ Commissariat of Internal Affairs, which, unknown to most, existed from the start. (Dzerzhinsky was, at one time, head of both the multi-party CheKa and the exclusively Bolshevik NKVD. At one point the NKVD was suspicious of - and opposed to - the CheKa.) In May of 1934, Yagoda was appointed the new organization’s head. It is frequently and glibly stated that the NKVD was the successor organization of the OGPU, and that the better known KGB was the successor of the NKVD. Neither is correct. When the NKVD was formed, a central core of former agents of OGPU reappeared as functionaries in the NKVD’s Main Administration of State Security: the GUGB. In February of 1941, a separate agency called the NKGB (later KGB) was formed from this same core of people from the GUGB. The KGB, or Committee of State Security (as it existed after Khrushchev empowered it), resembled the American CIA, FBI, and Secret Intelligence Service all rolled into one, involving itself in intelligence, counter-intelligence, and internal security. In this, it was unusual for its time and unlike its incorrectly nominated “parent” organizations: the CheKa, OGPU, and NKVD. The NKVD became the MVD, an “authority” not even a faint shadow of the old NKVD.
In September of 1953, six months after Stalin’s death, two months after the arrest of the staunch Stalinist Beria (Yezhov’s successor as NKVD chief), Khrushchev began to consolidate his power. He replaced the Old Bolshevik Malenkov, who had been First Party Secretary, and stripped the NKVD of most of the economic sections that had been under its control - ending the system established by Lenin and Dzerzhinsky. Khrushchev turned these economic functions over to other agencies. Suffering the same fate as Beria, but with less publicity involving less well known personalities, many old NKVD agents were executed - or forced to flee abroad. The NKVD was reduced to the MVD, a mere “traffic cop” operation by comparison. When the dust settled, the KGB had extraordinary powers, both internally and in foreign affairs, consisting of the same old GUGB core from the former OGPU. (Consult Bibliography for NKVD-INFO. See Felix Dzerzhinsky by A. Tishkov for information about the NKVD and other NK’s [“Narkomats” or People’s Commissariats], which were organizations regulating the Soviet economy.)