Stalin’s Iron Fist

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I usually don’t cheerlead the work my adviser and friend, J. Arch Getty, but if you have any interest in his new book Stalin’s Iron Fist, read Simon Sebag Montefiore‘s review in the Telegraph. If you’re not familiar Getty’s work, over the last two decades he has single handedly rewritten the history of the Terror as we know it. In Stalin’s Iron Fist, he explores the meteoric rise of the modest, hardworking Nikolai Ezhov from a worker in the famed Putilov factory to the head of the NKVD.  In many ways, Ezhov’s rise and fall is an archetype of the inner dichotomies of the Stalinist new man: he was a benefiary, shaper, power player, perpetrator, and victim of the very system that created him.

But I’m hardly an impartial critic of Getty’s work, so instead I’ll let Montefiore sing its praises:

J. Arch Getty, an American professor, and Oleg Naumov, deputy chief of Moscow’s Communist Party archive, have produced this fascinating and essential biography, which tells us more about the Kremlin and Soviet Russia than most history books.

The authors show how personal politics was in the 1930s; how responsibility and power was greater than we realised; how a form of real politics continued even under the dictatorship. If you want to understand how Stalinist Russia worked, read this book.

Yezhov was, in fact, an impressive and indefatigable bureaucrat, not a secret policeman: tiny, genial, hardworking, ruthless, shrewd.

By about 1930 he was the leading personnel expert in the Bolshevik Party Central Committee. By 1934, he was hugely important, one of the Party Secretariat under Stalin, a member of many of the overlapping Party organs.

He was liked, regarded as honest, he sang nicely and had good manners but as one of his patrons remarked: ‘If you want something done, no one can do it better than Yezhov. The only trouble is he doesn’t know when to stop.’

If that’s not a ringing endorsement from a well respected researcher of Stalin, then I don’t know what is.