Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die.

Bertolt Brecht

Chapter 31. The Killing of Sergei Kirov

Gherkins are green, tomatoes are red,
Stalin in a corridor shot Kirov dead.

Folk couplet of 1934

AT 4:30 P.M. on December 1, 1934, a shot was fired in Leningrad. In the next four years its ricochets would kill not only Genrikh Iagoda, but most of the party elite, commissars, judges, prosecutors, senior army officers, captains of industry, and over a million others. Leonid Nikolaev, a former employee of the Leningrad party, shot Sergei Kirov point-blank in the head. Kirov was Stalin’s protégé, the Leningrad party secretary, a member of the Politburo and secretary of the Central Committee. This was the first and last assassination of a Politburo member in Soviet history. After fifteen minutes the doctors gave up resuscitation and telephoned Stalin. Nikolaev had turned his gun on himself but missed; after two hours in hysterics, he shouted out, “I have avenged myself.”

When the news reached Stalin, he was closeted with Molotov, Kaganovich, and Andrei Zhdanov—whom he immediately appointed to succeed Kirov. He summoned his chief bodyguard, Karl Pauker, Iagoda, and a dozen members of the Politburo and secretariat; even Bukharin, now editor of Izvestiia, was called in. Stalin ordered a special train to take him to Leningrad and immediately drafted a decree to deal with “terrorists.” Kalinin as head of state and Abel Enukidze as secretary of Kalinin’s presidium then signed Stalin’s draft into law:

The case of those accused of preparing or committing terrorist acts is to be dealt with in an accelerated way; judicial organs may not hold up the carrying out of death sentences because of appeals for mercy from criminals of this category. The organs of the NKVD are to carry out death sentences passed on criminals of the above categories as soon as the court has pronounced sentence.

When Stalin got back from Leningrad, the law was made more specific:

The investigation of such cases must be completed in no more than ten days;

The charges will be handed to the accused twenty-four hours before the court examines the case;

The case will be heard with no participation by other parties;

No appeals for quashing the verdict or for mercy will be allowed;

The death sentence is to be carried out as soon as it has been pronounced.1

Stalin made this ruthless decree the basis for dispatching hundreds of thousands until more legalistic measures were introduced in 1939.

Many believe that Stalin drafted this law and ordered his special train to Leningrad before Kirov’s murder, in other words that he had planned it. Stalin’s office register shows, however, that the law was signed by Kalinin and Enukidze between 6 and 8 p.m., and the railway archives that the train was booked after the murder.2 Party commissions between 1956 and 1990, witnesses’ testimonies, and archival searches have not proved Stalin’s complicity, and the simplest explanation seems the best: that Leonid Nikolaev was a demented, aggrieved killer acting on his own, aided only by luck in encountering Kirov when he was unguarded.

Stalin had several times in the 1920s shown that he could order the death of a man whom he had only days before embraced, but he began to terrify his inner circle only after 1934. Why should he turn on Kirov, whom he had sent to replace Zinoviev in Leningrad and whose record since the revolution had been to consistently follow and applaud his policies? Some of the very few delegates to the seventeenth party congress of spring 1934 who survived Stalin alleged that there were meetings of malcontents—one in the quarters of Sergo Orjonikidze, then Stalin’s closest friend—plotting to vote for Kirov rather than Stalin as general secretary. In the event there were, it seems, only three votes against Stalin. Some say that Stalin had several hundred ballot papers burned. Others allege that Kirov told Stalin of the plot and then despaired, convinced that his “head was on the scaffold,” that “Stalin would never forgive” his being nominated. But these accounts emanate from persons, such as Kirov’s sister-in-law Sofia, who were not close to him, and they contradict known facts. It is true that three surviving delegates who counted ballots agree that there were two or three votes against Stalin and that there were about 300 fewer ballot papers than delegates, but had papers crossing out Stalin’s name been destroyed or had some delegates failed to vote?

Nobody saw a burned ballot paper and its seems unlikely that Kirov would have let his name go forward. Kirov shunned high-level politics; although a good orator, he preferred contact with the party and factory workers in Leningrad, as he had in the north Caucasus. He had no vision of his own. He had last seen Stalin on November 28 when they had been to the theater together and Stalin saw him off at the railway station. The Kirovs had been family friends of the Stalins for years. After Nadezhda’s suicide, Kirov and Orjonikidze kept Stalin company through the night. During summer breaks in the Caucasus Kirov and Stalin took the Matsesta mud baths together. Kirov was one of only two men in front of whom Stalin would undress. (Nikolai Vlasik, Stalin’s bodyguard, enjoyed the same intimacy.) They played skittles together, Stalin partnering a kitchen worker, Kirov partnering Vlasik. The only blot on Kirov’s copybook was that he had been a versatile and open-minded journalist on a politically middle-of-the-road Vladikavkaz newspaper before the revolution, but Stalin liked his subordinates to have a questionable past.

