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On December 4, 1934, the Red Arrow chugged from Leningrad through the freezing dawn to Moscow's October Railway Station. Inside was a coffin containing the bullet-scarred body of Sergei Kirov, former Leningrad Party Chief, Politburo member, and prize orator of the Stalin regime. Kirov's murder, allegedly by a lone gunman, sparked the brutal purges that characterized the Stalin ...
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On December 4, 1934, the Red Arrow chugged from Leningrad through the freezing dawn to Moscow's October Railway Station. Inside was a coffin containing the bullet-scarred body of Sergei Kirov, former Leningrad Party Chief, Politburo member, and prize orator of the Stalin regime. Kirov's murder, allegedly by a lone gunman, sparked the brutal purges that characterized the Stalin regime, and speculation about it still fascinates the Russians, much as the Kennedy assassination fascinates Americans.
Kirov was charismatic and approachable, so popular that many Russians believed he was the only real threat to Stalin's power. Who murdered him, and why? Stalin, disaffected political opponents, a jealous husband? And if Kirov had lived, would the Soviet Union have become a totalitarian police state or something quite different indeed? Scholars throughout the world see Kirov as the key to understanding Stalin, and for years have argued about various pieces of the story-but definitive evidence has eluded them. Now Amy Knight has combed the recently opened Russian archives to reconstruct this haunting crime and analyze its impact on the Russian people. The result is at once a breathtaking murder mystery and a definitive piece of scholarship that sheds new light on Stalin's politics.
A December Tragedy
In the first days when Leningrad was orphaned, Stalin rushed there. He went to the place where the crime against our country was committed. The enemy did not fire at Kirov personally. No! He fired at the proletarian revolution.
—Pravda, 5 December 1934
On 4 December 1934, with a freezing, damp dawn breaking over Moscow's October railway station, a large delegation of workers, summoned for the occasion by the party, watched in shivering silence as the Red Arrow from Leningrad pulled up and a coffin was lowered onto the platform. Inside was the bullet-scarred body of Sergei Kirov, former Leningrad party chief, Politburo member, and prized orator of the Stalin regime. As workers shouldered the coffin, a group of Kirov's former colleagues, led by Stalin, stepped off the train, doubtless weary after the all-night journey from Leningrad. Their faces, all but hidden in the thick folds of their coat collars and the heavy fur of their hats, were expressionless.
Kirov had been murdered late in the afternoon on 1 December, in the Leningrad party headquarters at the Smolnyi Institute, an imposing neoclassical building that had once been an aristocratic girls' school. That same day, immediately after learning the news of the tragedy, Stalin had ordered several leading party officials to accompany him to Leningrad. After a perfunctory visit of consolation to Kirov's distraught widow, Mariia L'vovna, Stalin and his subordinates began an investigation of the crime. It was highlyunusual for the top political leadership to abandon the capital to oversee a case that the NKVD, the powerful and efficient secret police, was presumably well equipped to handle on its own. But this was no ordinary crime. The victim was one of Stalin's closest comrades. Since the death (by apparent suicide) of Stalin's wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, two years earlier, Kirov had become an indispensable companion to Stalin, vacationing with him in the South and even having the rare privilege (given Stalin's extreme self-consciousness about his physical appearance) of accompanying him to the sauna. Though separated by hundreds of kilometers, they talked often on the telephone—sometimes, given Stalin's erratic work habits, in the middle of the night.
Leningrad, moreover, was no ordinary city. Just a few years earlier it had been rife with party oppositionists who took the side of the "leftist" Grigorii Zinoviev in his quarrel with Stalin. As a member of the Politburo, the Communist Party's leading body, and head of the Leningrad government, Zinoviev had joined with the prominent Bolshevik Lev Kamenev in opposing Stalin's economic and political leadership. After Zinoviev had been ousted from Leningrad in 1926, Kirov, as the new party chief, had waged a difficult struggle to rid the Leningrad party of loyal Zinovievites. Stalin had never trusted Leningraders, whose city, built by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century to serve as Russia's "window on the West," he detested. The home of Russia's most prominent intellectual and cultural figures, Leningrad seemed more European than Russian. Thus he would personally see to it that justice was wrought for Comrade Kirov.
