One bullet that killed a million people. As the assassination of John F Kennedy is to the US, so the assassination, 29 years earlier, of Sergei Kirov, Stalin’s number two, was to the Soviet Union. Everyone in the Soviet Union remembered where they were when they heard of the assassination of Kirov. Millions would die as a direct consequence of that single bullet as Stalin sought to unmask the perpetrators.
Sergei Kirov, a dashing forty-seven-year-old and the rising star of the Bolshevik party, was killed on 1 December 1934 in a corridor outside his offices of the Smolny Institute in Leningrad. His assassin, 30-year-old Leonid Nikolaev, had acted alone. Kirov’s death threw the nation into a state of shock. Joseph Stalin, who rarely left the Kremlin, made an exception and caught the overnight train to Leningrad specifically to interview Nikolaev. Upon arriving in the city, Stalin was greeted by the local secret police chief and slapped the man across the face. On 29 December, Leonid Nikolaev was executed, soon followed by his wife (spuriously suspected of having had an affair with Kirov, thereby providing the motive), and his 85-year-old mother.
Nikolaev may have acted alone but Stalin insisted on the immediate arrest and execution of anyone who ever had the remotest connection to Nikolaev. The day following the assassination, Stalin introduced a new decree which considerably speeded-up the process of dealing with arrestees and further empowered the arresting organs by depriving defendants of either a defence or the right to appeal. It meant that those arrested were automatically deemed guilty and stood no chance against the weight of Soviet justice. The hunt for conspirators had begun. From Leningrad, the net soon spread wider, across the whole country, and eventually millions were caught in Stalin’s mass purge.
The Unfortunate Elizabeth Lermolo
Let us take, for example, the unfortunate Elizabeth Lermolo. Once part of the crème of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg society, Elizabeth was a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty keenly sought by the young and fashionable men of her ilk. In Tolstoyian drawing rooms the beautiful Elizabeth danced and flirted through her youth; gregarious, giggly, and always the centre of attention. It was to one lucky Georgiv Lermolo to whom her devotion fell, and Georgiv, a dashing Lieutenant in the Tsar’s cavalry, thought himself the luckiest man in all St Petersburg. They married soon after their first meeting with full pomp and ceremony, as expected of their class, whilst the city workers looked on, seething with resentment and thirsting for proletariat revenge. The Lermolos and their ilk paid no heed to the shifting plates of early twentieth century Russian history, for soon after the blissful consummation of their marriage, the curtain fell on their dandy and frivolous lives.
Georgiv was amongst the first to fall; pulled down from his horse whilst trying to restore order, a worker’s spade slicing through his neck. Within two months, Elizabeth found herself living with many others in a small shack in a peasant village in the far northeast of Russia. Twenty-two years old, exiled and widowed but grateful still to be alive, she eked out an existence of sorts, for which she had much to thank a kindly and helpful neighbour, one Vika Nikolaev, aunt to the now infamous Leonid Vasilevich Nikolaev.
Seventeen years later, and not yet forty but with a face of a woman double her age, Elizabeth’s old life seemed no more than a distant dream. Like so many others in late 1934, the net fell over her. Accused of being complicit in the plot to kill Kirov, Elizabeth Lermolo was tortured and brutalised to the point she envied Georgiv’s early exit from this barbarous, unjust world. The fulfilment of her wish was not long in coming.
The Seventeenth Party Congress, held in Moscow’s Kremlin between 26 January and 10 February 1934, had been hailed as the Congress of Victors, such was the Stalin’s self-delusional satisfaction at the successes achieved by collectivization and the first Five-Year Plan. Since dubbed the Congress of the Condemned, of its 1,996 delegates, 1,108 (56 per cent) would be arrested within three years and, of those, a third executed.
The congress proved to be the highpoint in the career of Sergei Kirov. Kirov spoke gushingly of the party’s achievements: ‘Our successes are truly tremendous. The devil knows – to put it humanly, one wants just to live and live.’ Many within the party viewed Kirov as a potentially more humane and moderate party leader and several of them approached him during the congress urging him to stand against Stalin. Kirov refused to be drawn in and even made the fatal error of reporting the conversation to his boss.
On the last day of the Congress, voting delegates had their say on the composition of the new Central Committee. Delegates had to cross out the names of those they were voting against. Kirov attracted only three negative votes, while Stalin had at least one hundred and, according to some sources, up to 300. The voting slips were anonymous so Stalin had no idea who had voted against him but it amply fed his deep-rooted paranoia that he was surrounded by traitors. So Stalin had plenty reason to be jealous of his young protege and would have been happy at his removal. He felt threatened by the younger man who was becoming increasingly popular, not just amongst the people but within the party itself.
Over the decades the finger of accusation for Kirov’s murder has always pointed to Stalin. Certainly the circumstances surrounding Kirov’s death were suspect: the lack of bodyguards at the fatal moment, and Nikolaev’s ease of access to Kirov. Twice in the previous weeks, Nikolaev had been found hanging around the Smolny and found to be in possession of a revolver. But both times he was released without proper questioning. Kirov’s bodyguard, Borisov, who would have been a key witness, died the following day in a mysterious car accident while in the custody of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police.
What is sure is that the assassination was used by Stalin as the launchpad for the Great Terror and that Stalin’s hold on power became that much tighter following Kirov’s death, and was to remain so until his own death in 1953.
Rupert Colley Kirov’s ageing bodyguard, Borisov, was immediately questioned following the assassination. Here is a fictionalised account of the interview with Borisov.
Rupert Colley’s chilling novel, set in Stalin’s Moscow, The Black Maria, is now available.