Nikolaev’s disturbed behavior before the murder aroused comment. He had been detained in the party building in October, carrying a gun and acting suspiciously, but released as the Smolny Institute was not a restricted building and Nikolaev had had a license for a sporting weapon since 1924. His diary shows a man driven by bitter conceit. After running over a pedestrian on his bicycle he was demoted from his post as a party instructor, then dismissed for refusing manual work. He hated depending on his wife’s earnings and felt he was an unnoticed genius. His diary is full of inept epigrams and ominous ambitions: “There are a lot of people, but there’s little difference between them. . . . I want to die with the same joy as I was born with.” The diary has detailed notes of times, addresses, distances, and shot angles for an assassination of Kirov: “After first shot, run to his car: a) smash window and fire; b) open door. In Smolny: at first encounter take a grip on my spirit and decisively. . . . My path of thorns . . . letter to the Central Committee . . . Lack of prospects. 8 months’ unemployment . . . Moment and penitence; historic acts. We and they . . .”

Would Stalin and Iagoda have used such a loose cannon as Leonid Nikolaev when they had professional killers at their disposal?3 Moreover, as the historian Adam Ulam asks, why should Stalin get rid of Kirov by having him assassinated, and thus allow people to believe that a party leader, even himself, was assailable? If Stalin wanted to eliminate a rival, the latter was first branded a traitor, then arrested, tried, and shot; or else he was reported ill, poisoned, or found dead in a crash.

imageStalin’s train raced through the night along 700 kilometers of track guarded by thousands of NKVD men. In the morning, accompanied by the heads of every branch of the power structure—Voroshilov, Molotov, Zhdanov, Iagoda, Ezhov, Khrushchiov, Karl Pauker, Vyshinsky, and Aleksandr Kosarev—Stalin left the train.4 He was greeted by Filipp Medved, head of the Leningrad NKVD and a friend of Kirov. Stalin struck him in the face and called him an asshole.

Iagoda and Vyshinsky set up an investigation. Stalin decided to interrogate personally Nikolaev and Kirov’s bodyguard, Mikhail Borisov, the chief witness. Kirov insisted on walking the streets and loathed being followed by bodyguards and Borisov had lagged behind when Kirov unexpectedly went back to party headquarters. Stalin told the NKVD to bring Borisov but nearly all their vehicles were busy and only a truck with a broken front spring was left. Borisov sat on the edge of the open back, and when the truck veered his head was smashed against a lamppost.5

What Stalin and Nikolaev said to each other is not minuted. Molotov, who in reams of dictated reminiscences said little that was even half true, recalls Nikolaev as “a miserable specimen to look at . . . He said he’d meant to kill, for ideological reasons. . . . I think he seemed to be embittered by something, expelled from the party, a chip on his shoulder. And he was used by the Zinovievites. . . .” Nikolaev’s behavior at the trial has also been cited as proof that Stalin ordered the murder. Nikolaev, according to a Cheka guard, when the sentence was delivered, exclaimed, “Cruel!” and, “I’ve been deceived.” However, the reason Nikolaev cried out was most likely that Stalin’s promise to him had been broken. Stalin and the NKVD frequently bargained with the accused and promised them their lives—or the lives of their loved ones—if they testified as they were told to. With each successive trial, as the accused incriminated themselves and yet still suffered the death penalty, together with their relatives, these promises lost their effect. In December 1934, the bargain still seemed sincere. Presumably, for a promise that he would not be shot, Nikolaev incriminated Zinoviev and Kamenev, and gave Stalin the material he needed for a final judicial solution.

Arrests and trials followed. Iagoda declared that Nikolaev was acting for émigré agents; over one hundred alleged White Guards already in NKVD hands were shot, their deaths reported in the second week of December. Iagoda clearly did not believe in a conspiracy. He pursued the case languidly. Ezhov instructed him that Stalin wanted Zinoviev and Kamenev targeted. When Iagoda failed to get the right testimony, Stalin—as Ezhov would boast when Iagoda fell from power—telephoned him: “Look out, or we’ll smash your face in.” After three weeks’ interrogation, Nikolaev was made to confess to links with Trotsky through the German consulate and, as his wife, Milda Draule, was Latvian, with Latvian espionage. The others arrested were Zinovievites loyal to the old Leningrad party apparatus. Through guilt by association, Iagoda established—but not to Stalin’s satisfaction—that Nikolaev was acting for, if not at the behest of, Zinoviev.

