Stalin's Loyal Executioner: People's Commissar Nikolai Ezhov, 1895-1940 (review)
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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.3 (2003) 760-767



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Marc Jansen and Nikita Petrov, Stalin's Loyal Executioner: People's Commissar Nikolai Ezhov, 1895-1940. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2002. xiii + 274 pp. ISBN 0-8179-2902-9. $25.00.

The Great Terror of 1937-38 was the "finest hour" of the political career of Nikolai Ivanovich Ezhov, a loyal Stalinist who at the time held the pivotal post of People's Commissar of Internal Affairs. The Great Terror itself is one of the most important events in Soviet history, which explains the special interest historians have traditionally shown in Ezhov. For many years, however, the shortage of materials and the absolute inaccessibility of Soviet archives prevented any publication of specialized works on Ezhov. During the early 1990s, this situation began to change, and over the last ten years a whole series of articles and even books on Ezhov has appeared. Thus far, though, only one of these works merits serious attention - the book by the Dutch historian Marc Jansen and the Russian historian Nikita Vasil'evich Petrov, Stalin's Loyal Executioner: People's Commissar Nikolai Ezhov, 1895-1940.

The best sources for studying the activity of a Soviet leader or high-ranking bureaucrat are personal document collections (lichnye fondy) that are located in a number of Russian archives. It is important, though, to know the history of an archival collection and the process by which it was created in order to evaluate how complete and representative it is. There does not seem to be a single pattern for the formation of personal archives. In some cases, the collection consists of papers confiscated during a person's arrest. In other cases (the most famous example is Stalin's personal archive), the subject himself created the collection. A third group were formed from official papers related to the administration of institutions headed by the subject. Finally, personal collections could be formed haphazardly, for example, by taking documents from different archives and depositing them in one place.

Ezhov's personal archive has a complex history. It was transferred to the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) in the mid-1990s from the Presidential Archive of the Russian Federation (APRF, the former Politburo Archive) and then closed to regular scholarly use. Consequently, it is not clear how the archive was created. Judging by some of the publications which have drawn on this collection, it appears to contain materials from Ezhov's work as a Central Committee secretary and as chairman of the Party Control Commission. Its numerous documents on party purges and on the cases against former oppositionists could be used to facilitate research into important, though not all, facets [End Page 760] of Ezhov's political biography. The major problem is where to locate materials on Ezhov's work as People's Commissar of Internal Affairs during 1936-38, for the personal archive in RGASPI has little information on this.

To find documents on Ezhov's participation in the "Great Terror," one must search in the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service (TsAFSB Rossii), and it is the wide use of materials from this archive that makes Jansen and Petrov's work significant. The FSB Archive (along with, for example, the Presidential Archive) can be categorized as a "partially open" Russian archive. Access to its documents has typically been irregular and arbitrary, often dependent on politics, personal ties, joint projects with other archives, etc. Indeed, as an employee of the Memorial Society, Petrov received access to this archive on the wave of Russia's "Post-Communist Revolution" during the first half of the 1990s. Despite such limitations, however, historians and archivists have gradually introduced significant information into scholarly circulation. Documents from the FSB Archive enable Jansen and Petrov to reconstruct successfully important aspects of the history of the Great Terror and Ezhov's personal life.

As the two authors show, Ezhov's relationship with Stalin is central to his biography. Stalin spotted this reliable functionary early...


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