Hugo Dewar 1965

Murder Revisited: The Case of Sergei Mironovich Kirov


Source: Problems of Communism, Volume 14, no 5, September-October 1965. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.


The thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of the Bolshevik leader and Politburo member Sergei Kirov (which took place 1 December 1934) passed without mention of the ‘thorough inquiry’ Khrushchev had promised into this event that marked the beginning of the era of the great Stalin purges. While a commemorative article was published in Pravda and a biography of Kirov by SV Krasnikov appeared in 1964, neither of these items offered any fresh material towards a solution of the Kirov mystery.

During the course of his ‘Secret Speech’ at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Khrushchev had announced that the party leaders were not satisfied with the hitherto accepted account of the assassination. ‘It must be asserted’, he said, ‘that to this day the circumstances surrounding Kirov’s murder hide many things which are inexplicable and mysterious and demand the most careful examination.’ There were reasons to suspect, he added, that Kirov’s murderer, Nikolayev, had been ‘assisted by someone from among the people whose duty it was to protect the person of Kirov’. He then cited some details:

A month before the killing, Nikolayev was arrested on the grounds of suspicious behaviour, but he was released and not even searched. It is an unusually suspicious circumstance that when the Chekist assigned to protect Kirov was being brought for an interrogation, on 2 December 1934, he was killed in a car ‘accident’. After the murder of Kirov, top functionaries of the Leningrad NKVD were given very light sentences, but in 1937 they were shot. We can assume that they were shot in order to cover the traces of the organisers of Kirov’s killing. [1]

In 1961, some five years after Khrushchev’s first disclosures, the Soviet people at large learned of the Kirov ‘affair’ in the course of the Premier’s attack on the ‘anti-party group’ at the Twenty-Second Party Congress. Molotov, Kaganovich, Malenkov, Voroshilov and others, he stated, had ‘violently’ resisted the Twentieth Congress’ decision to launch the de-Stalinisation campaign and had continued their resistance afterwards, because they feared that ‘their role as accessories to mass reprisals’ would come to light. He went on:

These mass reprisals began after the assassination of Kirov. Great efforts are still needed to find out who was really to blame for his death. The deeper we study the materials connected with Kirov’s death, the more questions arise... A thorough inquiry is now being made into the circumstances of this complicated case. [2]

In further statements at the Twenty-Second Congress, it was asserted that Nikolayev had in fact been arrested on two occasions before the crime, that arms had been found on him, but that he had been released. Kirov’s bodyguard was said to have been killed while on his way to be questioned by Stalin, Molotov and Voroshilov. It was no longer ‘assumed’ but presented as fact that the NKVD functionaries had been shot in 1937 in order to cover up the traces of those involved in the assassination.

If one turns to the evidence presented at the Moscow Trial of March 1938, it will be seen that the substance of Khrushchev’s ‘revelations’ had long ago been put on record. The testimony given at the trial reflected its double aim: to reinforce the Stalinists’ previous charges against ‘Trotskyites and Zinovievites’ and at the same time to ‘purge the purgers’. Yet discounting embellishment, certain essential facts about the Kirov killing emerged at this time. GG Yagoda, former chief of the NKVD, now himself in the dock, gave this version of the affair:

In 1934, in the summer, Yenukidze informed me that the centre of the ‘block of Rights and Trotskyites’ had adopted a decision to organise the assassination of Kirov. Rykov took a direct part in the adoption of this decision... I marshalled a series of arguments about this terrorist act being inexpedient and unnecessary... Yenukidze insisted that I was not to place any obstacle in the way; the terrorist act, he said, would be carried out by the Trotsky – Zinovievite group. Owing to this, I was compelled to instruct Zaporozhets, who occupied the post of Assistant Chief of the Regional Administration of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, not to place any obstacles in the way of the terrorist act against Kirov. Sometime later Zaporozhets informed me that the organs of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs had detained Nikolayev, in whose possession a revolver and a chart of the route Kirov usually took had been found. Nikolayev was released. Soon after that Kirov was assassinated by this very same Nikolayev. [3]

Yagoda’s secretary, Bulanov, dealt with the ‘accident’ to Kirov’s bodyguard as follows:

Yagoda further told me that Borisov, an employee of the Leningrad Administration of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, had a share in the assassination of Kirov. When members of the government came to Leningrad... to interrogate him as a witness... Zaporozhets..., fearing that Borisov would betray those who stood behind Nikolayev, decided to kill Borisov. On Yagoda’s instructions, Zaporozhets so arranged it that an accident occurred to the automobile which took Borisov to the Smolny. Borisov was killed in the accident... I then understood the exceptional and unusual solicitude which Yagoda had displayed when Medved, Zaporozhets and the other officials were brought to trial. [4]

This earlier trial of NKVD officials had also been made public at the time (1935). The indictment against them stated inter alia that FD Medved, chief of the Leningrad NKVD, and most of the others accused (twelve in all) had possessed information concerning the preparation for the attempt on Kirov but had taken no measures to prevent the crime, even though they had every chance to do so. [5] Furthermore, it was clear from what was said about them at the 1938 Moscow Trial that Medved and Zaporozhets had been shot in 1937.

