The Bolshevik

The Bolshevik
A painting from 1920 by Russian artist Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev (1878–1927) currently in the possession of The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

07 February 2011

NKVD and the Great Terror Part I

Beginnings of the Great Purge/Terror

The NKVD, or People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Russian: Народный комиссариат внутренних дел), was created shortly after the 1917 October Revolution, but inherited an overwhelming number of duties from its Imperial predecessor, the MVD. Under Stalin the NKVD was transformed in 1934 for the initial purpose of being both the standard public police/militia and the Soviet secret/political police. The organization was a combination of the MVD, Ministry of Internal Affairs (Russian: МВД or Министерство внутренних дел), and the OGPU, All-Union State Political Directorate (Russian: ОГПУ or Объединённое государственное политическое управление) which was the direct descendant of the Cheka founded by Felix Dzerzhinsky. 

The NKVD from 1936-1938 is infamous as the instrument by which Stalin "purged" the Communist Party, Soviet military and generally anyone who spoke out in opposition to his regime - including some who were quite innocent of the fabricated charges made against them. Stalin gave the NKVD the same powers of arrest, trial and execution that the now subordinate OGPU once had (see No. 5 in decree below). Their main and most feared concept was the troika or three man "extrajudicial" system which was charged with the duty of taking some of the burden off of the standard Soviet judicial system at the time by means of  trying those arrested by the infantry units of the NKVD. History has shown that it is unlikely that anyone brought before a troika received anything remotely near a fair trial and were often simply executed in accordance with the "speedy trial" mandate.

The following is a translation of the decree from the Central Executive Committee of the USSR which transformed the NKVD on July 10, 1934 and was originally published in the Soviet Union's official newspaper, Izvestiya:

The Central Executive Committee of the USSR decrees:
1. To establish the All-Union People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs and to include in it the Unified [All-Union] State Political Department (OGPU).
2. The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs is to be charged with the following duties: Internal ensuring of revolutionary order and security of the State. Internal safeguarding of public (socialist) property. Internal registration of civil acts (registration of births, deaths, marriages and divorces). Internal guarding of frontiers.
3. To form the following departments in the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs:
  • Chief Administration of Security of the State.
  • Chief Administration of Workers' and Peasants' Police.
  • Chief Administration of Security of frontiers and of order in the country.
  • Chief Administration of Fire Defense.
  • Chief Administration of Correctional and labor camps and labor settlements.
  • Chief Administration of Civil Acts.
  • Internal Administrative and Economic Department.
4. To organize, in the allied republics, republican People's Commissariats for Internal Affairs which are to function on the basis of the same Regulations as the All-Union People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, and to establish in the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, instead of the republican People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the office of Plenipotentiary Representative of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs of the USSR To organize in autonomous republics, provinces and regions, local departments of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs of the allied republics.
5. To abolish the judicial commission of the OGPU.
6. The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs and its local departments are to hand over the papers regarding criminal offenses which are investigated by them, after the investigation has been completed, to the courts in correspondence with their jurisdiction and in accordance with the existing legal procedure.
7. Documents relating to cases investigated by the Department of Security of the State in the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, are to be handed over to the Supreme Court of the USSR, and the papers relating to such crimes as treason, espionage and the like, are to be handed over to the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR or to the Military Tribunals according to their jurisdiction.
8. To form a special Council attached to the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs of the USSR which, in accordance with its Statute, shall have power to issue orders regarding administrative deportation, exile, imprisonment in correctional and labor camps for a term not exceeding 5 years and deportation outside the confines of the USSR.
9. To instruct the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs of the USSR to present the Statute of the Pan [All]-Union People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs to the Council of People's Commissariat of the USSR for confirmation.
President of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR, M. Kalinin Secretary of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR, A. Enukidze*

