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Eighty years ago today, on December 1, 1934, a Communist Party official named Sergei Kirov stepped out of his office on the third floor of the Smolny Institute in Moscow, probably for some routine matter. Another man, Leonid Nikolayev, stepped out, aimed a pistol and shot Kirov in the back of the neck. Nikolayev dropped his pistol, collapsed and was eventually apprehended with the help of a building electrician. It was too late for Kirov, who was dead. As a high official in the government of the USSR, he was supposed to have bodyguards, but they were mysteriously absent that afternoon.

As historian Robert Conquest wrote in his famous book The Great Terror, the assassination of Sergei Kirov has every right to be called the crime of the century. Indeed, looking back on it from almost 100 years, other murders like the Manson or O.J. Simpson cases pale in comparison, at least with regard to the consequences. Joseph Stalin, by 1934 the undisputed dictator of the Soviet Union, used the Kirov murder as the justification to launch his purges–of the Communist Party, the Red Army and eventually society at large–which resulted in the deaths of millions of people. Though the impetus for the purges was clearly Stalin’s, and probably established ahead of time, the Kirov murder was the start of a very long chain of violence and repression.


Leonid Nikolayev, and his wife Milda Draule. Was Kirov having an affair with Milda?

Was Stalin ultimately responsible for the murder itself? Many historians think so. Kirov was a popular up-and-comer within the Communist Party ranks. An old guard revolutionary, he was rewarded for his service by being given the office of head of the Party in Leningrad (formerly, and now again, St. Petersburg). Some members of the Party were dissatisfied with Comrade Stalin and his pushy way of doing things. In a 1934 Central Committee election, Kirov was chosen as a new member of that body with only three votes against. Stalin got almost 300 negative votes. You had to have quite a pair to vote against Stalin in the USSR in 1934. If Kirov indeed presented some sort of potential alternative to Stalin, a coup within the Party was possible. Thus, in Stalin’s eyes, he had to go. Such is the theory, anyway.

There may have been other motives; if Nikolayev was ordered or goaded into killing Kirov, he was a good choice of assassin. For one thing, he suffered mental problems. For another, he was a disgruntled revolutionary who had been reprimanded for not taking a job the Party wanted him to take. In fact they expelled him, and supposedly Nikolayev was mad at the Party for this. He also seems to have believed that Kirov was sleeping with his wife. Six weeks before the murder Nikolayev was arrested inside the Smolny Institute and the NKVD (Soviet secret police) found a gun in his briefcase. Supposedly he was stalking Kirov. Strangely, though, Nikolayev was quickly released, and the NKVD even gave back his gun. This was a curious “lapse” by Soviet security in the face of what seemed to be a live threat.

It’s unclear whether Stalin or the NKVD actually put Nikolayev up to shooting Kirov. One possible scenario is that Nikolayev decided to act on his own to whack Kirov, but when Stalin and the NKVD realized he was stalking Kirov they let events take their course, figuring it was only a matter of time before Nikolayev showed up at Smolny to try again. Kirov’s security detail was mysteriously reduced after the October incident, a sure indication of official meddling. Of course, Stalin was not a subtle man, nor did he wait for strokes of luck to land in his lap. If he wanted Kirov dead he may have told the NKVD to round up (or frame up) a suitable killer, and the October incident was staged for public show. Either way, it’s hard to claim that Stalin’s fingerprints aren’t somewhere on Kirov’s murder. Nikolayev was executed less than a month after the murder.

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The Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg, as it appears today. The murder occurred in a corridor on the third floor.

When he was interrogated after his arrest, Nikolayev is said to have confessed that he’d received money “from a fascist power” to rub out Kirov. This was probably nonsense, but it served as an excuse for Stalin to allege that a vast shadowy conspiracy, involving the evil “counter-revolutionary” forces of the capitalist West, was at work in Russia to try to bring down the USSR. What Stalin really wanted was to reform a Communist Party, full of loyal heroes of the Revolution who were committed Marxists, into a pliant rubber-stamp full of lackeys and hacks loyal only to Stalin, with none of the pesky principles (like Leninism, or, Marx forbid, Trotskyism) that might get in the way of Stalin’s power. This he certainly achieved. Three years after the murder of Kirov, the Soviet Union was one vast gulag, with millions eventually suffering hard labor or outright execution for crimes against the state.

Kirov’s murder is an important part of the history of the Soviet era. But, as with many things about the mysterious Bolshevik state, it remains shrouded in unknowns. We may never know the full story. Whatever really happened to Sergei Kirov, and why, died with Stalin.

The photo of the Smolny Institute is by George Shuklin and is used under Creative Commons (Attribution) 1.0 license.