Thus the facts given out by Khrushchev were hardly new. Although these facts without doubt came as something of a sensation to the party’s younger rank and file, all of the top leaders surviving from the purge period must have known them. Certainly it did not require years of investigation to dig them up.

What is new, of course, is the fresh interpretation given these facts. With the launching of the de-Stalinisation campaign, Khrushchev assigned the Kirov affair a role in the picture of the past that he was anxious to have the Soviet public accept. Kirov’s assassination was now presented as marking the entry into an entirely new phase of Soviet history; it was allegedly the true beginning of the Stalin era, during which Leninist party and state norms, hitherto prevailing, suffered a temporary defeat.

In his ‘Secret Speech’ Khrushchev put it like this: ‘After the criminal murder of Kirov mass repressions and brutal acts of violation of socialist legality began.’ [6] The basis for these mass repressions, Khrushchev recalled, was a decree of 1 December 1934 (the very day of the murder), which demanded a speed-up of investigations into terrorist acts, the denial of any right of appeal against sentences, and the carrying out of the death sentence immediately after a verdict. [7]

By 1961 Khrushchev and his supporters openly asserted that Stalin and his closest colleagues had seized on the Kirov murder to launch the era of terror, and the implication was strong that they may have indeed been accomplices in the act itself. Thus, in the 1959 edition of the history of the CPSU (which replaced the Stalinist work published in 1938), the assassination was still treated as the result of a plot by the ‘Zinovievites’; but in the revised edition of 1962 Stalin is accused of using the assassination as an excuse for organising reprisals against all those who in one way or another displeased him. This approach echoed the line taken at the Twenty-Second Congress by AN Shelepin (at the time Chairman of the Committee for State Security):

The assassination of Sergei Mironovich Kirov was used by Stalin and Molotov and Kaganovich, who were close to him, as an excuse for settling accounts with people they disliked (s neugodnymi liudmi). [8]

Obviously Khrushchev’s probe into the Kirov affair was useful to him first as a threat and finally as a weapon in the struggle against the ‘anti-party elements’. Yet the problem remained – and still remains for those who have replaced Khrushchev – to produce a full explanation of this event, which even today continues to hound the trail of Stalin’s erstwhile friends and associates.

In accordance with a decision of the Twenty-Second Party Congress to honour the memory of victims of the ‘personality cult’, Pravda from time to time carries articles on this theme. One such article, dealing with the Seventeenth Congress of the CPSU (1934), is an interesting example of the manner in which the anti-Stalinists try to explain how things went wrong. [9]

At the Seventeenth Congress, says this article, the party was ‘united and monolithic’. This was the ‘congress of the victors’, at which even former members of the opposition groupings – Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky – came forward to extol the successes achieved by socialist construction and to express their repentance for their past attitudes. By the time of this congress ‘the authority of the party had grown exceptionally’; this was the congress that marked the ‘firm and irrevocable victory of socialist relationships in our country’. NS Khrushchev is said to have declared at the congress: ‘The strength of our Lenin Central Committee lies in that it knew how to organise the party, knew how to organise the working class and the collective farmers...’ The names of some other delegates who spoke for this allegedly ‘united and monolithic’ party are cited, for the purpose of ‘rehabilitating’ them. Among those mentioned are I Zelenski and G Grinko, two of the accused at the 1938 Moscow trial; but no reference is made to the trial itself.

Kirov is referred to as ‘the wonderful Leninist’, the ‘favourite of the entire party’ (the words, incidentally, used by Lenin in his ‘Testament’ to characterise Bukharin):

Less than a year passed after the Seventeenth Congress when a criminal hand cut short the life of Kirov... This was a premeditated and carefully prepared crime, the circumstances of which, as NS Khrushchev declared at the Twenty-Second Congress, have not yet been fully cleared up.

