Genrikh Yagoda was born into a Jewish family in Rybinsk, on 7th November, 1891. After leaving school he worked as an apprentice engraver. His employer was the father of Yakov Sverdlov. Yagoda came under the political influence of Sverdlov and in 1907 he was encouraged to join the Bolsheviks. Yagoda also married Sverdlov's niece Ida Averbach.
After the successful October Revolution in 1917 Yagoda joined the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka). Felix Dzerzhinsky was head of the organization. Dzerzhinsky later commented: "In the October Revolution, I was a member of the Military Revolutionary Committee, and then I was entrusted with the task of organizing the Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Sabotage and Counterrevolution I was appointed its Chairman, holding at the same time the post of Commissar for Internal Affairs."
Dzerzhinsky explained in July 1918: "We stand for organized terror - this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. When confronted with evidence criminals in almost every case confess; and what argument can have greater weight than a criminal's own confession."
Victor Serge argued: "I believe that the formation of the Chekas was one of the gravest and most impermissible errors that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918 when plots, blockades, and interventions made them lose their heads. All evidence indicates that revolutionary tribunals, functioning in the light of day and admitting the right of defence, would have attained the same efficiency with far less abuse and depravity. Was it necessary to revert to the procedures of the Inquisition?"
In September, 1918, Felix Dzerzhinsky instigated the Red Terror that followed the attempt by Dora Kaplan on the life of Lenin. Dzerzhinsky reported "Our enemies are now suppressed and are in the kingdom of the shadows." Lev Kamenev admitted: "Not a single measure of the Soviet government could have been put through without the help of the Cheka. It is the best example of communist discipline."
In 1922 Cheka was replaced by the All-Union State Political Administration (OGPU). On the death of Dzerzhinsky in 1926, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky became the new head of the organization and Yagoda became his first deputy. It has been argued by Edvard Radzinsky, the author of Stalin (1996: "Though Menzhinsky had a hand in all the dreadful deeds of the Red Terror, he fastidiously absented himself from the torture chamber and from executions... He became the effective head of the Bolshevik secret service."
In November, 1929, Nickolai Bukharin, was removed from the Politburo. Stalin now decided to declare war on the kulaks. The following month he made a speech where he argued: "Now we have the opportunity to carry out a resolute offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their production with the production of kolkhozes and sovkhozes… Now dekulakisation is being undertaken by the masses of the poor and middling peasant masses themselves, who are realising total collectivisation. Now dekulakisation in the areas of total collectivisation is not just a simple administrative measure. Now dekulakisation is an integral part of the creation and development of collective farms. When the head is cut off, no one wastes tears on the hair."
On 30th January 1930 the Politburo approved the liquidation of kulaks as a class. Vyacheslav Molotov was put in charge of the operation. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003), the kulaks were divided into three categories: "The first category… to be immediately eliminated; the second to be imprisoned in camps; the third, 150,000 households, to be deported. Molotov oversaw the death squads, the railway carriages, the concentration camps like a military commander. Between five and seven million people ultimately fitted into the three categories." Thousands of kulaks were executed and an estimated five million were deported to Siberia or Central Asia. Of these, approximately twenty-five per cent perished by the time they reached their destination.
During 1930 this policy led to 2,200 rebellions involving more than 800,000 people. Lazar Kaganovich and Anastas Mikoyan led expeditions into the countryside with "brigades of OGPU troopers and armoured trains like warlords". Lavrenti Beria, who was involved in this operation, recalled: "When we Bolsheviks want to get something done, we close our eyes to everything else."
Yagoda's men were involved in this operation and according Raphael R. Abramovitch, the author of The Soviet Revolution: 1917-1939 (1962), Yagoda told Stalin that the "only way of dealing with the kulaks was with bullets.One OGPU official admitted: "We have executed some twenty or thirty thousand persons, perhaps fifty thousand. They were all spies, traitors, enemies within our ranks, a very small number in proportion to the persons of this kind then in Russia. We instituted the red terror at a time of war, when the enemy was marching upon us from without and the enemy within was preparing to help him. Scotland Yard executed spies and traitors also in war time."
The kulaks responded by destroying their own livestock. The Russian historian, Roy A. Medvedev, has argued in Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (1971): " Influenced by kulak agitation, many peasants, before joining the collective farms, began to slaughter their livestock: cows, sheep, pigs, even poultry. Just in February and March, 1930 around 14 million head of cattle were destroyed; also one-third of all pigs and one-fourth of all sheep and goats." The government decreed that kulak property could be confiscated if they destroyed livestock, but the killing continued.
Stalin gave instructions that concentration camps should not just be for social rehabilitation of prisoners but also for what they could contribute to the gross domestic product. This included using forced labour for the mining of gold and timber hewing. Stalin ordered Vladimir Menzhinski, the chief of the OGPU, to create a permanent organisational framework that would allow for prisoners to contribute to the success of the Five Year Plan. People sent to these camps included members of outlawed political parties, nationalists and priests.
Yagoda was a close friend of Joseph Stalin and in 1934 he was put in charge of the Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). Soon afterwards Yagoda is believed to have been involved in the assassination of Sergy Kirov, a man Stalin believed to be a threat to his power.
In 1936 Yagoda arrested Lev Kamenev, Gregory Zinoviev, and fourteen others and accused them of being involved with Leon Trotsky in a plot to murder Joseph Stalin and other party leaders. All of these men were found guilty and were executed on 25th August, 1936.
