A good mystery begins unexpectedly in the unlikeliest of places. And then it takes you where you never imagined. When the author was ask to help a friend translate a few family keepsakes, he could never have predicted it would take him halfway around the world and more than a hundred years back in time.
Visitors to Arbor Crest winery in Spokane, Washington traverse Fruit Hill Road, an unstriped route with a twisting, vertiginous stretch that hugs the sheer basalt bluff on which the winery sits. It is in this sublime setting that Angie Tann, a sprightly septuagenarian who spent her childhood in Nazi-held Eastern Europe, hands over a manila envelope containing three coarse, worn pieces of paper with Cyrillic text: scholastic records from tsarist-era Urzhum* that had belonged to her babushka, Vera Nefyodovna Klimova.
The first document, Klimova’s diploma from Urzhum Girls High School, identifies her as the daughter of a practicing Orthodox peasant and as a pupil who received top marks, including the highest grade in Zakon Bozhy (“God’s law,” the academic term for Russian Orthodox theology class).
The second document is a teaching certificate, which states that from 1903 to 1906 Klimova was an instructor at the Sendinskoye zemskoye uchilishe (Senda Town School) in Urzhumsky uyezd (Urzhum district). It also indicates that she had been awarded the title of domashnyaya uchitelnitsa (literally, “domestic teacher”).
The third document includes an enumeration of bureaucratic requirements for “domestic tutors” and “domestic teachers.”
In 1870, the Russian government passed legislation providing girls and women with wider access to education, as well as pathways into the teaching profession. High schools for girls began sproutıng up. Urzhum’s opened in 1871. Standards were established, and a structured curriculum afforded young women the possibility of earning a living.
The statuses of domestic tutor and domestic teacher were created, and each required a set level of education. According to the online encyclopedia pedagogic.ru, higher education was mandatory for a woman to qualify for the rank of domestic tutor, whereas the domestic teacher title was open to women without higher education, so long as they had undergone the necessary preparatory studies. For both categories, women had to be observant Orthodox Christians, have wholesome morals, and show fealty to Russia.
A search for the school where Klimova taught led to a historical website called Vyatka Heritage that included a photo and a caption reading “From the History of the Urzhum Children’s Home.”
And that was when a simple favor of translation opened the door on a full-blown mystery.
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In 1967, the Volga-Vyatka Book Publishing House printed 75,000 copies of a 108-page paperback, This Happened in Urzhum. It was co-authored by two sisters, Anna and Yelizaveta Kostrikova, both of whom had died the year before its publication. The events they recounted represent a mosaic of one family’s life in small-town Imperial Russia and included a memoir of their brother, Sergei Kostrikov, who just happened to be a future favorite son, Sergei Kirov.
One of the most pivotal figures in Soviet history, Kirov was a rising star and the political leader of Leningrad when he was assassinated in 1934. His murder set in motion Stalin’s purges and has titillated sleuths for over 70 years.
But long before all that, Kirov was a boy from the backwater town of Urzhum. He came from an impoverished family and was raised in the town’s foster home, which opened in 1882, four years before his birth. His untimely demise left his sisters to write the definitive account of his boyhood. And in our century their chronicle attracted the interest of Dmitry Kazakov, an archivist and historian in Kirov (the regional capital, formerly known as Vyatka), who runs the aforementioned Vyatka Heritage website. His pithy online summary of the sisters’ account of life at the Urzhum Children’s Home is the lone online vestige of the contents of their book.
“Unfortunately, memory has preserved the names of only a few of Sergei’s schoolmates,” Kirov’s sisters wrote. “Their fates were a diverse mixture… We remember Vera Klimova well. Sergei had a strong friendship with her in both childhood and adolescence. Vera graduated from the Urzhum high school and became a teacher. She taught at the Senda Town School in the Urzhum district. She went off to Kazan and then to Tomsk. Sergei kept up a correspondence with her. They saw each other on several occasions when Sergei came back from Kazan for his school vacations. Later, Vera apparently headed to Central Asia. They lost track of each other, probably because Sergei had become an outlaw.”
After 1934, legions of the curious indulged in attempts to solve the “Kremlin’s greatest mystery,” a quest embodied in the title of Amy Knight’s book, Who Killed Kirov? But in faraway Urzhum, the Kostrikova sisters, both of whom were teachers, had gone to their graves without getting an answer to a different question: What had become of their brother’s long-lost friend, Vera Klimova? That she would end up in Estonia, and that her granddaughter would carry the family legacy to the land of their country’s mortal enemy, surely never crossed their minds.