The investigation produced surprisingly quick results. On 3 December, just one day after Stalin and his group arrived, Pravda cited an NKVD communiqué: "The preliminary investigation has established that the name of the villain, the murderer of Comrade Kirov, is Leonid Vasil'evich Nikolaev, born 1904, a former employee of the Leningrad RKI [Worker-Peasants' Inspectorate]. The investigation continues." Further details emerged the next day. Citing the NKVD, the papers claimed that Kirov had been preparing a report to give at a party meeting at the Tauride Palace that evening. Nikolaev stood near Kirov's office at the Smolnyi, where he usually received visitors, and when Kirov "walked by into his office," Nikolaev came from behind and shot him in the neck. The murderer was caught on the spot. Kirov was carried unconscious into his office, where doctors found him without a pulse and not breathing. Efforts to resuscitate him proved fruitless. The bullet lodged in the victim's neck was the type used in a Nagan revolver, which had been established as the weapon. The circumstances of the attack and the path of the bullet indicated that the victim had been shot at close range.
As would later emerge from documents on the case, the report contained some curious anomalies. First, the alleged assassin, Nikolaev, was identified only as a "former employee of the RKI." But he had worked at the RKI (a government monitoring agency) in 1932-33; his last place of employment, from which he had been fired in April 1934, was the Institute of Party History. Why would only the RKI be mentioned? Second, the papers implied that Kirov had been working at the Smolnyi that day, when in fact he had been writing his report at home and had turned up unexpectedly at the Smolnyi late in the afternoon. He was not shot outside his office, but a good fifty-five feet away, outside the office of the second secretary, Mikhail Chudov. It was into Chudov's office, not Kirov's, that his body had been carried. In addition to the bullet that hit Kirov so accurately at close range, another had been fired, lodging in a cornice near the ceiling. And finally, no mention was made of the fact that Nikolaev had been taken unconscious to a special NKVD medical unit for treatment before being interrogated.
Such inaccuracies might be understandable in a country with independent newspapers that sent out reporters to the crime scene and hurried to publish the news. But the Soviet press did not allow for mistakes. By 1934 the Soviet Union had become, under Stalin, a state where all forms of public expression were controlled by the party and the secret police. Even the smallest detail was subject to intense scrutiny before being printed, making it unlikely that these errors had crept in by chance. Was the public being deliberately misinformed?
Another important piece of information that never appeared in the press was that a key witness, Kirov's bodyguard M. D. Borisov, was killed. in an alleged accident a day after the crime, while on the way to be questioned by Stalin. Although news of the accident spread quickly around Leningrad, the newspapers ignored this unfortunate event completely, devoting their pages instead to the glorification of Kirov.
The slain leader became a saint overnight. News about the funeral plans and Kirov's lying in state were interspersed with poignant statements about the loss from stricken workers and party members. According to one observer, a young Soviet diplomat named Alexander Barmine: "The papers at the time of Kirov's death were filled with his praises, and with expressions of grief, actually far exceeding those which followed the death of Lenin. For at least twelve days all Soviet newspapers were devoted from the first to the last line to the life and death of the beloved leader Kirov." With astonishing speed, Pravda had managed by 5 December to locate and print extensive biographical details about Kirov, including a secret dossier from the tsarist police archives. By this date also, entire books about Kirov, with reminiscences by former comrades, stories about his childhood, and reproductions of his speeches, had gone to press. It was almost as if someone had assembled all the material beforehand and was waiting for the go-ahead to put it together.
Kirov's murder resounded abroad as well, making the front page in The New York Times on 2 December. Times Moscow correspondent Harold Denny reported that Kirov's death was declared dramatically the night before in the midst of an 11 p.m. news broadcast: "The announcer interrupted the program to say that he had an announcement of a dastardly deed to make. Then he read communiqués of the Central Committee of the party and the Council of People's Commissars of the government. The orchestra played the funeral march from `Tannhäuser,' and all broadcasting ceased." The next day, Denny reported, "a stunned Moscow, draped with black-bordered red flags, waited silently but anxiously for any fragments of news about yesterday's murder."
