Book Excerpt: Who Killed Kirov?

A December Tragedy

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

On December 1934, with a freezing, damp dawn breaking over Moscow’s October railway station, a large delegation of workers, summoned for the occasion by the party, watched in shivering silence as the Red Arrow from Leningrad pulled up and a coffin was lowered onto the platform. Inside was the bullet-scarred body of Sergei Kirov, former Leningrad party chief, Politburo member, and prized orator of the Stalin regime. As workers shouldered the coffin, a group of Kirov’s former colleagues, led by Stalin, stepped off the train, doubtless weary after the all-night journey from Leningrad. Their faces, all but hidden in the thick folds of their coat collars and the heavy fur of their hats, were expressionless.

Kirov had been murdered late in the afternoon on 1 December, in the Leningrad party headquarters at the Smolnyi Institute, an imposing neoclassical building that had once been an aristocratic girls’ school. That same day, immediately after learning the news of the tragedy, Stalin had ordered several leading party officials to accompany him to Leningrad. After a perfunctory visit of consolation to Kirov’s distraught widow, Mariia L’vovna, Stalin and his subordinates began an investigation of the crime. It was highly unusual for the top political leadership to abandon the capital to oversee a case that the NKVD, the powerful and efficient secret police, was presumably well equipped to handle on its own. But this was no ordinary crime. The victim was one of Stalin’s closest comrades. Since the death (by apparent suicide) of Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, two years earlier, Kirov had become an indispensable companion to Stalin, vacationing with him in the South and even having the rare privilege (given Stalin’s extreme self-consciousness about his physical appearance) of accompanying him to the sauna. Though separated by hundreds of kilometers, they talked often on the telephone-sometimes, given Stalin’s erratic work habits, in the middle of the night.

Leningrad, moreover, was no ordinary city. Just a few years earlier it had been rife with party oppositionists who took the side of the “leftist” Grigorii Zinoviev in his quarrel with Stalin. As a member of the Politburo, the Communist Party’s leading body, and head of the Leningrad government, Zinoviev had joined with the prominent Bolshevik Lev Kamenev in opposing Stalin’s economic and political leadership. After Zinoviev had been ousted from Leningrad in 1926, Kirov, as the new party chief, had waged a difficult struggle to rid the Leningrad party of loyal Zinovievites. Stalin had never trusted Leningraders, whose city built by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century to serve as Russia’s “window on the West,” he detested. The home of Russia’s most prominent intellectual and cultural figures, Leningrad seemed more European than Russian. Thus he would personally see to it that justice was wrought for Comrade Kirov.