Vera Klimova was born in Urzhum on August 19, 1884. This was the only fact Tann knew about her grandmother’s childhood until we sent historian Kazakov nosing around the regional archives, where he retrieved all the extant family records. Vera was the first of two children born to an unwed mother named Matrona Alexeyevna Klimova, a resident of the nearby settlement known today as Buyskoye. Vera’s patronymic, Nefyodovna, came from a townsman who served as her godfather. Her mother, who never married, also gave birth to a son named Ivan, and records indicate she died sometime around 1887, when Vera would have been three. Whether brother and sister spent any time growing up together is unknown, but Vera eventually ended up in the Urzhum Children’s Home. There an enduring friendship blossomed with a boy destined to become their city’s most famous native and a force for remaking the entire country.
Sergei Kostrikov, the only male child in his family to live past infancy, was born on March 27, 1886. His father, Miron, turned into an abusive alcoholic and walked out on his wife and children. Sergei’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1893, leaving him and his sisters in the care of their elderly grandmother. In her book on Kirov, Knight wrote that his grandmother “decided to put the children in the local orphanage, where at least they would be fed and clothed. But there were not enough places for all of them, because a famine, followed by a cholera epidemic, had swept over Urzhum two years earlier and left many children without parents.”
When Sergei was in his teens, a beloved mentor at the orphanage finagled a stipend from the Urzhum Charitable Society to fund his secondary studies in Kazan, where Sergei epitomized the term “starving student.” He rarely wrote home because he couldn’t even afford stamps, so it wasn’t until his homecoming in the summer of 1904 that his family saw how much weight he had lost. Those three years away were transformational, as his sisters noted: “In the late summer of 1901, a 15-year-old boy left Urzhum for Kazan. In June 1904, that boy returned from Kazan to Urzhum as the young man Sergei Kostrikov, a specialist in mechanics.”
Meanwhile, Vera Klimova had graduated from the Urzhum High School for Girls and started her stint in pedagogy at the school in Senda, about 25 miles away. As Vera’s three-year teaching stint unfolded, Sergei headed for the Siberian city of Tomsk, intending to take classes in preparation for enrollment at the local technical institute. He had also committed himself to political dissent, and in late 1904 he joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party led by Vladimir Lenin.
The two major shocks of 1905, Bloody Sunday and the October worker uprising, catalyzed Kostrikov’s radical fervor and commitment to overthrowing the tsar. From his sisters’ book, we learn that Klimova also traveled to Tomsk at some point in this period, and the two childhood friends from Urzhum may well have crossed paths there for what would be the last time.
Midway through 1906, Kostrikov was arrested and jailed. By the time he was released two years later, Klimova had vanished. Kostrikov was still several years away from becoming Kirov. Nevertheless, the gulf between him and his longtime friend, both geographical and ideological, had formed, never to be bridged.
On a follow-up visit with Tann, she supplemented her original three documents with a photo of her mother and two of her grandmother Vera – one when she was a teen, and the other by St. Petersburg photographer Nikolai Anufriev (page 50), in which she sat alongside her husband, a Baltic German from Estonia named Wilhelm Söödi.
How and where the two met was never disclosed to Tann, and is almost assuredly lost to history. Somehow, though, in 1907 they turned up in St. Petersburg, where they were joined in a marriage that would endure through all the earth-shattering upheavals of the next three decades.
Their nuptials occurred just as reformist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin was implementing his famous agrarian policy, which enticed peasants to relocate to Central Asia and Siberia, in order to cultivate state-owned farmlands. The great eastward migration of some three million people appears to have included Mr. and Mrs. Söödi. The couple’s first child, Emilie, was delivered in 1908 in Semirechye oblast, a province named for the seven rivers that flowed into Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash and that at the time encompassed the current Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek and the former Kazakh capital of Almaty.
Family lore holds that Vera taught school in her new homeland, which must have been quite challenging, given that the local population was predominantly Kazakh. This Central Asian stopover was the last of Vera’s whereabouts known to the Kostrikova sisters.
If Prime Minister Stolypin hoped his program would goose prosperity and gradually soothe tensions across social strata by turning the peasants into stakeholders, young Sergei Kostrikov wanted the exact opposite. His disloyalty cost him dearly. After bouncing around in Siberia, he was looking to put plenty of space between himself and the police, so off he went to the Caucasus. He arrived in Vladikavkaz in May 1909 and landed a newspaper job at Terek, which proved a tremendous success.
