The secret police went by numerous different names over the course of the Soviet Union’s 69 years of existence, but from 1934 until Stalin’s death in 1953 they were known as the NKVD. Above the law and separate from the party, the NKVD answered to Stalin alone. It was the instrument through which Stalin inflicted terror on a population of more than 170 million, and one of the main pillars on which his power rested.
An entirely rational fear of the secret police permeated all levels of Soviet society. Almost everybody had a friend or relative who’d vanished never to be seen again. It was understood yet rarely mentioned that the NKVD were responsible for the disappearances. The activities of the secret police were an open secret; to mention their existence carried the very real risk of a visit.
Any man elevated to head of the NKVD wielded power second only to that of Stalin. This made their position a dangerous one. The first chief of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, was himself arrested, tortured, and executed on Stalin’s orders. His successor, Nikolai Yezhov, nicknamed the poison dwarf due to his short stature, suffered the same fate.