The writer’s appraisal of the inner-party situation at the time of the Seventeenth Congress renders the subsequent fate of the party incomprehensible. In this united and monolithic organisation vested with such exceptional authority, how did it come about that – as the writer admits – 70 per cent of the Central Committee, and 1108 of the 1966 delegates who unanimously elected it, were subsequently condemned as counter-revolutionary traitors? Quite obviously this could not have happened under the conditions described.

That the Seventeenth Congress did indeed express the mood of jubilation and relief then prevailing in the top circles and among the activists of the party is indisputable. But underlying this mood was an awareness of the monstrous forces of repression and terror that had been created – forces that the activists themselves had helped to create, and yet that were in a sense alien and threatening to them. Hence the ovation given by the delegates to Kirov, who appeared at the congress as the outstanding champion of the authority of the party against the authority of the secret police.

There exists a document which is of exceptional value for an understanding of the political atmosphere of the time, which explains Kirov’s role and the hopes centred in him, and which also throws light on the motives of Leonid Nikolayev, his assassin. This is the so-called ‘Letter of an Old Bolshevik’, first published anonymously in two issues of the Menshevik monthly, Sotsialisticheski vestnik (Paris), 22 December 1936 and 17 January 1937; and subsequently published as a pamphlet, also anonymously, by the Rand School Press (New York City, 1937). The identity of the author, none other than NI Bukharin, was not revealed by the editorial board of Sotsialisticheski vestnik until 23 November 1959. (Bukharin at his trial in 1938 admitted that he had met in Paris, on his last trip abroad, a representative of the Mensheviks, Boris Nikolayevsky. It is not without significance that Bukharin knew that if he could trust no one else, he could trust his lifelong ideological opponents.)

Bukharin writes that Kirov ‘stood for the abolition of the terror, both in general and inside the party’:

We do not desire to exaggerate the importance of his proposals. It must not be forgotten that when the First Five-Year Plan was being put into effect, Kirov was one of the heads of the party, that he was one of those who inspired and carried through the notoriously ruthless measures against the peasants and the wiping out of the kulaks. The Kem and Murmansk coasts, with their prison camps, etc, were under his jurisdiction. Furthermore, he was in charge of the construction of the Baltic – White Sea Canal. This is enough to make it clear that Kirov could not be reproached with any undue regard for human lives. [10]

Yet according to Bukharin, Kirov’s previous role only served to strengthen his position as the advocate of reconciliation with former opposition elements, once the struggle for collectivisation was over and there remained ‘no more irreconcilable foes of any importance’.

It could be argued from this that Kirov stood in 1934 where the anti-Stalinists stand today. And, indeed, it is precisely this that makes Kirov so attractive a figure to the present leaders: it is possible to portray him as a precursor, a fighter against anti-party elements and a defender of the true Leninist tradition that the present regime has succeeded in reviving. Had he not been gotten rid of by the Stalinists, the argument goes, the mass repressions and violations of socialist legality would never have occurred.

The grain of truth in all this does not make it any the less a distortion of the facts. To get at the real truth one must also consider the other figure central to the drama, Leonid Nikolayev. Who was this man? What were his motives?

Practically no official information about Nikolayev has ever been divulged; but from Bukharin’s ‘Letter’ we learn that he fought on the front against Yudenich’s forces at the age of sixteen, [11] that he there joined the Komsomol, and later became a member of the party in Leningrad. At one time he was apparently connected with the NKVD. He also held a minor post as supervisor of a forced-labour camp in Murmansk. In 1933 he returned to Leningrad where, it was rumoured, he was again connected in some way with the NKVD (although this, wrote Bukharin, was kept especially secret). Early in 1934 he came into conflict with the party and was expelled, but was reinstated shortly afterwards on the grounds that he was suffering from nervous exhaustion and that too much should not therefore be expected of him.

The Moscow correspondent of the British Daily Worker at the time, WG Sheppard, stated that Nikolayev had formerly been a member of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection. [12] This item of information is probably valid. It ties in with the mention by Victor Serge of a Nikolayev who, as an investigator of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection in Leningrad, had been instrumental in obtaining the reinstatement of Serge’s father-in-law, Russakov, into his trade union. Serge describes Nikolayev as ‘a tall, lean young man, grey-eyed, with tousled hair, who showed himself singularly honest’. [13]

Bukharin’s ‘Letter’ refers to the diary that was found on Nikolayev when he was arrested. [14] Limited extracts from this diary, which were circulated among a select circle as top secret (to be returned when read), sufficed to indicate Nikolayev’s state of mind at the time. According to Bukharin:

