Little in the way of authoritative biographical works have been written about Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov, once known as “Stalin’s Favorite” and former People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938. This new book offers an interesting glance, through a bourgeois historical lens, about the early life and political rise of Nikolai Yezhov without delving too much into his reign as a People’s Commissar. In fact, little is mentioned at all about this period, and instead focuses on Yezhov’s life from his proletarian origins, his service in the military, and his meteoric rise within the Bolshevik Party’s personnel apparatus.
The book’s strengths lie in that the author’s at least make some meaningful attempts to avoid allowing their own political beliefs hinder their objective historical work, though there is no short of reference to the “crimes” committed by Yezhov. Likewise, the authors don’t try to draw a psychological profile of Yezhov and are quite determined to describe his life and pre-NKVD career independent of how history has remembered him. Perhaps the work’s most praiseworthy element is that the author’s don’t try to assume conclusions (at least explicitly) where information is lacking. Unlike Robert Conquest, Getty and Naumov try not to assert assumptions in place of evidence and factual information.
A lot of information is based on sources or testimonies of people who recorded their experience of Yezhov from his earlier career – including individuals who served with him in the Red Army (1919-1921), his Party comrades in numerous provincial Party organs and his colleagues and coworkers in the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture. It also draws on some of the remnants of Yezhov’s personal records taken from his official archives.
The overall questions that Getty and Naumov are trying to answer throughout their research is what kind of person was Yezhov before he held the power of a People’s Commissar, explain his rapid rise within the Party and State apparatus and ultimately (according to the authors) discover whether Yezhov was merely Stalin’s tool, or a willing leader capable of acting on his own initiative.
The drawbacks of the book are that, despite the attempts of the authors, it does invoke moments of bourgeois anti-communist moralizing in reference to specific events and actions undertaken by the Soviet government, the NKVD and is underscored with a preconceived hostility towards Soviet policy. Furthermore, the book itself is extremely short (less than 200 pages), though this is probably due to the lack of verifiable sources on Yezhov’s early life.