The December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov
A tale for our times
By Gavin Gatenby
30 November 2004
Seventy years on, the killing of Sergei Kirov casts an eerie light on the events of 11 September 2001, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the “War on Terror” and the state-sponsored hysteria surrounding the shadowy figures of Osama bin Ladin and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Kirov was shot to death on the 1st of December 1934, certainly on the orders of his mentor, Joseph Stalin. His assassination was a textbook “false flag” operation and certainly did more to divert the current of human history into regressive channels than the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Both in its style of execution and its ramifications it set a benchmark for the cynical manipulation of the public and the falsification of history.
Few dispute the broad outline of the conspiracy: Kirov, the popular Leningrad Bolshevik party chief and potential successor to Stalin was shot by a disturbed and obsessive former party member with a grudge. And the assassin was incited and aided by an NKVD agent provocateur.
The available evidence and the “who benefits” test, indicate that, in a ruthless and utterly cynical ploy, Stalin ordered Kirov’s assassination and then blamed it on a shadowy ‘terrorist’ conspiracy allegedly uniting Tsarist exiles with Stalin’s Old Bolshevik opponents, especially Kamenev, Zinoviev and the exiled Leon Trotsky.
The assassination was exploited to terrify Stalin’s Communist opponents and potential rivals and to initiate the infamous Moscow Trials, through which the dictator finally eliminated the Old Bolsheviks, launched the Great Purges that did so much to weaken Soviet society in the lead-up to the Second World War, and foisted highly regressive social legislation on the Russian people.
Background to an assassination
By 1934, the infant Soviet state, which had arisen out of the crisis and overthrow of the Tsarist regime at the end of three debilitating years of the First World War, had subsequently endured civil war, blockade, and economic isolation.
Lenin died in 1924. Contrary to his final wishes, Stalin, rather than being relieved of any influence, had remained on the Central Committee and had consolidated his autocratic rule. Under his patronage a new caste of bureaucrats – careerists with little or no experience of the underground struggle – had captured control of party and the state and had marginalised the remaining Old Bolsheviks with their orthodox Marxism and liberal social values. In 1927, two of Lenin’s most important co-workers, Zinoviev and Kamanev, were expelled from the party and the most popular alternative leader, Leon Trotsky, was exiled to Turkey.
Under the banner of “Socialism in a single country” – an idea unthinkable within the framework of conventional Marxist theory – Stalin set the Soviet Union on a breakneck course towards industrialisation and the brutal imposition of broad-acre industrial agriculture. Millions died as a result.
By 1934, the country was exhausted and a rising demand for democracy within the party and the government, a relaxation of bureaucratic control, and reconciliation with the exiled Old Bolsheviks, began to exert itself powerfully, even through the thoroughly stage-managed conferences and meetings of the party. Stalin’s autocratic rule was under threat.
The rise of Kirov
Unusually, Sergei Kirov was both an Old Bolshevik and a loyal Stalinist. He was born in Urzhum, Russia, on 15 March, 1886. His parents having died when he was very young, he was brought up by his grandmother until the age of seven when he was sent to an orphanage.
He became a Marxist at technical school, joined the Social Democratic Party in 1904, and took part in the 1905 revolution in St. Petersburg, when he was arrested but was released after three months in prison.
Kirov then joined the Bolshevik faction of the party. Moving to Tomsk, he was involved in the printing of revolutionary literature and he helped to organize a successful strike by railway workers.
Between 1906 and 1916 he was arrested and imprisoned twice for printing and disseminating illegal literature. The abdication of the Czar in March 1917, found Kirov in the Caucasus where he fought in the Red Army during the civil war and in 1921 was selected to head up the Azerbaijan party organization. In the years that followed he loyally supported Stalin and was rewarded by being appointed head of the Leningrad party organization, and in 1930, the Politbureau. It was clear the Stalin was grooming Kirov as a possible successor.
