Dissecting Kirov’s Murder

Two weeks ago, I did a post on 75 years since the Kirov law.  I was happy to find that the New Times published an interview with Matthew Lenoe whose forthcoming book, Kirov’s Murder and Soviet History, is a hefty reexamination of the famous assassination.  Below is a translation I did of the interview.


“Stalin used Kirov’s murder as justification for mass executions”

by Evgeniia Albats

Seventy-five years ago, on Dec. 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, the first secretary of the Leningrad Regional Committee, VKP(b), was killed by a shot to the back of the head. The bloody bacchanalia known in history as the Great Terror followed. Violence became the means to rule an huge country. Show trials of then leaders Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, and Rykov, who were all accused of the murder, became the symbol of Stalinist justice.  Millions of people, including almost all of the Society of Political Prisoners and the founders of the Bolshevik Party went on execution lists or did time in the Gulag. However, whether Stalin planned or ordered Kirov’s murder, as Khrushchev stated in his famous speech at the 20th Party Congress, was an evil genius, or the “Kremlin mountain man” used the assassination in Leningrad as a pretext to unleash the Great Terror – still remains a subject of lively discussion among historians. The New Times put this question to Matthew Lenoe, Professor of History at the University of Rochester, whose book Kirov’s Murder and Soviet History is published by Yale University Press.

So Professor, did Stalin order Kirov’s murder?

No.  I am 99 percent certain of this.

Do you leave one percent in case any new documents from the secret archives of the Kremlin or FSB suddenly come to light?

I examined documents that were submitted to the Central Committee Commission and the Committee of Party Control in April 1956, the documents of the investigation in 1934, the testimony of people who were interrogated during the Great Terror, and finally [those of] Genrikh Lyushkov, a member of the NKVD central apparatus, and later NKVD administrator of the Far East.  In June 1938, he defected to Japan. Lushkov was one of the principle investigators in Kirov’s murder.  He arrived in Leningrad the morning after the murder on the same train as Stalin and Genrikh Yagoda (then head of the NKVD), interrogated key witnesses including the murderer Leonid Nikolaev.  He played an important role in the case against Zinoviev and Kamenev in 1935-36. Japanese intelligence meticulously interrogated Lushkov, and he, unlike Alexander Orlov, gave a very accurate account of the Great Terror. A year later, in 1939, a Japanese magazine published a translation of his “Open Letter” to Stalin, in which Lushkov wrote about Kirov’s murder and its investigation in great detail. His description is confirmed by archival documents which were opened decades later. So Lushkov, who did not have any illusions about Stalin, wrote that Nikolaev, a man with obvious mental problems, committed the murder on his own initiative.  But Stalin already used it as an excuse to eliminate his enemies and opponents.

But Robert Conquest doesn’t have much faith in Lushkov’s testimony especially since he was under house arrest  in Tokyo and apparently under the control of Japanese intelligence.  Another researcher Amy Knight also believes that Kirov’s murderer was precisely Stalin. However, Adam Ulam (the famous Harvard historian and author of tens of books, including Stalin: Man and his Era) upholds the version you present. Why are you so inclined to believe the testimony of one of Stalin’s “wolves”?

Because in a number of other issues–the number of repressed in the NKVD’s Far East Department and the preparation of the show trials–Lushkov gives facts that are absolutely accurate and supported by archival documents, which the KGB opened in 1956.  I don’t understand why he would lie about Kirov especially since he wanted to get over to the United States.  Finally, his version is confirmed by an interview with another of the case’s investigators, Leonid Raikhman (he wrote a book under the pseudonym Popov) which he gave in 1989 during perestroika to the St. Petersburg historian Alla Kirilina.  She has done a lot to uncover this mystery.

What then of Khrushchev of findings?

He failed to obtain enough evidence, though he very much wanted to.  The issue is that it was important for Khrushchev to show that Stalin, and only Stalin, answer for the entire nightmare of repression and the Party and the system itself was held hostage by a dictator.  Then and later this myth persisted, designed to protect the essence of the Soviet system and its principles.  Khrushchev could not allow the population to have another notion about the nature of the regime.

Then why did Nikolaev shoot Kirov, what drove him, moreover because he understood that he would be shot?