The funeral was set for 6 December. The day before, people streamed into the Hall of Columns in Moscow's House of Soviets all day to view Kirov's open casket. At 10 p.m. access was restricted to family and high party and government officials. Kirov's widow, Mariia L'vovna, sat to the right of the coffin with her two sisters at her side. She was in bad shape. Her health had been deteriorating for some time, and the shock of her husband's death had rendered her incoherent and barely able to walk. With them sat Lenin's widow, Krupskaia, his sister Mariia, and Kirov's two sisters, who had traveled hundreds of miles to attend the funeral. Although they had been close to Kirov growing up, his sisters had not seen him for thirty years. They had only corresponded. Now they were seeing him for the last time—dead, his face "greenish-yellow" with black-and-blue bruises from his wound and his face-down fall to the floor.
Stalin's sister-in-law, Mariia Svanidze, who was sitting with the women, described the scene in her diary:
The air had a heavy funereal scent, mixed with the smell of flowers, earth and evergreens. Despite the full light, it seemed, through my tears, that it was dark, gloomy and painfully uncomfortable.... At 11 o'clock everyone became tense, looking every minute toward the corner from which the great ones would appear, our leaders.... Finally their steps, firm and resolute.... Iosif [Stalin] stood at Kirov's head. Chopin's funeral march was playing.... Iosif climbed up the platform of the casket, leaned over and kissed the forehead of the dead Sergei Mironovich. The picture tore my soul, knowing as I did how close they were, and the entire hall sobbed. I heard, through my own sobs, men sobbing.
Mariia L'vovna by this time had begun to faint. Doctors surrounded her, gave her some drops. During the commotion, the leaders silently slipped out of the hall and the coffin was closed, ready for its journey to the crematorium.
The next day, 6 December, was a day, in Pravda's words, "which will go down in history as a day of great mourning for the party, the whole country, all the workers, the day of the funeral of the best son of the socialist motherland—Sergei Mironovich Kirov." That morning Mariia L'vovna, supported on the arms of Kirov's sisters, entered the Hall of Columns, where Stalin and other political and military officials waited. At noon the hall was closed to the public and an hour later the funeral march began. Stalin and others carried the urn with Kirov's ashes to Red Square, where over a million workers stood, bearing the dank December cold in hushed silence.
After two hours of eulogies, Kirov's closest comrade, the famed Georgian Bolshevik Grigorii (Sergo) Ordzhonikidze, placed Kirov's remains in the Kremlin Wall. Flags were lowered, heads were bared, as the funeral sounds of a trumpet broke the silence. In just a little over two years Sergo's own ashes would be placed in the wall. He too would be felled by a bullet, but in his case it would be alleged that he himself, not an assassin, had fired the shot. Sergo was a tried revolutionary, a Bolshevik who had enforced Soviet rule in his native Transcaucasia with all the calculated ruthlessness required of the best defenders of the Soviet state. Nonetheless, he was fiery-tempered, sensitive, and emotional, and it must have been difficult for him to keep his feelings inside during the lengthy ceremony. When he heard of the murder, he had said to his wife: "I thought that Kirych would bury me, but it has turned out the opposite." He was so overcome that he lost his voice completely, which may explain why he unexpectedly failed to speak at the funeral.
Sergo and Kirov had worked together as trusted comrades throughout the bloody civil war that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 and during the early 1920s, when the Bolsheviks were consolidating their rule. After their duties took them to separate places, they corresponded almost daily, vacationed together, and saw each other as much as possible. Their bond had been one of deep trust and affection, going beyond that of traditional party comradeship. Given the atmosphere of intrigue, denunciations, and factional strife that came to characterize party life by the late 1920s, this friendship was especially important. Now Sergo would have to face the difficulties of working under Stalin's increasingly dictatorial and arbitrary rule without Kirov.