Within a couple of years, a fellow employee, Maria Markus, became his wife. Markus was Jewish, and Knight writes that her family forcefully opposed the marriage, making her decision
an act of extreme rebellion. As for Sergei, he had no family to answer to, but he was the product of intensive exposure to conservative Russian Orthodoxy, a religion which, in stressing great Russian nationalism, was not friendly to Jews. Like most Bolsheviks, Sergei doubtlessly discarded Russian Orthodoxy when he accepted Marxism. But in marrying a Jew he also demonstrated that any latent prejudices instilled in him as a result of his religious upbringing had been discarded as well.
It was a childless marriage, as both parties were dedicated to the Revolution and thus had little time or inclination to carry on the family name.
Vera Söödi, on the other hand, remained staunch in her Orthodox faith despite marrying a Lutheran, said Andres Kruusmaa of the Estonian Genealogical Society, adding that Vera raised her two oldest daughters in the Russian Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, Wilhelm and the youngest Söödi daughter, Margarete (Tann’s mother), practiced Lutheranism, and the Anna Church in rural Paide has numerous graves containing Wilhelm’s relatives. Notably, Margarete’s godfather was the celebrated Estonian composer Artur Kapp, and she received confirmation in St. Olaf’s Church, one of Old Town Tallinn’s most prominent landmarks.
Regardless of Vera and Sergei’s physical remove one from the other, World War I and its aftermath were a commonality. The second daughter in the Söödi family, Lucie, was born in 1915. But her birthplace is uncertain because of confusion in the records. Most accounts state that she was born in the tiny Siberian outpost of Charkov, which today is in Russian Khakassia. But an Estonian source lists her birthplace as Kharkov, Ukraine. So it is unknown where Vera and her family were during the war years, or when exactly they moved to Estonia. We can only speculate about how the international events swirling around the couple affected them personally.
Not so with Kostrikov. Before the outbreak of World War I, he served another year in jail, then landed back in Vladikavkaz, continuing with his journalism and political subversion. Only now he was doing it as Sergei Kirov, the name that would be etched in history.
The Romanov dynasty’s collapse and Lenin’s 1917 coup loosened Russia’s grip on the Baltics. Estonian nationalists seized the opportunity to proclaim the country’s independence early in 1918. For their part, the Soviets signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, formally disengaging from the Great War, which for Russians had been anything but.
The Bolsheviks had dismantled the empire; yet their rejection of the monarchy did not include a rejection of its spoils. Prit Buttar, author of Between Giants, a historical work on the Baltic states in the world wars, notes that, “As the successors to the tsar, they regarded themselves entitled to the same territories that tsarist Russia had controlled… Therefore, intent on reclaiming territory that many Russians regarded as rightly theirs, and seeking an opportunity to spread Bolshevism to the West, Soviet forces began to move against the Baltic region.”
Vera Söödi’s third daughter, Margarete, Tann’s mother, was born in 1919 amid Estonia’s battle with Soviet forces to preserve independence. The Estonians ultimately prevailed, and in February 1920, a peace treaty declared that Russia renounced in perpetuity any claim to Estonian territory.
Margarete spent the first 18 years of her life as a citizen of Estonia.
Some 1,700 miles to the southeast, the former Sergei Kostrikov had settled down as well, and his thirst for change was at long last being slaked. Although Kirov’s commitment to the revolutionary cause was total, he exhibited stark tactical and philosophical differences with Lenin. During the last months of 1917, the Vladikavkaz soviet and its neighbors under Kirov’s guidance resisted the frenzy of their Bolshevik brethren throughout the rest of the country to overthrow local ruling authorities. Furthermore, whereas Lenin “had insisted that the civil war was not only inevitable but desirable,” Knight writes, “Kirov emphasized the need for peaceful solutions to the conflicts that had beset the Terek region.”
Yet Kirov underwent a metamorphosis during the Civil War and the Red Terror, dispelling any notions that he was above shedding blood. His activities as a wartime commissar directing operations in Astrakhan and elsewhere in southern Russia, Knight writes, engendered a new Kirov, “resolute and ruthless in the Leninist mold” and firm in the belief that the Bolsheviks “were above the law, and that anything done to further their cause, including taking the lives of others, was justified.”
