December 01, 2014

The Mystery of the Kirov Assassination

The Mystery of the Kirov Assassination

Eighty years ago today, on December 1, 1934, a fellow named Leonid Nikolayev shot beloved Leningrad party chief Sergei Kirov, setting off the Great Terror. But not all is clear in this incident. In Charon’s Chronicles, Russian writer Alexander Lavrin investigates the murky background of Kirov’s death.


There exist four theories as to why Kirov was killed.

  1. Nikolayev had a personal vendetta against Kirov.
  2. Stalin either ordered or knew of the assassination.
  3. It was a terrorist plot organized by Trotsky through the employees of foreign diplomatic missions.
  4. The assassination was planned by the opposition within the USSR.

The third and fourth points have as few supporters as they have pieces of evidence. So I will elaborate only on the first two. Let us examine the historical evidence.

In the first rounds of interrogation, Nikolayev claimed that he wanted to get revenge on Kirov for allegedly “destroying his honor and destabilizing his life.” Indeed, since April Nikolayev had not had a job anywhere, and had changed jobs 11 times in the previous 15 years. He had been a minor bureaucrat in Party and Komsomol branches, and his last position was in the Party archives. The regional office in Vyborg had offered him some minor positions, but they did not appeal to him. There is evidence of Nikolayev “catching” Kirov on two occasions, when the latter was getting into his car, looking to complain to him about his situation. Could Nikolayev have come to hate the entire world so much as to choose Kirov as a target for revenge? A possibility. But although he could have made the choice himself, he could also have listened to a tip from someone else. Note that after his arrest Nikolayev demanded to see Stalin. Had he, perhaps, wanted to explain that the assassination had not been his idea, and hoped for lenience, if not a miracle?

When in 1990-1991 the Soviet press debated the mystery of Kirov’s death, an interesting pattern emerged: all the supporters of the “lone gunman” theory were conservative Party officials. So what were their arguments?

  1. In response to journalist Georgy Tselms’s question, “So could Nikolayev have killed Kirov on his own initiative?” one of the officials answered, “Sure he could! You know the kind of guy he was? A pipsqueak with a chip on his shoulder. And he’d just been fired. If they hadn’t fired him, maybe nothing would’ve happened…”
  2. Stalin could not have ordered Kirov’s assassination because the two were close friends.
  3. The death of Borisov, Kirov’s bodyguard (who died on his way to interrogation), was just an accident, caused by a defect in his car.

And from a legal standpoint, supporters of the “lone gunman” theory have the more stable position, because in December 1990 a plenary session of the USSR Supreme Court ruled that “the terrorist act targeting S. M. Kirov was planned and carried out by Nikolayev alone.”

But let’s hear the arguments for the second theory. […] In his memoirs, Nikita Khruschev writes: “First of all, we found out that not long before Kirov’s assassination Nikolaev had been apprehended near Smolny, where Kirov worked. He had appeared suspicious to the guards, and was searched. They found a gun on him (in his bag). At the time, the stance on guns was strict, but despite that, and despite the fact that he had been stopped in a high-security area, Nikolayev was immediately released.”

What do you think? Was Nikolayev really acting on his own?

A profile of the assassination appeared in the November-December 2014 issue of Russian Life, and you can read more arguments from both sides on [ru].


Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

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