Genrikh Yagoda was arrested in 1937 and was accused of being involved in a plot with Leon Trotsky, Nickolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, Nikolai Krestinsky and Christian Rakovsky against Joseph Stalin. He was found guilty and was executed in Moscow on 15th March, 1938.
On the instigation of Trotsky, preparations were now made for the assassination of members of the Government and leading figures such as Maxim Gorky. The length to which these criminals went in their desperate gamble was illustrated by this cynical crime of murdering one of the great figures of world literature. In raising this question originally, Trotsky had emphasised the need for taking measures to overcome the difficulty created for the conspirators by the fact that Gorky was a staunch adherent of the policy of the Party and the Soviet Government and personally very close to Stalin. Trotsky feared the tremendous influence of Gorky and the role that Gorky could play in winning sympathy and support from all liberal-minded people throughout the world for the Soviet Union. Yagoda, one of the accused, was assistant commissar in the Department for Internal Affairs. On a decision of the bloc he secured the co-operation of Dr. Levin to whose care Gorky’s health was committed. Trapping the doctor in a preliminary crime as partial means of ensuring docile obedience, Yagoda then proceeded systematically with the task of murdering Maxim Gorky, the idol of all the Soviet people and millions of lovers of literature and humanity the world over. How terribly he succeeded in this cold-blooded plan and how this plan was utilised to dispose of his own chief, thus making room for him in the position of Commissar of Internal Affairs, as well as of Kuibyshev and Gorky’s son, provided a sinister feature of the trial. There were moments during the taking of testimony on this aspect of the case when one’s blood almost “ran cold”.
Menzhinsky, the new head of the O.G.P.U. was, like his predecessor, Dzerzhinsky, a Pole. It was astonishing to find such a man at the head of the Secret Service in this period of mistrust, but Menzhinsky not, only displayed his contempt for the Party rank and file, but gloated over his delight in luxurious living. He was in almost every respect the antithesis of the men with whom he worked and he behaved in the manner of an idle dandy. He would even conduct interrogations lying on a settee draped in rich Chinese silks, manicuring himself while he put his questions. Yet he had inspired trust and was tolerated with amusement by Lenin, who called him "my decadent neurotic", and maintained in office by Stalin who dubbed him "my amiable, but watchful Polish bear".
With the minimum of fuss he kept his subordinates on their toes and, with prodding from Stalin, ordered a re-organisation of the collecting of foreign intelligence. The manner in which he did this suggests a certain amount of cynical indifference to the task. He called a meeting of departmental heads and let them talk unprompted while he continued with his manicuring. Each man gave his own views on where Russian espionage had gone wrong, analysed failures and suggested plans for the future. Then Menzhinsky nodded to a young man in the drab uniform of a Party worker.
"Comrade Yagoda," he said, "will now address you. He has the full confidence of Stalin."
The departmental heads were flabbergasted. They had never heard of Comrade Yagoda before, let alone seen him. Who was this upstart who enjoyed the patronage of Stalin?
Yagoda immediately attacked the whole espionage set-up, declared that Stalin was extremely annoyed by the way things had been handled and demanded that many of the names of key agents mentioned during the conference should be struck off the lists. He then announced what appointments he would make in their place.
It was an astonishing performance by a complete outsider. No doubt the departmental chiefs would have criticised him angrily, but Menzhinsky closed all further discussion with the words: "Comrade Yagoda has spoken. He has the complete confidence of Stalin and he will be my deputy forthwith. He will reorganise foreign espionage for us."
Genrik Yagoda was a complete contrast to the aristocratic Menzhinsky. He was of peasant origin from Latvia, lacking in education, uncouth in manners and speech, but possessed of an obstinate streak that refused to take "no" for an answer and a ruthless determination not to allow any man who served under him to make a mistake more than once.
From the beginning Yagoda took the keenest interest in the Special Division of the Second Directorate, the section which liquidated enemies of the regime by murder. This section was for a time run by Nicolai Yezhoff, but it was Yagoda who ensured that the organisation was to be devoted entirely to dealing with Stalin's enemies. "The enemies of Stalin are the enemies of Russia," said Yagoda. "The enemies of others are of less account and can be dealt with by others. The Special Division is to ensure that no enemies of Stalin continue to live."
A continuing and curious feature of Soviet Intelligence has been that following a period of diplomatic successes and actual gains in prestige Russia has ruined her relations with other countries by taking grave risks in espionage and in having her spies captured and her networks destroyed. But in periods when Russia has been forced back on the defensive, when she has had to rebuild her networks from scratch and has been engaged in wars her Intelligence Services have brought off her greatest coups. In this respect she bears some resemblance to Britain, but only perhaps in that the Secret Services of each nation tend to improve beyond recognition in wartime and often fail badly in peace. But Britain's failures in peacetime have usually been due to spending too little money, employing unprofessional agents and in lack of co-ordination between espionage and counter-espionage sections. Russia's failures in peacetime have been caused by employing too many agents too obviously and in a tendency to over-confidence.
Yagoda had much purging of over-confident and unprofessional agents to carry out in the early thirties. Matters had come to a head by the arrests of three key agents, Rudolph Gaida, a Czech Legionnaire, in Prague in 1926, of Daniel Vetrenko, the head of the Polish network, in 1927, and of Bue and Euphony by the Swiss Police shortly afterwards. Every counter-espionage service in Europe was alerted to the peril in its midst: the Austrians closed in on the Vienna network and in May 1927, discovered that its leader was an official of the Soviet Legation named Balcony.