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Timothy D. Snyder wrote a history book, Bloodlands about the mass killings of Central/Eastern Europeans between 1933-1945.

Jewish Currents, a magazine of the Jewish Left, cite him in making claims about the NKVD - the Soviet agency responsible for police work, prisons and labor camps.

Cheka, the first incarnation of the Soviet secret police (NKVD), was established on this date in 1917. Many Jews played leading roles in the secret police, and even more fell victim to it. “About 40 percent of high-ranking NKVD officers had Jewish nationality recorded in their identity documents,” writes Yale University professor Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, “as did more than half of the NKVD generals.

Is this claim about the Jewish ethnicity of high-ranking NKVD officers true?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jamiec Nov 14 at 8:45
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This is an at one time accurate and still highly misleading number. The total numbers and ratios of Jews in that organisation varied enormously. While true for at 'the highest point', this point is really just a point on the timeline, with vastly lower figures on the rest of it.

The Snyder quote in context reads:

Internationalism was not hypocrisy, and ethnic killing was a shock to the Soviet system. The NKVD was composed of many nationalities, and represented a kind of internationalism. When the show trials began in 1936, the heights of the NKVD were dominated by men whose own origins were within the Soviet national minorities, Jews above all. About forty percent of high-ranking NKVD officers had Jewish nationality recorded in their identity documents, as did more than half of the NKVD generals. In the climate of the day, Jews had perhaps more reason than others to resist policies of ethnic destruction. Perhaps to counter the internationalist (or self-preservation) instinct of his officers, Yezhov sent out a special circular assuring them that their task was to punish espionage rather than ethnicity: “On the Fascist-Insurgent, Sabotage, Defeatist, and Terrorist Activity of the Polish Intelligence Service in the USSR.” Its thirty pages expanded upon the theory that Yezhov had already shared with the central committee and with Stalin: that the Polish Military Organization was connected to other espionage “centers” and had penetrated every key Soviet institution.

–– Timothy Snyder: "Bloodlands. Europe Between Hitler and Stalin", Basic Books: New York, 2010. (p93)

The only reference for this whole paragraph is about the "Polish operation".

Endnote: Petrov, “Polish Operation,” 154; Nikolskyi, Represyvna, 105. Figures on representatives of national minorities are given later in the chapter.

Snyder's book received not only praise:

"It seems to me that he is simply equating Nazi genocide with the mass murders carried out in the Soviet Union under Stalin […] There is nothing wrong with comparing. It's the equation that I find highly troubling."

Dovid Katz, a historian of Lithuanian Jewry, commented that "Snyder flirts with the very wrong moral equivalence between Hitler and Stalin […] None of these incidents besides the Holocaust involved the willful massacre of a whole race. There is something very different going on, beyond politics, when people try to murder all the babies of a race." Other professional historians to take issue with Snyder's arguments and methods include Thomas Kühne, Omer Bartov, Dan Diner, Christian Ingrao and Dariusz Stola.

As Richard Evans notes quite a few of the details Snyder gets wrong for his quest:

A historian of East-Central Europe, Snyder hasn’t really mastered the voluminous literature on Hitler’s Germany. This leads him into error in a number of places. […]

Much more seriously, Snyder’s assertion that the launching of the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe’ was the outcome of Hitler’s rage and frustration at not being able to win the war against the Soviet Union does not stand up to scrutiny.

In fact, we know about the events Snyder describes already, despite his repeated assertions that we don’t. What we need is not to be told yet again the facts about mass murder, but to understand why it took place and how people could carry it out, and in this task Snyder’s book is of no use.
–– Richard J. Evans: "Who remembers the Poles?", London Review of Books, Vol. 32 No. 21, 4 November 2010. (p21–22)

But below that criticism we also read on the same page:

The purges of 1937 are linked convincingly to Stalin’s fear of encirclement and the threat he believed he faced from a chimerical alliance of Poland, Germany and Japan. In discussing these and subsequent purges, Snyder deals very effectively with the anti-semitic assumption that the Soviet regime was essentially controlled by Jews and that most Jews were Communists and most Communists Jews. He shows how already, by the outbreak of war in 1939, the number of people of Jewish origin in the NKVD had been greatly reduced, and describes the growing hostility of Stalin towards Jews, culminating in the postwar ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ purge.
–– Antony Polonsky; Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

The same author presents the following numbers:

Jews also played a significant role in the Cheka, the secret police which maintained the new regime. The overall percentage of Jews in the organization was quite low: 3.7 per cent of the Moscow apparatus, 4.3 per cent of Cheka commissars, 8.6 per cent of senior (‘responsible’) officials in 1918, and 9.1 per cent of all members of provincial Cheka offices in 1920. Most members of the Cheka were Russians, and, as in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a key role at this stage was played by Latvians, who constituted 35.6 per cent of the Moscow Cheka apparatus, 52.7 per cent of all Cheka senior officials, and 54.3 per cent of all Cheka commissars. But even in the Cheka, Bolsheviks of Jewish origin combined ideological commitment with literacy in ways that set them apart and propelled them upward. In 1918, 65.5 per cent of all Jewish Cheka employees were ‘responsible officials’ and some held more senior positions. In 1918 they made up 19.1 per cent of all investigators in the central office and half (six out of twelve) of those in the department for ‘combating counter-revolution’. In 1923, when the OGPU replaced the Cheka, Jews constituted half (four out of eight) of the members of its collegium and 15.5 per cent of its ‘leading’ officials. Jews were also involved with two of the most symbolic acts of terror during the civil war, the murder of Nicholas II and his family and the massacre at the end of the civil war of thousands of refugees and prisoners of war left behind in the Crimea after the evacuation of the White armies, which was carried out under instructions from the Hungarian communist Béla Kun, at this time the chairman of the Crimean Revolutionary Committee, and R. S. Zemliachka (Rozaliia Zalkind), the head of the Crimean Party Committee.[xxi]

Jews became more important in the security apparatus in the period of collectivization and the first Five Year Plan. In July 1934 Genrikh Yagoda was appointed people’s commissar for internal affairs, with control over the regular as well as secret police, and when later that year the OGPU was transformed into the NKVD, people classed as Jews under paragraph 5 of the internal passport law made up thirty-seven out of the ninety-six ‘leading cadres’ of the organization, as against thirty Russians, seven Latvians, five Ukrainians, four Poles, three Georgians, three Belarusians, two Germans, and five others. They headed a number of key NKVD departments between them that were responsible for the worker–peasant militia (the police), labour camps, counter-intelligence, surveillance, and economic sabotage.[xxii] When Stalin replaced Yagoda in September 1936, he appointed another Jew, the more zealous Nikolai Yezhov. In January 1937 the 111 top NKVD officials included 42 Jews, 35 Russians, 8 Latvians, and 26 others. Of the twenty NKVD directorates, twelve (including state security, police, labour camps, and resettlement) were headed by officers identified as ethnic Jews. Of the ten departments of the Main Directorate for State Security, the most sensitive of all NKVD agencies, seven (protection of government officials, counter-intelligence, secret political, special (surveillance in the army), foreign intelligence, records, and prisons) were headed by Jews. The prominence of Jews in the security apparatus may well have reflected a deliberate decision by Stalin to use them in these unpopular roles in order to deflect hostility from himself and the Soviet state.

However, by now the role of the Jews in the NKVD was coming to an end and Yezhov’s replacement by Beria, a Georgian like Stalin himself, was followed by a diminution in Jews in leadership positions.[xxiii] In the years 1934–1941 the number of cadre leaders grew gradually from 96 in 182. According to the calculations of Petrov and Skorkin, on 10 July 1934, when the OGPU was incorporated into the Main Administration of State Security (Glavnoe Upravlenie Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti) into a unified NKVD, Jews held 38.5 per cent of these posts, Russians 31.2 per cent, and Latvians 7.3 per cent.

On 26 February 1941, when the security section of the NKVD was split off into a separate body, the NKGB, Jews made up only 5.5 per cent and Russians 64.8 per cent of its personnel; Ukrainians (15.4 per cent) and Georgians (6.6 per cent) overtook the Jews. In the organization as a whole this change can be documented to the end of 1938 and the beginning of 1939: on 1 September 1938 Jews still constituted 21.3 per cent of the management cadre, but as of 1 July 1939, they were only 3.9 per cent.[xxiv] This development may reflect Stalin’s increasing interest in making an arrangement with Hitler.

