Not much is known about Ezhov (or Yezhov, depending on how you like to write it). He was born in a poor worker's family in the outskirts of Saint Peterburg. He received only a primary education. He was orphaned early in life and raised from age 12 by the Shlyapnikovs, a Bolshevik family. At age 14, he started work at a factory. He changed working trades several times and developed the class instincts of a young proletarian.
Drafted into the Russian Army during World War I, Ezhov deserted after the "February" 1917 revolution and went to revolutionary Saint Peterburg. He joined the Bolsheviks in May 1917, supported the Communist "October" revolution, and joined the Red Army in early 1918. As his supervisors praised his discipline and his diligence in fulfilling orders, he rose in rank as a military commissar (political supervisor of professional officers).
During the Great Terror (1937 to 1938), at least 1.5 million Soviet citizens were arrested for alleged crimes against the state. Some 700,000 of them were shot. A dozen years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, still-classified Soviet archives reveal for the first time the scope of communist terrorism under Joseph Stalin.
Nikolai Ezhov rose from obscurity to become Stalin's ruthless functionary in total charge of the era's massive purges. For fifteen months, Ezhov was a hero in the Politbureau. He became a member of the party's Central Committee (1934) and succeeded Genrikh Yagoda as chief of the Soviet security police, or NKVD (1936). He instituted the most severe stage of the Great Purge. By 1938 he had become the object of Stalin's suspicions and was replaced by Lavrenty Beria as head of the NKVD.
On April 10, 1939, he was arrested. He could not bear torture and during interrogation confessed everything: spying, wrecking, conspiring, terrorism, and sodomy (apparently, he had maintained frequent homosexual contacts). On February 2, 1940, he was tried behind closed doors and sentenced to death, to be shot the following night. Less than three and a half years after his appointment, he was killed by Berja, and his name obliterated from government files.
According to a witness, just before the execution Yezhov was ordered to undress himself and then was beaten by guards at the order of Beria, the new NKVD Chief, just as Yezhov had ordered the guards to beat his predecessor Yagoda before his execution only two years prior. Yezhov reportedly had to be carried bodily into the execution chamber, hiccuping and weeping uncontrollably. His ashes were dumped in a common grave at Donskoi Cemetery.
In 1998, the Military Collegium of the Russian Supreme Court ruled that justice had been served by the secret trial and execution of Nikolai Ezhov, "enemy of the people." Using Ezhov's own papers meticulously documenting his loyalty to Stalin, and the full human tragedy encompassed in Ezhov's meteoric and bloody career.