Today in History: Dec. 1, 1934

Josef Stalin and Sergei Kirov

From: Stalin and the Kirov Murder, by Robert Conquest:

This century has seen horrible crimes on a mass scale, culminating in the Jewish Holocaust. No comparison with these can be sustained. But as an individual murder, there is, for various reasons, none to match the Kirov murder.

Single events – even accidental ones – have often turned the path of history. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, just over twenty years previously, brought on a perhaps otherwise avoidable Great War. At any rate, that is the only individual crime (or dual crime, since the Archduke’s morganatic wife was also killed) with which the Kirov murder can remotely be compared. But even the assassination of the Archduke had no further intrinsic result beyond the crisis leading to war. There was no mystery about the responsibility. No long-lasting politicies were based on any theoretical view of it.

The Kirov murder, however, was made the central justification for the whole theory of Stalinism and the necessity for endless terror.

Of course – Conquest had first published most of his books before the Soviet Union had opened up, before perestroika, glasnost, and all the rest, and he had to pretty much guess at a lot of the exact numbers. Conquest’s accomplishment is even more astonishing when you consider that he was working almost blind.

As Conquest wrote many years later, in his The Great Terror: A Reassessment:

This killing has every right to be called the crime of the century. Over the next four years, hundreds of Soviet citizens, including the most prominent political leaders of the Revolution, were shot for direct responsibility for the assassination, and literally millions of others went to their deaths for complicity in one or another part of the vast conspiracy which allegedly lay behind it. Kirov’s death, in fact, was the keystone of the entire edifice of terror and suffering by which Stalin secured his grip on the Soviet peoples.

Chapter 1 of the Stalin and the Murder of Kirov is entitled “The Murder”.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Smolny, a handsome structure with a classical front of pillars and pediment, set in its own park facing eastward up the Neva, was where Kirov had his offices. Seventeen years earlier the former aristocratic girls’ school had been the headquarters from which Lenin directed the seizure of power. Since the transfer of the capital to Moscow, it had been the center from which not only Leningrad city and province, but the whole Soviet Northwest, was controlled. Kirov’s offices and those of other local leaders were on the third floor (i.e., the British second floor).

Kirov had returned on 29 November from a plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow. The other Leningrad members of that Committee had accompanied him: in particular his number two, and most trusted colleague, the “shockheaded” Mikhail Chudov, Second Secretary of the Leningrad Provincial Committee of the Party; and his other “closest collaborators,” as an official biography puts it, the “elegant” I.F. Kodatsky, head of the city’s government as Chairman of its Executive Committee; P.A. Alekseyev, Chairman of the Leningrad Trade Unions; A.I. Ugarov, Secretary of the City Committee; P.I. Struppe, Chairman of the Provincial Executive Committee; and B.P. Pozern and P.I. Smorodin, Secretaries of the City Committee, Kirov, Chudov, Kodatsky, and Alekseyev were full members, and the others candidate members of the Central Committee.

They had already reported to the Leningrad Committees, and on the evening of 1 December the whole of the active membership – the aktiv – of the city’s party were to assemble for a more public report at the Tavride Palace. Soon after 4 p.m. Kirov arrived at the Smolny to confer with Chudov and others on the text of the report. It was already dark and there was snow on the ground.

According to one official Soviet biography “his personal guard” had accompanied him in his car but did not follow him upstairs into the Smolny. This man, a veteran called Borisov, is described as devoted to Kirov. He had been detained by men of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), and is next heard of at Leningrad NKVD headquarters. He had two days to live.

Kirov went up to his office without him, perhaps not noticing that the usual guards on each floor were also absent.

All accounts agree that the assassin had entered the Smolny without difficulty, and gone up to the third floor. He had earlier worked there, and had a good knowledge of the building. He seems to have hidden in a lavatory, from which he watched the arrival of Kirov’s car.

Kirov first conferred briefly with Chudov and others. There is some divergence even in official accounts, and more in others, about which room this meeting took place in, but this is of no great significance. In any case, it seems that he left Chudov’s office, or more probably his own reception room, and walked along the corridor to his ‘working office’. To reach it, he had to make a left turn, which allowed the assassin, emerging from his retreat, to shoot him in the back of the neck.

The next divergence in the accounts is of more significance. In most, only one shot is mentioned or assumed, but some speak of two shots, the second fired by the assassin in a suicide attempt, but missing him and hitting the ceiling. One report has a different explanation for this second shot.

In any case, the assassin fainted and fell beside his victim. Chudov and the others hurried out into the corridor. Kirov was carried bleeding and unconscious into his office and, when the doctors came, was given adrenalin, ether, camphor, and caffeine, but he soon died. The autopsy gives in great detail the path of the bullet and its effects. It was also established that a Nagan revolver was used, and that this was what was found near the assassin. Meanwhile, NKVD men arrested the unconscious killer, and Chudov telephoned the news to Moscow.

The murder was not done on impulse. The assassin had been preparing his act since the summer. But after various setbacks, his final written plan of the campaign is dated 1 November 1934, in the interrogation records.

It will be seen that there were already some suspicious circumstances. The mere fact of an assassin seeking to kill Kirov is easily enough understood (though his precise motives remained to be established). The question was, how did he get the opportunity? Why were the Smolny guards absent? Where was Kirov’s own bodyguard?

Or, to put it another way, who gave him his chance, and why?

Photo of Kirov’s funeral procession. Note the presence of Stalin behind the casket.

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

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3 Responses to Today in History: Dec. 1, 1934

  1. Emily says:

    Ha! That last sentence couldn’t be more “Pravda.”

  2. red says:

    Emily – hahaha I know, right. Especially the “No!”

  3. DBW says:

    Is this my Christmas present? Just the right size.

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