* THE LOSS OF A BOLSHEVIK
The murder of Kirov not only devastated his family and friends. It sent shock waves throughout the Soviet Union. The forty-eight-year-old Kirov had been a popular leader in party circles—handsome, charismatic, and a highly effective public speaker. With his youthful face and a lack of pretensions, Kirov had a forthcoming and approachable demeanor that made people feel they could trust him. In contrast to Stalin, who rarely left the confines of the Kremlin and was uncomfortable with spontaneity, Kirov was a man of the people, who would leap out of his chauffeur-driven car to shake hands on the street. Whereas Stalin spoke Russian with a heavy Georgian accent, Kirov's words rang out in the clear, forceful tones of a native Russian, a real muzhik, a man of the soil.
Like Stalin, Kirov had experienced a childhood of poverty and deprivation. Born Sergei Mironovich Kostrikov in 1886 in the small Russian town of Urzhum (in Viatka Province), he was the son of a minor clerk, whose drinking bouts prevented him from holding down a job. Kirov's father subjected family members to beatings, just as Stalin's alcoholic father had done, and abandoned the family when Kirov was five. Two years later, when his mother died of tuberculosis, Kirov was parentless. He was then separated from his two sisters and spent the rest of his childhood in the local orphanage.
One might have expected little from a life with such inauspicious beginnings, but Kirov's keen intellect and intense ambition marked him as a survivor. After excelling in the local school, Kirov was able to get funds to study for a diploma in mechanical engineering in the city of Kazan in 1901. He moved on to the Siberian city of Tomsk in 1904, intending to continue his education, but he soon got caught up in revolutionary fervor. By 1905, the year of the first revolution, he had become a Bolshevik.
His subsequent career as a professional revolutionary fighting the regime of Tsar Nicholas II put an end to his formal education. But his thirst for knowledge continued to be intense, and he read voraciously, especially when he was spending time in tsarist prisons for illegal revolutionary activities. Kirov did not limit his prison reading to Marxist literature, but read works by Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Herzen, Victor Hugo, and Anatole France, and even tackled Hegel, Descartes, and Spinoza. He also read the Bible, where he found "much that is interesting." His passion for books never diminished. When Kirov died he left a personal library of over 20,000 volumes.
Kirov loved to write, as his long letters from prison to his wife, Mariia L'vovna, attest, and he expressed himself well on subjects ranging from philosophy to literary criticism. In 1909, when the revolutionary movement had ground to a temporary halt, he got a job as a journalist on a liberal newspaper in Vladikavkaz, a city in the North Caucasus. For the next eight years, with interruptions for arrests and exile, he was a regular contributor to—and from 1915 a senior editor of—the paper.
By all accounts, Kirov did not fit the Bolshevik stereotype of single-minded ruthlessness. His tolerant attitude toward different political views set him apart from those who rose to positions in the leadership in the 1920s. He did not shy away from friendships with those from other political parties, such as the Socialist Revolutionaries, and up through the 1917 Revolution he worked so closely with the Bolsheviks' main competitors, the Mensheviks, that later his political rivals accused him of having been a Menshevik himself.
Kirov's humanity stands out especially in comparison to Stalin, whose lack of scruples and apparent indifference to other people's suffering was already evident in the prerevolutionary period. In a 1911 letter to Mariia L'vovna from prison, Kirov described an execution and his own reaction to it: "What a terrible mood I am in! I have good reason to suppose that tonight I will witness a nightmarish, simply horrible event. It seems that I am just about to hear the sound of the executioner's axe.... When you are free you do not experience a horror like this so directly. Here when such a `routine event' occurs almost in front of your eyes—it is indescribably difficult. But how boundless is the human soul! People get used to such executions and carry them out with amazing indifference."
Stalin, by contrast, was said to have little reaction to the executions that went on when he was in prison before the revolution. According to one biographer, Isaac Deutscher: "In the tension of such moments, Koba [Stalin] would, if an eyewitness is to be believed, fall sound asleep, astonishing his comrades by his strong nerves, or else he would go on with his unsuccessful attempt to master the intricacies of German grammar."