The rapid social advancement of Jews and the role they played in the new regime aroused considerable resentment something which alarmed the party. It monitored the strength of antisemitism and took action against those advocating it. This sometimes took violent form, as in March 1925, when seven Russian nationalists were shot for advocating the toppling of the ‘Communist Jewish’ regime and the deportation of all Soviet Jews to Palestine, among other charges.[xxv]

[xx] B. Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: The History of a National Minority(Cambridge, 1988), 78–9.
[xxi] L. Krichevskii, ‘Evrei v apparate VChK-OGPU v 20-e gody,’ in O. Budnitskii (ed.), Evrei i russkaia revoliutsiia: Materialy i issledovaniia, (Moscow, 1999), 320-50; L. Schapiro, ‘The Role of the Jews in the Russian Revolutionary Movement’, 165.
[xxii] A. Kokurin and N. Petrov (eds.), Lubyanka: VChK—OGPU—NKVD—NKGB—MGB—MVD—KGB, 1917–1960: Spravochnik(Moscow,1997),12, 104; N. Petrov and K. Skorkin (eds.), Kto rukovodil NKVD 1934–1941: Spravochnik (Moscow, 1999)139–40, 459–60, 495.
[xxiii] Kokurin and Petrov (eds.), Lubyanka, 17–18, 105–6; Petrov and Skorkin (eds.), Kto rukovodil NKVD 1934–1941, 105; P. Sudoplatov, Razvedka i Kreml′: Zapiski nezhelatel′nogo svidetelya (Moscow,1997).
[xxiv] Petrov and Skorkin (eds.), Kto rukovodil NKVD 1934–1941, p. 495, table 4.
[xxv] V. Izmozik, ‘“Evreiskii vopros” v chastnoi perepiske sovetskikh grazhdan serediny 1920-kh gg.’,Vestnik Evreiskogo universiteta v Moskve, no. 3/7 (1994), 164–88165–7; Kostyrchenko, Tainaya politika Stalina, 107–8.

–– Antony Polonsky: "Jews and Communism in the Soviet Union and Poland", The American Center for Polish-Jewish Studies

So we need to look at the dates and the development of Cheka to NKVD.

WHAT WAS THE CHEKA?
The All Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter- Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka—for the Russian initials for Extraordinary (Ch) Commission (K)) was formed in December 1917 by Vladimir I. Lenin and entrusted to a corps of international revolutionaries. A quick look at the men who formed the initial leadership cadre finds Polish, Jewish, Latvian, German, and Swiss-French, as well as Russian, last names. These men, faced with counterintelligence, police, and security responsibilities, grew the Cheka to a cadre of more than 250,000 men and women by 1921. By the mid-1930s, the security service, which had been successively renamed the GPU, OGPU, and NKVD in little more than a decade, had become the largest secret police service in history. But by 1936 it was about to fall under the wheels of history.

THREE CHIEFS OF STATE SECURITY
Born in 1891 into a Jewish working class family, Genryk Yagoda transferred in 1919 from the Red Army Inspectorate to the Cheka. According to Kto Rukovoditel, Yagoda rose quickly through senior positions in the service, always serving in headquarters. While initially identified closely with Stalin, he was transferred to the Ministry of Communication in September 1936. He was arrested in 1937, and tried with the Old Bolshevik, Nikolai Bukharin in 1938. He was shot the day following the trial.

Nikolai Yezhov, just four years younger than Yagoda, rose quickly as a member of Stalin’s Secretariat. In the mid-1930s, he oversaw the workings of the NKVD. Appointed to head the service in September 1936, for the next twenty-six months he oversaw a purge of Soviet society which still bares his name, Yezhovshchina (the time of Yezhov). He was transferred to the Ministry of Water Transport in 1938, and arrested in 1939. His last letter to Stalin in February 1940 stated that he would die with his master’s name on his lips.

Lavrenty Beria was, like Stalin, a Georgian. Born in 1899, he rose quickly in the Party and police bureaucracy in his native Georgia. In mid-1938, he was brought to Moscow by Stalin as Yezhov’s deputy, and six months later took over the secret police. For the next fifteen years, he oversaw Soviet intelligence and security services, as well as the country’s nuclear weapons program. Following Stalin’s death, he was arrested in July 1953. Tried as a "British spy," he was shot two days before Christmas 1953.

The First ("Yagoda") Generation, 1934–1937

Between 1936 and 1939, two generations of NKVD leaders disappeared into the dustbin of history, while a third emerged, which was to lead the "competent organs" in the Great Patriotic War and the post–World War II era. The first generation of Chekists, recruited into the security service in 1918–1921, had joined the Communist Party while in their late teens and early twenties. Almost all had served in the Red Army or the Red Guards in their teenage years. A typical biography suggests that these men joined Red military detachments in 1917–1919 while in their mid- to late- teens, and were recruited or drafted into the Cheka 12–24 and the Communist Party months later.