But in the summer of 1932 Stalin became aware of the growing opposition to his policies. He was outraged that some party members were even publicly criticizing him and calling for the readmission of Leon Trotsky to the party. At the Politburo, Stalin demanded that the critics should be arrested and executed but Kirov argued against this policy. At the vote, the majority supported Kirov.
In the spring of 1934 Kirov went further, putting forward a policy of reconciliation. People who had been imprisoned for opposing the collective farms and industrialization policies should be released, he argued. Once again, Stalin found himself in a minority in the Politburo. In addition to these problems, Kirov had been a vigorous advocate for the interests of Leningrad industrial workers.
Stalin realised that he could not even rely on his own appointees to support him unequivocally. He was particularly angered by Kirov’s willingness to stand up to him in public and feared his authority was being eroded. In a last attempt to bring his protege under close supervision, Stalin tried to persuade Kirov to move to Moscow, but Kirov refused. At that point his fate was sealed.
It was only feasible to carry out the assassination of such an important public figure with the collaboration of elements of the Leningrad office of the NKVD, who were responsible for Kirov’s security, but the head of the Leningrad organization was Kirov’s close friend, Philip Medved. At first, Stalin had his reptilian security chief, Yagoda – not yet privy to the plot – appoint Yevdokimov, a veteran NKVD officer (and one of the dictator’s drinking buddies) in Medved’s place. But Kirov intervened indignantly and had the order countermanded.
Stalin then had no option but to take Yagoda into his trust. Yagoda summoned to Moscow Medved’s deputy, Vania Zaporozhets, and the story goes that the two then went to Stalin, because Zaporozhets would never have taken such an assignment on Yagoda’s say-so.
Accepting his mission, Zaporozhets returned to Leningrad in search of an assassin, and in the files he found his man – Leonid Nikolayev.
We will probably never know conclusively if Nikolayev really fired the shots that killed Kirov, or if he was just the patsy, but it is most likely that he was indeed the assassin.
Nikolayev may well have been sympathetic to the mood of disaffection below the surface of Soviet political life but the various accounts of the assassination agree that he was an expelled party member and failed junior functionary with a murderous grudge and an indifference towards his own survival.
Unemployed, with a wife and child, and in financial difficulties, Nikolayev had expressed to a “friend” a desire to kill the head of the party control commission that had expelled him. His friend reported this to the NKVD. Returning from Moscow, Zaporozhets decided that the disturbed and impressionable young man might be groomed to commit the act that Stalin desired.
Nikolayev’s “friend” (who may have been an NKVD officer or informer) took on the role of agent provocateur and convinced Nikolayev that the murder of a mere control commission functionary would hardly act as a call to arms against the bureaucracy, but that the death of the Leningrad party chief and Politbureau member would send a rousing message to the masses. He loaned Nikolayev money and obtained for him a Nagant revolver and information on Kirov’s office and movements.
According to the account of Alexander Orlov (a former Soviet diplomat and counter-intelligence chief), Zaporozhets felt it necessary to personally meet the prospective assassin, and he did so posing as an acquaintance of Nikolayev’s “friend”. On the basis of small-talk, Zaporozhets formed a favourable impression, but exposing himself to Nikolayev was an imprudent act that was to bring Stalin’s whole plan close to disaster.
Nikolayev supposedly kept a diary in which he detailed the progress of his obsession, but the history of subsequent state frame-ups cautions us to consider whether this particular piece of evidence was an NKVD fabrication.
Nikolayev’s first attempt failed. Carrying a briefcase containing the loaded pistol (for which he had no permit) and (incredibly) the incriminating diary, he applied for, and received, a pass at the main security desk in the Smolny – Leningrad’s main party office. But an alert guard asked to check the briefcase, the unlicenced pistol was found, and he was immediately arrested. Then a strange thing happened which betrays the hand of Zaporozhets: after a couple of hours Nikolayev’s briefcase and pistol were returned and he was told to leave the building.