However atypical Kirov might have been, he joined the Bolsheviks and, by the end of the civil war in 1921, they ail had blood on their hands. Their ruthless suppression of those who opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 cost well over a million lives, including those of innocent civilians. Justice was sacrificed in the name of the revolutionary cause, and Kirov became a standard-bearer of that cause. He first attracted the attention of Lenin and Stalin when he served as chief of the Bolshevik Revolutionary Committee in Astrakhan, a key stronghold at the foot of the Caucasus, and successfully put down an anti-Bolshevik rebellion there in 1919. Later he was a member of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Eleventh Army, which invaded Azerbaijan in 1920 and then moved into Armenia and Georgia. As chief of the Azerbaijan Communist Party from 1921 to 1926, Kirov enforced Soviet rule over unwilling Azerbaijani nationalists, whose country had enjoyed a brief period of independence before the 1920 invasion. Kirov's letters and telegrams to his chiefs in Moscow make it clear that he was doing everything in his power to bring the republic into line.
In 1926, when Stalin wanted once and for all to rid the Leningrad apparatus of Zinoviev's sympathizers, he chose Kirov for the job. It must be said that Kirov did not relish his new appointment as Leningrad party chief. Indeed, he complained bitterly in letters to his wife and friends about how difficult and unpleasant the job was. But he could not refuse Stalin. Although he kept sanctions against the former Zinovievites to a minimum, trying instead to bring them back into the Bolshevik fold, he delivered fiery speeches against them in public and presided over endless meetings where they were denounced.
In the process of revamping the Leningrad organization, Kirov earned a few enemies. In 1929 a group of Old Leningraders even took their complaints about him to the party leadership in Moscow, dredging up some of his prerevolutionary newspaper articles in an effort to show that he had bourgeois leanings. In the end, Kirov survived the attack, but not without a black mark on his record.
The early 1930s were taken up with implementing Stalin's First Five-Year Plan, begun in 1928. The plan called for industrialization at a breakneck pace, accompanied by collectivization of agriculture. Millions of peasants all over the Soviet Union were removed from their individual landholdings and forced into collective farms. Peasant resistance led to bloody clashes with the authorities, as well as to famine. Well over a million peasants perished in the process. Kirov was not enthusiastic about the policy of forced collectivization—and in fact the process was implemented at a much slower pace in the Leningrad region than in other parts of the country. Nonetheless, he went along with Moscow's directives. Open resistance was not Kirov's style, and to challenge Stalin on this issue, as his Bolshevik comrade Nikolai Bukharin did, would have meant the end of his political career.
We do not know what kind of ethical equations Kirov was making at this point, how he justified to himself the loss of life and the repression for which he was responsible. He still deserved his reputation as a "moderate" Bolshevik; he was not a vindictive dogmatist, and he exhibited no penchant for wanton cruelty. But in aligning himself with Stalin and professing support for his leadership, he had entered upon a life of moral compromise.
Indeed, in the context of Stalinist Russia, popularity was a highly relative term. Kirov was "popular" only insofar as a leading member of a brutal, repressive government could be. Recently declassified secret informational reports from local party officials reveal that the Leningrad proletariat was deeply dissatisfied with the economic situation, especially the proposed end to bread rationing. Some workers and peasants from the Leningrad region blamed Kirov for their dismal plight and thus reacted to the news of his death by expressing indifference or scorn.
But the majority of party members held Kirov in high esteem. The regime was still young, and many Communists believed the incessant propaganda—that they were suffering now to build a brilliant socialist future. Kirov was part of a leadership that had been portrayed by the press as wise, omnipotent, and devoted to the public's cause. Moreover, he radiated the kind of energy and authority that made people look up to him.
|Map||The Russian Empire on the Eve of World War I|
|Map||The Soviet Union, 1924-36|
|1||A December Tragedy||3|
|2||The Boy from Urzhum||22|
|3||The Triumph of Bolshevism||51|
|4||Building Soviet Power||82|
|5||Leader of Leningrad||111|
|6||Kirov and Stalin's Revolution||142|
|7||1934: Kirov's End||169|
|8||Into the Whirlwind||200|
|9||Stalin Consolidates Power: 1935-38||231|
|10||The Kirov Legacy||261|
|App. I||Chronology of Key Events in the Life of Sergei Kirov||271|
|App. II||Governing Hierarchy of the Soviet Union||273|
|App. III: Selected Glossary of Names||275|