Nikolai Yezhov, Head of NKVD
from 1936-1938

Genrikh Yagoda, head of NKVD
from 1934-1936
The NKVD was given enormous power and at the same time was expected to coordinate the task of manning and operating every aspect of foreign or state security (with the help of the now subordinate OGPU) together with the more mundane duties of running local police and fire departments. Moreover, they were expected to administer the state border guard and the gulag system. Under normal circumstances it is unwise to give this much authority or power to a single organization, but with the leadership Stalin installed at the head of the NKVD (namely Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria) he was content with a false sense of "security" in believing that every charge on the NKVD's long list of duties was being performed to the best or highest possible standards. As a paranoid and delusional despot, Stalin felt more comfortable with being in total control of every aspect of foreign and internal intelligence and security, which also made it easier for him to hunt, find and judge his prey (either indirectly or directly) through orders to the chiefs of the NKVD, particularly Yezhov. In fact, the height of the Purge during 1937-1938 is referred to in Russian history as Yezhovshchina, or literally "Yezhov Regime." When Yezhov was later "purged" himself by Stalin, all traces of his existence were erased from Soviet history, going even so far as to alter photographs which showed Yezhov and Stalin together. The most famous example is below from a photograph where in the original (left) Stalin is walking along the Moscow-Volga Rivers Canal with three of the highest ranking officials of his government: from left, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov and Yezhov on the right. After Yezhov was tried and executed for crimes against the state in 1939, all of the original photos were replaced with the retouched one on the right until 1991. Yezhov was accused of crimes ranging from "incompetence" to "sexual deviancy" to simply treason. Today, best estimates suggest that Yezhov, acting mostly on Stalin's orders, arrested over 1.3 million Soviet citizens. Of these, over 680,000 were executed for "crimes against the state" and the rest were sent into the Gulag system where well over 140,000 died of malnutrition or disease brought about by malnutrition and a weakened state of health.

(Photo source:

Lavrenty Beria, chief of the
NKVD and later MVD from
Perhaps the most dangerous of all of the chiefs of the NKVD under Stalin was Lavrenty Beria who was a power-hungry man with his own driving aspirations for control of the Soviet Union similar to those of Stalin. After Stalin's death in 1953 and with the NKVD no longer at the helm of the foreign intelligence services since the creation of the People's Commissariat of State Security (NKGB) in 1943, Beria was desperate to regain all of the security services under his NKVD again. In 1946, all People's Commissariats (NKs) were renamed "Ministries" and thus the NKGB became the MGB and the NKVD became the MVD (again). Ironically, it wasn't until after Beria's arrest and Stalin's death in 1953 that the MVD took control of the MGB until 1954 when they were split again and would remain the MVD and KGB. The KGB was abolished in 1991 and replaced by several separate agencies - one dealing with foreign intelligence and many others handling counterintelligence and anti-terrorism within the Russian Federation. The MVD remains under the same name today.

For more information on the role of Beria in the Stalin administration, see the chapter, "Restructuring the Wartime Security Services" from 19 April 2015 here:

For additional information on the NKVD, Cheka, KGB or other Soviet and Cold War security agencies and subjects, please click on the dates in the column on the right. 


  1. I am so confused as to what this meant.... I was going to use it for a school project, but it's not in my seventh grade language!!!!

  2. Well, and not to be rude, perhaps your 7th grade teachers did not teach you that you should read from the top of the page. If you had, you might have noticed that I advised that people start with the "Introduction" and then follow the progression choronologically. There is a reason for that. If you read from the beginning, then you might understand sections like this one that came later. Each new post assumes that the previous ones have been read and that there is no need to continue to repeat the same basic information. Think of the site as a book rather than a blog and you will get more out of it.

    Incidentally, I do not have a problem with people using the material herein so long as I am asked first. All material in this site is copyrighted either by myself (what I have written) or by those that are properly cited in footnotes (who wrote the things I did not). I believe the technical wording is "used by permission only."

  3. From one amateur historian to another, I very much enjoyed your excellent article and I must say that I learned additional information from it. I believe that when the NKVD succeeded the OGPU in July, 1934, the OGPU was dissolved and the GUGB, the Main Directorate for State Security was created. It was a different name doing the same work. Its heads were, in chronological order, Yakov Agranov, Mikhail Frinovsky, Lavrenti Beria, and Vsevolod Merkulov. The first two were shot during and just after the Purges and Merkulov later became the head of the NKGB. Thank you again for your thorough job and I welcome any comments or observations, or correspondence, for that matter.


  4. Thank you Rich. You are of course correct on every point. I am working on as concise a set of "chapters" as possible to finish up the NKGB and SMERSH. When those are done and published, one more is intended to cover the short-lived, but extremely influential MGB and then I'll be on to the KGB - the ultimate goal of this project as a refresher/reminder of Cold War tactics, politics, fears and propaganda (much of which we are unfortunately witnessing again from far different corners of the globe than during the 1960-1980s).

    I welcome any input you may wish to have in this project (fully cited) and you may contact me directly at - which I thought was posted somewhere on this site.


  5. Is it alright if I use some of the information in this article for a website I am making for a school project on the NKVD?

  6. Of course. Just be sure to cite the correct sources. You will notice that there are two footnotes for information I obtained from other sources.

  7. Hi, I would like to see the source of the first footnote but I'm afriad the link is not working! I would be very grateful if you could update the link to it, as I'm very interested in finding sources about the NKVD's purpose and structure :)

  8. Felix Dzerzhinsky spirit is alive by every chekist in the heart.Felix Dzerzhinsky without fear of Tsarist oppression in 1917 m. created a large and powerful organization checka.NKVD The success of this great and powerful organization continuation.