Kirov came to personify the depravity and ethical nihilism that Soviet regimes foisted upon humanity. Neither Klimova nor his sisters would have recognized him as the Sergei with whom they had grown up. As Knight writes: “How is it that Kirov, who just a few years earlier had been tormented by the sound of an execution in a tsarist prison, could have become so inured to people’s suffering and so contemptuous of human life?”
Kirov’s emergence as a vital cog in the Soviet power structure began in the South Caucasus. After directing the brutal conquest of Azerbaijan, he was named Russian ambassador to Georgia. Shortly thereafter, Moscow again leaned on his diverse skills, returning him to Azerbaijan as party secretary. His able administration of this important oil-producing constituent for over four years, as well as his 1923 election to the Central Committee, punched his ticket to the next level. The destination was Leningrad.
Stalin had selected Kirov to lead the country’s second-largest city thanks in large part to his loyalty. Kirov actually wanted no part of the assignment, because it was rife with political intrigues and pitfalls. Yet his tenure ended up lasting eight years, a testament to his “herculean achievement.” And it catapulted him into both the Politburo and the post of Central Committee Secretary. Kirov had earned Stalin’s favor and was the boss’s “golden boy” at the 1927 Fifteenth Party Congress, using brilliant oratory to humiliate the Party’s remaining “left oppositionists.” But, ironically, in helping Stalin dispatch the foils to his unchecked power, Kirov was contributing to his own undoing, and his widespread popularity, among the citizenry and the party alike, didn’t escape Stalin’s notice.
The Söödi family, meanwhile, was now living in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Residence records show that they had lived on a farmstead that Wilhelm owned in his ancestral village of Sõmeru since about the start of the 1920s. Their relocation to the capital may have coincided with Kirov’s transfer to Leningrad. Records dated 1927 and 1928 show them living in the Russian-Baltic Shipbuilding Factory’s residential community in the Kopli subdistrict, which has retained its strongly Russian character to the present day. From 1932 on they lived at a series of addresses in Old Town. Wilhelm owned a transportation company, which for at least part of that time meant he was a drayman. Tallinn’s municipal archives even have a record of where his horse was kept: 24 Lai Street.
Now just 230 miles apart, Kirov and Klimova were geographically closer to each other than they had been in decades. But in all likelihood, neither of them knew this.
Even if they had known, though, it’s a near certainty that neither would have wanted to reconnect for old times’ sake. Tann recalls her grandmother shrieking the Russian word for Bolsheviks in dismay, demonstrating that she had only scorn for the regime Lenin had ushered in.
As for Kirov, the December 1, 1989, issue of Leningradskaya Pravda contained a letter from his sister Yelizaveta in which the depths of his dissociation from his youthful past and the fullness of his estrangement from his closest kin are laid bare. The letter arrived mere days before Kirov’s assassination; he never opened it.
The last letter I got from you was from Vladikavkaz in 1911, and then we all lost our bearings. It was assumed that the government had finished you off and that your life was over. Knowing your address, I had the urge to come see you in Leningrad last summer, but I couldn’t make it, because I had to attend to other matters...
At meetings you prattle on to the collective farmers about how much we’ve accomplished, how much better our future lives will be. But in our little slice of home, it’s irritating how desolate, even wild at times, it is where we are. Our town saw an automobile for the first time just last year, and whenever an airplane flies overhead, folks run after it all the way to the end of town, peasants and their kids alike. My own son graduated from a technical school and worked for a year, and he still hasn’t had a chance to see a train.
On the first of December 1934, a ne’er-do-well named Leonid Nikolayev walked into Leningrad administrative headquarters at the Smolny Institute carrying a revolver and a murderous grudge. Encountering Kirov in a hallway, he fatally shot the Soviet leader in the back of the neck. The killing became a defining moment in history, on par with the Kennedy assassination almost three decades later. In the subsequently penned words of Stalin’s adopted son Artyom Sergeyev, who was 13 at the time, “nothing was ever the same again.”
Exhaustive official and amateur investigations followed. However, the full truth of the matter remains unknown to this day. Lev Trotsky, exiled and later murdered for his opposition to Stalin, opined from abroad: “To the terrorist act of Nikolayev, Stalin replies by redoubling the terror against the party.”
And, after five years of eviscerating Russia from within, in 1939 Stalin brought his terror to the Baltics, which Soviet troops occupied under the terms of secret protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Margarete Söödi was 18 and a year out of the Tallinn German Girls School when, as the New York Times wrote on September 29, “the Estonian Republic virtually ceased to exist” and “passed under the full domination of the Soviet Union.”