A few months before, another loner, Artiom Nakhaev, had attempted violence against the Bolshevik leadership, and after three months’ interrogation by Agranov had confessed that he was the tool of émigrés and foreigners. On August 5, 1934, just outside Moscow, Nakhaev, an artillery commander, had called on a squad of cadets he was training to seize firearms from an arsenal and attack the Kremlin. “The state is enslaving workers and peasants. There is no freedom of speech, Semites are running the country. Comrade workers, where are the factories you were promised, comrade peasants, where are the lands you were promised? Down with the old leaders, long live the new revolution!” The cadets froze in horror. Nakhaev swallowed poison, but was resuscitated and arrested. Stalin ordered Nakhaev to be “annihilated,” and instructed Iagoda to fabricate a conspiracy. A few days before Nikolaev, the demented Nakhaev was shot after being indicted as an emissary of a Tsarist general in the pay of the Estonian consulate in Moscow.6 Stalin raged to Kaganovich:

Nakhaev’s case is dastardly . . . Of course (of course!) he’s not a loner. He must be pressed to the wall, made to talk, to give the whole truth and then be punished with all severity. He has to be a Polish-German (or Japanese) agent. Chekisty are becoming ridiculous when they discuss his “political views” with him (call that interrogation!). A mercenary scoundrel has no political views—else he wouldn’t be an agent of outside forces.

On December 4 Stalin returned to Moscow with Kirov’s body. He seemed distressed at the lying-in-state and was heard to say, “Sleep in peace, my dear friend, we’ll avenge you.” Stalin’s revenge was the trigger for a mass psychosis that would rage through the Soviet Union for four years.

Today’s Stalinists and even a number of non-Stalinists argue that everything Stalin had done, however murderous and cruel, until Kirov’s murder was ultimately necessary and for the best. They maintain that the USSR had to become industrially strong, to deter its external enemies, and that in the wake of the Great Depression its exports were insufficient to buy the technology necessary for industrialization. They also argue that the USSR’s only realizable asset was grain, and the peasantry would not produce enough for export unless they were collectivized. The proof of Stalin’s success is that in 1943–5 the USSR defeated Hitler and deterred Japan. Humanity, the Stalinist argument runs, should therefore be grateful for Stalin’s strength of purpose, for had Adolf Hitler and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto shaken hands somewhere in the Urals in 1942, the whole world would have been enslaved by fascism for generations to come, and would have endured a genocidal holocaust far worse than Stalin’s purges.

But until 1937 nobody was planning armed action against the USSR, except in Stalin’s paranoiac fantasies. Moreover, when the earning potential of the USSR’s natural resources, even in the depressed 1930s, and the success of such programs as Roosevelt’s New Deal in converting inefficient agricultural workers into builders of dams and factories, are considered, the revenue justifications for collectivization collapse. An evil action can have good consequences, and vice versa, but it needs exceptional generosity of spirit, not to say naïveté, to ascribe to Stalin’s pursuit of total power and the murder of millions humanitarian motives.

Events in the USSR after 1934 defy logic as well as morality. With the exception of Viacheslav Molotov, who maintained to his death that Stalin and he had exterminated a fifth column that would have betrayed the USSR to the Nazis, nobody has been able to rationalize Stalin’s vengeance for Kirov’s death. His murder was the trigger to exterminate every Bolshevik who had opposed Stalin, or who might conceivably take his place. If Kirov had not been killed, we can reasonably suppose that some other event would have provided a pretext.

There had been no loud protests against the events of 1929–34, because there was virtually no civil society left in the USSR. The Church had been reduced to a few frightened priests hiding in ruins. The legal profession had nothing left of its former power but its rhetoric. The prestigious medical profession was suborned to the Kremlin hospital. The creative intellectuals had been exiled, imprisoned, terrorized, driven to ramshackle ivory towers, or bought off. But the total absence of protest after December 1934 is still amazing, if for no other reason than that the hangmen must have guessed from Stalin’s actions that they were now themselves in danger. To many in OGPU, the party, and above all the armed forces, the escalation of terror, as Stalin breached one taboo after another, was palpable. He was insisting on death for political dissenters, real or imaginary. What was there to lose by stepping up dissent into rebellion? What held back Iagoda in OGPU, Tukhachevsky in the Red Army, or Sergo Orjonikidze in the Politburo from attempting to neutralize Stalin? Why did they not get their blow in first?

Back in the Kremlin in December 1934, Stalin took a pencil and sketched out a scheme: opponents were assigned to a “Leningrad center” and a “Moscow center” and alleged to have conspired to assassinate Kirov. This time some thirty-three persons were gathered in Stalin’s office, among them Ivan Akulov, the chief prosecutor, his deputy Krylenko, and the inventive legislator Professor Andrei Vyshinsky. The fabrication of the two “centers” and the indictment of their supposed members took another month.