An examination of the nationality of these men suggests that Jews and Latvians were overrepresented, while Ukrainians and Byelorussians were underrepresented. Almost all this first generation came from a peasant or working-class background, and almost none had finished secondary education. This confirms scholar Richard Pipes’s assertion that the Cheka was the "most Soviet of all Lenin’s new Soviet institutions." Alekandr Yakovlev’s research suggests that early generations of secret policemen were largely "lumpen" thugs. According to Yakovlev, even the leaders were sickened by some of these recruits; one senior secret policeman told Maksim Gorky in 1919, "If you only knew what kind of people work for us."

The first generation managed the security services from the mid-1920s through 1936–1937, rising quickly to positions of leadership at the provincial and national level while in their mid- to late-30s. They increased the prison camp and exile communities from a population of approximately 800,000 at the onset of collectivization in 1930, to more than 2,000,000 in 1934. More important, they oversaw the rapid expansion of the NKVD’s bureaucratic role as its offices expanded to every rayon (county) in the country, and the labor camp system expanded to mineral extraction, gold mining, and timbering. Biographic materials suggest that most had a professional relationship with Genryk Yagoda, People’s Commissar for Internal Security until September 1936, and his chief deputies. Most had been rapidly promoted in the early 1930s with the expansion of the secret police.

The first generation was purged at the direction of Stalin and his chief lieutenants, Vyacheslav Molotov and Nikolai Yezhov. These statements, taken from Borys Levytsky’s The Stalinist Terror in the Thirties, suggest that Stalin distrusted the NKVD, and felt it incompetent to pursue the purging of the Communist Party.

THE SECOND ("YEZHOV") GENERATION, 1936–1938
The second generation of NKVD leaders were promoted and rewarded during Nikolai Yezhov’s leadership of the service (September 1936 – November 1938), known to Russians decades later as the Yezhovshchina (the Yezhov period). These men were promoted to fill places in the NKVD as the first generation was purged by Yezhov.

For the most part, they – like the earlier generation—had been recruited into the Cheka in the early 1920s while in their early twenties. Few had more than a grammar school education. Almost all served in the Red Army during the Civil War.

Unlike the early generation, these survivors were more Slavic and more Russian than the first generation, with the sword of the service falling most heavily on Jews and Balts. (Notably, an examination of a purge of the Red Army in 1937 indicates that Jews and Latvians also suffered a higher percentage of executions and imprisonment than did Russians, and at the end of the purges the Red Army was far more "Slavic" and Russian.) Many of the second generation of NKVD leaders were rapidly promoted from mid-level to senior positions in the service as a rolling purge claimed its victims. In Moscow, Leningrad, and other major cities, for example, the leadership of the NKVD turned over three to five times during the Yezhov period.

–– Robert W. Pringle: "Modernization of Terror: The Transformation of Stalin's NKVD, 1934–1941", International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 17:1, 113-123, 2004. DOI: 10.1080/08850600490252687

According to exact numbers, from that era, and from that source – it's a secret police, after all it might be prudent to keep in m that

these figures, of course are false. But they pop up officially to this day.

–– Alexander Yakovlev: "A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia", p. 233.

Notice that until now it was "Jews were over-represented". But the overall numbers concerning ethnicity and 'Jews in the Cheka and NKVD' looks a bit different:

In November 1923, of 96 top leaders of the OGPU, successor to the CHEKA and predecessor of the NKVD, 15 (15.7%) were Jews, second only to Russians (54, or 56.3%). In May 1924, of 2402 employees of the central apparatus of the OGPU, 204 (8.5%) were Jews, third behind Russians (69.5%) and Latvians (8.7%). Gradually, the proportion of non-Russians, especially Latvians, in the secret police apparatus declined. But in 1934, when the ‘great purges’ were launched, there were more Jews (37) than Russians (30) in the top positions in the NKVD, though that changed drastically by 1941.

–– Zvi Gitelman (2010) A jagged circle: from ethnicity to internationalism to cosmopolitanism – and back, European Review of History: Revue européenne d'histoire, 17:3, 523-539, DOI: 10.1080/13507486.2010.481956

These figures are largely based on

Robert Conquest: "The Great Terror. Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties", 1968.

  • That single point of January 1937 (when the peak was observed) is historically important because it coincides with the Great Purge of 1936–1938. – Dmitry Grigoryev Nov 25 at 9:11

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