By 1940, the Soviets had completely occupied the Baltic states (Estonia was taken over June 16-21, 1940) and mass deportations followed. Estimates say that Estonia alone lost 60,000 citizens – this in a country with a population of scarcely more than one million.
Then, a year later, it was Germany’s turn.
“Since 1938, Nazi Germany had pursued a policy known as Heim ins Reich, under which German communities living outside Germany were encouraged to return to their homeland,” wrote Prit Buttar in Between Giants. “Many Baltic Germans chose to stay in Estonia and Latvia, but over the next year the Soviet annexations of the three Baltic States made the majority think again.”
Wilhelm Söödi was not among that majority. He told the Third Reich he was staying put, and indeed he did, until his death in 1942. Vera also remained, until she was ordered to join the rest of her family in what is today the Polish city of Poznan. Her last known Estonian address, the one entered on her Nazi-issued identification card, represents a fascinating historical coincidence. 12 Kohtu Street was for years part of the sprawling Toompea Hill property of Estonia’s leading vintner, Luscher & Matiesen. But in 1940 the Soviets nationalized the company and ousted its owners, one of whom committed suicide rather than be arrested. Vera Klimova Söödi’s final glimpses of Tallinn probably came from a vantage point atop Toompea’s rocky escarpment, overlooking a scene that is the stuff of postcards. Thus was formed an oenological link between grandmother and granddaughter, as if Tann was predestined to go into the wine business someday. After the war was over, Vera lived out her final years in a Baltic German retirement home on the North Sea island of Langeoog. She was presumably buried somewhere on the island, although a search for her burial plot yielded only a memorial marker with her name and those of other residents of the retirement home.
In 1955, Margerete and her husband, Constantin, immigrated to Illinois from Germany with 15-year-old Angie and her two sisters.
Then, in 1979, having acquired the married name Tann, Angie and her family headed for Spokane, where she’s lived ever since. She’s worked at Arbor Crest for 22 years. From there, she can imbibe picturesque clifftop views that rival those her babushka savored long ago from the heights of Toompea. And when her commute takes her meandering along Fruit Hill Road, it could be said she is traveling on the longest street in Spokane. RL
Aside from Lenin, nobody in the Soviet pantheon has been wiped off the map in the wake of the USSR more frequently than Sergei Kirov. His 1934 assassination touched off a frenzy to spread his name far and wide. Urzhum, his birthplace, lobbied to be rechristened Kirov, but that distinction went to the regional capital of Vyatka instead, and also to the region in which both are located. The remote city of Khibingorsk became Kirovsk, as did a Leningrad regional settlement that Kirov founded. All these places have retained their name.
And, with a few exceptions (e.g. Kirov in Kaluga oblast), that’s pretty much it for Kirov’s surviving legacy. One thing Azerbaijan and Armenia can agree on is their distaste for town and city names that honor a man who helped subjugate the Caucasus. Four Azeri and two Armenian settlements named Kirov in Soviet times received native names in the 1990s. Additionally, Kirovobad, Azerbaijan reverted to Ganja in 1991, while Armenia’s third-largest city switched from Kirovakan back to Vanadzor.
Kirov has also gotten caught up in the current battle between Ukraine and Russia. In accordance with Ukrainian de-Sovietization laws, the regional capital formerly known as Kirovohrad was given the moniker Kropyvnytskyi, although the surrounding region kept the Kirovohrad name. A statue of Kirov outside the regional administration building was torn down.
The ongoing war in the Donbass contains a Kirov-related subplot as well. West of Luhansk is a city of about 30,000 people whose name depends on the political loyalties in play. Since 1962, it has been Kirovsk, but Ukraine couldn’t abide that and declared the new name to be Holubivka. With the region under the control of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, the Soviet name prevails locally and in the Russian mind. Ukraine, of course, begs to differ.
Enthusiasm for Kirov cooled even in his native land. The first of the Kirov-class cruisers shed its original name in 1992 and is now called the Admiral Ushakov. The world-famous Kirov Ballet, while still known as such all over the globe, is properly called the Mariinsky Ballet, having reverted to its original name after the Soviet collapse.
In short, the posthumous glory days for Kirov, when his name was seemingly everywhere his country was, are no more.
The Mystery of the Kirov Assassination
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