Yagoda was born in Rybinsk into a Jewish family. The son of a jeweller, trained as a statistician, who worked as a pharmacist’s assistant,he claimed that he was an active revolutionary from the age of 14 when he worked as a compositor on an underground printing press in Nizhni-Novgorod, and that at the age of 15 he was a member of a fighting squad in the Sormovo district of Nizhni-Novgorod, during the violent suppression of the 1905 revolution. He said he joined the Bolsheviks in Nizhni-Novgorod at the age of 16 or 17, and was arrested and sent into exile in 1911.In 1913, he moved to St Petersburg to work at the Putilov steel works. After the outbreak of war, he joined the army, and was wounded in action.
After the October Revolution of 1917, Yagoda rose rapidly through the ranks of the Cheka (the predecessor of the OGPU and NKVD) to become the second deputy of the Jewish founder of the cheka Felix Dzerzhinsky, in September 1923.
After Dzerzhinsky’s appointment as chairman of the Supreme Council of National Economy in January 1924, Yagoda became the deputy chief and the real manager of the State Political Directorate (OGPU).As deputy head of the OGPU, Yagoda organized the building of the White Sea–Baltic Canal using forced labor at breakneck speed between 1931 and 1933 at the cost of huge casualties.
Solzhenitsyn writes of the period in 1934 and 1935, when the Jewish commissar Genrikh Yagoda headed the Soviet secret police, and Yagoda’s black vans went out every night in St. Petersburg, known then as Leningrad, to round up “class enemies”: former members of the aristocracy, former civil servants, former businessmen, former teachers and professors and professional people, any Russian — any real Russian — who had graduated from a university. A quarter of the population of the city was arrested and liquidated by Yagoda during this two-year period.
In March 1937, Yagoda was arrested on Stalin’s orders.. He was accused of poisoning Maxim Gorky and his son. It was discovered that Yagoda’s two Moscow apartments and his dacha contained 3,904 pornographic photos, 11 pornographic films, 165 pornographically carved pipes.
Yagoda was found guilty of treason and conspiracy against the Soviet government at the Trial of the Twenty-One in March 1938. He denied he was a spy, but admitted most other charges. Solzhenitsyn describes Yagoda as expecting clemency from Stalin after the show trial: “Just as though Stalin had been sitting right there in the hall, Yagoda confidently and insistently begged him directly for mercy: ‘I appeal to you! For you I built two great canals!’
Sources1. Runes, Dagobert D.: Despotism, a pictorial history of tyranny. Philosophical Library 1963
2.Gulah Archipelago, aleksandr solzhenitsyn
3.Kotkin, Stephen (2014). Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928.