Nikolayev was depressed and shaken by the experience, but with the help of the provocateur he regained his composure and determination.
On the afternoon of 1 December 1934 he returned to the Smolny in the evening, successfully obtained a pass and found his way to the suite of offices occupied by Kirov and his secretariat.
Kirov, meanwhile, arrived at the Smolny about 4.30 pm to prepare a speech and was escorted to his offices on the third floor by four plainclothes NKVD guards as well as Borisov, a middle-aged man, devoted to Kirov, who acted as personal attendant and bodyguard. Nobody was manning the usual guard post at the entrance to Kirov’s offices. The four guards left and the two men continued alone.
Borisov apparently stopped off to prepare sandwiches for Kirov who continued down the corridor alone, turned a corner, and was shot from behind, apparently by Nikolayev, who had concealed himself in the mens’ lavatory. The only witness was apparently an electrician working in the corridor. This man subsequently testified that he threw a screwdriver at Nikolayev as the latter tried to shoot himself, knocking him to the floor.
Apart from the electrician the next witnesses to arrive were Borisev and a group of officials who had been meeting in a nearby conference room.
Stalin arrived the next day and personally took charge of the investigation. The day before the assassination he had armed himself with powers enabling those involved in crimes against the state to be summarily tried and punished by special tribunal. His presence and that of the NKVD chief Yagoda, severely intimidated the witnesses, although some were brave enough to observe that the guards that should have been stationed at the entrance to Kirov’s offices were mysteriously absent.
Key witnesses eliminated
The hapless Borisev died the day after the assassination, supposedly by falling from a moving truck while riding with a group of NKVD agents. Nikolayev’s “friend”, the provocateur, was allegedly shot on Stalin’s personal orders. Borisev’s wife was committed to an insane asylum. Some accounts have Nikolayev committing suicide in his cell, others say he was executed after an in-camera trial.
The plot nearly falls apart
As Alexander Orlov tells it, Stalin had instructed Zaporozhets to wring a confession from Nikolayev that he had done the deed at the instigation of Zinoviev, Kamenev and other former leaders of the opposition, but the assassin was made of sterner stuff. Eager to win favour from “The Boss”, Zaporozhets decided to interrogate the suspect personally but Nikolayev immediately recognised Zaporozhets as the man he had been introduced to by his “friend” and realized that he had been set up.
Thereafter threats by Zaporozhets and even a visit from Stalin could not induce the assassin to agree to incriminate the Old Bolsheviks and if he couldn’t be relied on to stick to the script, he couldn’t be brought before a public trial. This was a setback, and Stalin was furious.
Kirov’s body was rushed to Moscow in Stalin’s train and laid in state. Stalin was even cynical enough to throw himself on the coffin and kiss the body (Orlov observes: “As a former student of the ecclesiastical seminary … Stalin must have recalled at that moment the legend of the kiss of Judas Iscariot”).
A compliant media whipped the public into an orgy of grief in preparation for the witch-hunt for “terrorists” and the wave of arrests and trials that were to follow. Initially, because Nikolayev couldn’t be relied upon to play his part in an open trial, it had to be publically announced that he had acted at the instigation of “White Guard” Czarist exiles, but Stalin and Yagoda worked hard to get the plot back on track. Some young supporters of Zinoviev (with who Nikolayev may have been casually acquainted) were brought to trial, convicted on the basis of extremely flimsy “evidence” and executed. Then, Zinoviev, Kamenev and other former leaders of the Left Opposition and Right Opposition were charged with the murder. Zinoviev and Kamenev were personally “interrogated” by Yagoda and brought before a secret military tribunal on 15 January 1935. Absolutely no proof was advanced that the accused had anything to do with the assassination, but Zinoviev and Kamenev agreed to take upon themselves “the political and moral responsibility” for Kirov’s murder – although they denied any personal complicity.
The Great Purges had begun.