Everything seems to point to the fact that his mind was preoccupied principally with personal conflicts with the party machine, which was becoming increasingly bureaucratic. The diary is full of references of this kind, and of complaints of the disappearance of the old friendly relationships which had made life in the party so pleasant in the years following the revolution. He returned again and again to the memories of those days, which appeared to him very simple and rosy, the days of a sort of brotherhood... His complaints about the bureaucratism that had developed inside the party were the starting point of Nikolayev’s critical attitude. Further than that he did not go. The striking thing is the disproportion between the gravity of his act and the absence of any more profound criticism on his part... Nothing existed for Nikolayev outside the party... To the condition of inner-party relationships he began to react with growing intensity, and gradually he came to regard the situation as a veritable betrayal of the fine party traditions of the past, as a betrayal of the revolution itself. [15]

The irony here revealed is that Nikolayev – the killer of Kirov – saw himself as a champion of the ‘fine party traditions of the past’. In strict justice, therefore, the anti-Stalinists ought at least to recognise that Nikolayev was neither the common criminal they make him out to be, nor merely a man oppressed by a personal grievance. Granted that he was gravely mistaken as to the effect of his act – that it must inevitably have had consequences opposite to those it was intended to produce. Still, all that he wanted was, like Zheliabov, ‘to give history a push’ – in the direction of ‘de-Stalinisation’. He knew from close personal experience the rottenness of the party regime; he saw no essential difference between the existing situation and that under Tsarism (he had, wrote Bukharin, steeped himself in the literature of the People’s Will and the Social Revolutionaries and been profoundly influenced by it); he knew that there was no hope of change through the channels of inner-party democracy, which had become an empty slogan. Thus he came to the conclusion that there was only one way of effective action left open: someone had to sacrifice himself by executing a prominent representative of the ‘usurpers’, as he called them, and so rouse the country to the danger facing it. Bukharin reports the story that when Stalin asked him why he had committed the murder, and pointed out to him that he was a lost man, Nikolayev replied: ‘What does it matter? Many are going under now. But in the days to come my name will be coupled with those of Zheliabov and Balmashev.’

Nikolayev was not to know that certain men behind Stalin were themselves interested in getting rid of Kirov. To Nikolayev – and to how many others like him? – Kirov was obviously neither more nor less than one of the ‘usurpers’. What could he know of the struggle on the summit of power between the ‘conciliators’ and the advocates of continued ruthless repression? Certainly he was aware of nothing to alter his opinion of Kirov as the close companion of Stalin, [16] and a dedicated, ruthless executor of Stalinist policy.

But even in the unlikely event that Nikolayev had recognised Kirov as a co-thinker, and that the assassination had therefore never occurred, would this really have made any difference at all to the subsequent course of events? Is it not clear that the long-drawn-out struggle between the Stalinised party and the Stalinist secret police inevitably had to come to a head? The ‘mysterious and suspicious circumstances’ surrounding Kirov’s death amount simply to the fact that the advocates of repression, who already controlled the country, regarded Kirov as a menace to their authority, and that they were therefore glad to get rid of him, using Nikolayev as their unwitting instrument. This one killing was used as a pretext for mass killings, but a pretext for them would in any event have been found because Stalin’s ‘working staff’ needed one. As Bukharin put it, the members of his staff were not in principle ‘opposed to a change in the general policy of the party’ – they were not even interested in general policy as such. ‘What they emphatically opposed was any change in internal party policy. They realised that... they could expect no mercy in the event of a change in the inner-party regime.’ [17] And they knew of course – none better – that the number desiring such a change was not negligible. The extent and ferocity of the ‘mass reprisals’ following Kirov’s death can be explained only on the basis of the feeling of fear and insecurity prevailing among those who were the major prop of the regime, the men of the NKVD. They knew how much they were hated, and by how many.

Nikolayev acted as a lone individual; there was no Trotskyite – Zinovievite – Bukharinite plot. But Stalin and his general staff knew that there existed throughout the country a sharp mood of extreme bitterness and incipient revolt against their dictatorship, and that Nikolayev’s act was an expression of this mood. It was for them essential to get rid of all former oppositional elements in the party and the state apparatus – to remove anyone at all who might conceivably serve to crystallise that mood into action. In due course, even to venture a word of protest in favour of one unjustly accused was taken as indicative of dangerous thinking. [18]

In his ‘Secret Speech’, Khrushchev himself gave an example from the year 1931 of the methods used in the internecine struggle for supreme power, [19] and in so doing contradicted his general thesis that the rot only set in after 1934. But, of course, that struggle had begun immediately upon Lenin’s death, and it became progressively more deadly and bloody. Sooner or later – Kirov affair or no Kirov affair – the line of blood would have finally closed the balance sheet and marked the victory of Stalinism. Khrushchev was at his most un-Marxist when he said that ‘had Lenin lived, such an extreme method would not have been used against many’ Trotskyite opponents of the ‘general line’. On the contrary, had Lenin lived, he would have stood in the dock with Bukharin. Stalin’s treatment of Krupskaya shows that he was no respecter of persons, however eminent.