The fact is that everything somehow went bad for Nikolaev. From the beginning of the 1920s to 1934, he changed jobs 13 times, and every new one was worse than the last.  For example, he ran a “red corner” in a factory; he was a strange mentally unbalanced person. Today we would say he was depressed.  In April 1934, Nikolaev was fired from the Institute of Party History. He was also expelled from the Party. He appealed and he was let back in, but [the Institute] wouldn’t take him back. His wife was a mid-level employee in the Ministry of Heavy Industry, and they didn’t have enough money.  But most important, Nikolaev was working class and thought that everything that had happened to him was extremely unfair for representative of the proletariat.  He wrote letters to Kirov, Stalin, the Central Committee and the Politburo, but again this did nothing.  In 1956, the KGB published long excerpts from his diary, as well as what he called his “political testament” which shows that he had completely lost touch with reality.  Finally, Nikolaev came to the conclusion, and he writes about this, that the Soviet government had betrayed the ideals of the October Revolution, which represented his ideals.  He tried to meet with Kirov–he was arrested by Kriov’s security.  They interrogated him and set him home.  Shortly thereafter, he began writing his diary, in which he described his plan to murder Kirov.  He wrote about Ryabov and other revolutionary-terrorists and considered himself a fighter for the Revolution. However, it needs to be recognized that his writings are not completely consistent and lend to delusions.  Several times he got quite close to Kirov, for example in the Moscow train station.  In the morning of the murder, he was in Smolny and attempted to get a pass to a Party meeting.  He didn’t and they told him “to come back at 4.”  He did and they gave him is pass.  He had a revolver in his pocket.  Nikolaev came out of the toilet as Kirov passed him.  He took out his revolver and fired.

Where did Nikolaev get his gun?

Many members of the Party had weapons at that time.  All the more so that Nikolaev participated in collectivization in western Siberia.  In the middle of the 1920s and then in 1931 his gun was registered. As for the ammunition, he bought them in an NKVD store, since only the NKVD had the right to sell weapons in the USSR at the time.

There has been talk that Kirov seduced or attempted to seduce Nikolaev’s wife?

We know that Kirov had one mistress: his wife was terribly sick and he had affairs. There’s talk about his passion for a ballerina at the Marinskii theater, but Nikolaev’s wife was not among his flames.

You, and many others, have referred to Nikolaev’s diary.  More specifically to the part which was published by the KGB.  Have you excluded the possibility that the NKVD destroyed other evidence that proved that Nikolaev was not a lone gunman?

Anything is possible.  As you know, during the show trial in 1938 a version was floated that Genrikh Yagoda, who had already been shot, ordered Zaprozhets (Ivan Zaprozhets (1885-1937, deputy head of the Leningrad NKVD), and he turned to Nikolaev to kill Kirov.  This version is a clear falsification.  There is a bulk of evidence: Zaporozhets was not in Leningrad the months before the murder occurred.  In my book, I dwell on another version in detail where Stalin, or Kaganovich, or Molotov, who saw Kirov as their rival, using a lower level NKVD employee, gave the understanding that they wanted to eliminate Kirov.  It is completely unclear how Kirov stood in their way. In contrast to the well known myths, Kirov was far from a serious opponent of Stalin, he was not an alternative leader. He, however, consistently followed the line of the Central Committee and comrade Stalin.  He was much more loyal that others, and the legend that there were hundreds votes against the leader of the Party at the XVII Party Congress  is also a myth created in Khrushchev’s time to show that the Party was not responsible for the terror and that it attempted to stop Stalin in 1934.  I repeat this is a myth.  By the way, Stalin personally promoted Kirov, he created him, appointed him to such an important post as the first secretary of Leningrad.  So what sense does it make that he would kill Kirov?  It’s another question whether he would have shot him later like many others.

To blame Zinoviev and Kamenev and unleash a bloodbath, no?

That is how Stalin used the assassination as a justification for mass repression, for which he was a genius.  For the USSR, the consequences of Kirov’s murder were much more important than the murder itself.  But–and this is one more argument against the version about an order for Kirov’s murder–the actions of Nikolaev created a very dangerous precedent: if someone could decide to kill one of the leaders of the Party, he could have followers.  Second, Nikolaev was from the working class, and this was also an unpleasant fact for the authorities: the proletariat, is not like the kulak, not like another hostile element, but it was precisely a person from the working class who lifted his hand against a fellow Party member.  And therefore, as a result, they hid the fact that Nikolaev was from the working class.  The NKVD thought up a certain “Leningrad Terrorist Center” and made Nikolaev the center of this organization.  In December 1934, Zinoviev and Kamenev were arrested, and they were accused of “moral responsibility for the murder”, and also for plotting a conspiracy with the purpose of removing Stalin.  In August 1936, both already “admitted” to the Kirov murder, and this became the basis for the first in a series of show trials.  Then Bukharin and Rykov were arrested and a whole line of other people (the NKVD had found proof of their involvement), and a second show trial followed in March 1938.

In your book, you explore the Stalin era in detail.  Do you think that without Stalin’s industrialization based on Gulag slavery and mass executions, the Soviet Union would have been unable to gain the power to win the war with Germany?

No, I hold the opposite opinion.  Many researchers show that the repressions, including those in the Red Army, in many ways became the reason that the first eighteen months of the war were so disastrous.  The same studies show that if the policy of NEP was continued, the Soviet Union would have been much better prepared and thus millions of people would not have been killed.