January 24, 2000

Who Killed Kirov?

Who Killed Kirov?

The first question may well be, who was Kirov? Born Sergei Kostrikov, in 1886, Kirov became a journalist and revolutionary. No stranger to the pre-1917 prison camps and loyal to the peoples' cause, Kirov was murdered in 1934; by whom?

In 1912, Sergei changed his last name to Kirov to mask his identity. He took the name Kir from the ancient Persian warrior - king that he had read about as a child. Kir is the Hebrew translation of the city name, Der; from the Akkadian which means wall or fortress. Kir was a Mesopotamian city east of the lower Tigris, on the main road from Elam (Persia) to Babylon. During the neo-babylonian period (606-539BC), Kir was the capital of the province of Gutium. The governor of this province joined Cyrus of Persia in the overthrow of the Babylonian empire in 539 BC.

Sergei Kirov's murder, on December 1, 1934, became the catalyst for Stalin's Great Terror. Russia of the mid to late 1930's was characterized by Stalin's show trials an brutal purges of anyone perceived to be less than loyal and/or a threat to the absolute authority of the soviet. Stalin needed and excuse to go after his enemies; namely Leon Trotsky and the so called Trotskyists terrorist element. Trotsky's opinions of the current condition of the Soviet Union are best displayed in his 1936 paper, Revolution Betrayed.

Sergei KirovKirov was one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution. His first post-revolution assignment was as a Soviet leader in the province of Tver and, later, the North Caucasus. Kirov became the Secretary of the Central Committee, Azerbaijan, from 1922 - 1925. Eventually, he was assigned to the post of Party boss in Leningrad (St. Petersburg).

Sergei Kirov had served as a member of the Politburo and was a champion for the welfare of workers. He was a talented public speaker which made him very popular with the people. While Kirov did disagree with some of Stalin's practices, he really did not pose a threat to Stalin's power. He was a favorite companion of Stalin and his young daughter, Svetlana. Stalin's sister-in-law wrote of Stalin's intense grief over the death of Kirov.

Kirov's murder is believed to have been carried out by a man named Leonid Nikolaev. But, who ordered the hit or did Nikolaev act purely on his own volition? Or, was Nikolaev merely a patsy, much like Lee Harvey Oswald is believed, by many, to have been to the Kennedy assassination? The mystery of who killed Kirov was on the mind of Russia premier, Nikita Khrushechev in 1961. While speaking at the Twenty-second Party Congress, Khrushchev stated that the government must commit itself to finding out, beyond doubt, who was responsible for the death of Sergei Kirov.

Regardless of who ordered Kirov's murder, the result was a four and a half year purge and the execution of countless people. Kirov's murder was displayed, by the Soviet, as the ultimate crime against the nation. Anyone suspected of disloyalty or mere complacency was subject to a mock trial and immediate death. Stalin promoted his Great Terror with a passion. By 1939, 98 of the 139 central committee members had been executed and roughly 1,100 of the 1,966 17th Congress delegation was in prison. Millions more died in the gulags or at the hands of Stalin's secret police force. Stalin emerged as a demigod with absolute power and ability.

The Book . . .

Who Killed Kirov?
In her book, Amy Knight presents an exciting new analysis of the crime of the century, the assassination of Stalin's greatest rival. On December 4, 1934, the Red Arrow chugged from Leningrad through the freezing dawn to Moscow's October Railway Station. Inside was a coffin containing the bullet-scarred body of Sergei Kirov, former Leningrad Party Chief, Politburo member, and prize orator of the Stalin regime. Kirov's murder, allegedly by a lone gunman, sparked the brutal purges that characterized the Stalin regime, and speculation about it still fascinates the Russians, much as the Kennedy assassination fascinates Americans.

Amy Knight, a research associate at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University, is the author of Spies Without Cloaks: The KGB's Successors and Beria: Stalin's First Lieutenant. She lives in McLean, Virginia.

Excerpts from Who Killed Kirov?

More on the Topic

Moscow Trials: 1936
Treason trial transcripts of Trotsky followers and former comrades of Stalin, Gregory Zinovyev, Lev Kamenev and others.

Revolution Betrayed
Complete on-line text of Leon Trotsky's extensive work which addresses the question, What is the Soviet Union and where is it going? Written in 1936, published in 1937; in English.

Sergei Kirov House and Museum
Kirov's last home, in St. Petersburg, now a museum, open to the public. Page offers brief description, address, phone number and hours.

Kirov image, Funet Russian Archives

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