The question arises: how did Khrushchev have the nerve to carry his charges against Stalin and his cohorts as far as he did without apparently entertaining any serious fear that his audience would draw the ‘wrong’ conclusions – notably in the matter of his own complicity? The only explanation would seem to be that the present Soviet generation is not able to check the facts it is now given against its own knowledge of the events to which those facts relate. It has no such knowledge. The facts about the circumstances surrounding the Kirov murder were new to it; it did not know that these very facts had been used at the Moscow Trials to incriminate – not Stalin and his close companions – but Stalin’s enemies in the party, or those insufficiently subservient to him. This generation does not know that the rehabilitation of Zelenski, Grinko and Ikramov invalidates their evidence at the Third Moscow Trial, evidence incriminating themselves and the other defendants. It does not know that the same is true of the rehabilitation of Yenukidze and Rudzutak, who – although they were not then in the dock (having been tried and condemned in separate and secret trials) – were in effect equally among the accused at the trial.

The report of the ‘thorough enquiry’ into the Kirov affair promised by Khrushchev in 1961 will – if it is a true account, and if it is ever made public – be of enormous importance to the present Soviet generation. For it could herald the official demolition of the most monstrous edifice of lies and slander ever erected by any government in the entire history of mankind: the Moscow Trials. And not only the Moscow Trials, the keystone of which was the Kirov affair, but also the trials that preceded them and of which – as Vyshinsky pointed out at the last great trial – they were a logical extension.

This work of demolition would give the Soviet people a clear view of their own political history; it would, further, lift from their minds the remaining load of suspicion of the outside world inculcated by those trials. The new anti-Stalinists have chipped at the structure, even made great holes in it, yet it still stands, a horrible memento to the depths of depravity to which mankind is capable of sinking.


Notes

1. The Anti-Stalin Campaign and International Communism: A Selection Of Documents (Columbia University Press, New York, 1956), pp. 25-26.

2. NS Khrushchev, Report on the Programme of the CPSU (Soviet Booklet no 81, London, 1961), p. 111; also Pravda, 19 October 1961.

3. Report of Court Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet ‘Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites’ (People’s Commissariat of Justice of the USSR, Moscow, 1938), pp. 572-73.

4. Report of Court Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet ‘Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites’, p. 559.

5. New York Times, 24 January 1935.

6. The Anti-Stalin Campaign and International Communism, p. 24

7. Khrushchev mentioned only Yenukidze as signatory of this decree, omitting the main signatory, Kalinin.

8. Pravda, 27 October 1961, p. 10.

9. L Shaumyan, ‘Na rubezhe pervykh pyatiletok’ (‘On the Threshold of the First Five-Year Plans’), Pravda, 7 February 1964.

10. Letter of an Old Bolshevik (Rand School Press, New York, 1937).

11. Was he related to the General Nikolayev taken prisoner on this front and hanged after refusing an offer by Yudenich to join his forces? See Erich Wollenberg, The Red Army (Secker and Warburg, London, 1940), p. 64.

12. WG Sheppard, The Truth About the Murder of Kirov (Modern Books, London, nd), p. 7.

13. Victor Serge, Mémoires dun Révolutionnaire (Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1951), p. 301.

14. Both Yagoda and his secretary, Bulanov, confirmed the existence of this diary at their trial.

15. Letter of an Old Bolshevik, pp. 28-29.

16. When the regime’s spokesmen today talk of those who were close to Stalin, they perhaps forget that The Short Biography of Stalin (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1951) carries a 1926 photograph of Stalin and Kirov together. The only other persons so honoured are Lenin, Kalinin and Gorky. No mention is made of Kirov’s assassination in the biography.

17. Letter of an Old Bolshevik, p.29, emphasis in original.

18. Note the case of DA Lazurkin, for example, a party member from 1902 on, who spent 17 years in prisons and camps for this offence. See Pravda, 21 October 1963.

19. The Anti-Stalin Campaign, p. 66.