New College of the Humanities

The Kirov Murder and Soviet History

The Kirov Murder and Soviet History
Matthew E. Lenoe
Yale University Press   872pp   £40
ISBN 978 0300112368

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The assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934 is one of the great murder mysteries of the 20th century and the subject of a highly charged historical controversy. Kirov, the boss of the Leningrad party, was one of Stalin’s inner circle and everybody agrees he was shot by an unemployed Communist Party member, Leonid Nikolaev. But Stalin accused his former party rivals – Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and the exiled Leon Trotsky – of orchestrating the assassination. He also claimed that the conspiracy had spread deep into the Communist Party, and necessitated a massive purge of its leaders. Trotsky, the Mensheviks and other anti-Stalinist socialists, on the other hand, insisted that Stalin had organised the killing himself to provide a pretext for his Terror. For the Trotskyists, Kirov’s murder was the Stalinist equivalent of the Reichstag fire, deliberately started by the Nazis to justify the arrest of German Communists.

The Trotskyist-Menshevik view became the dominant one among western historians, popularised in Robert Conquest’s influential books and recently restated in Amy Knight’s Who Killed Kirov? (1997). And yet investigations by Khrushchev in the 1960s and Gorbachev in the 1980s found no evidence of Stalin’s complicity and in the last 25 years both western and Russian researchers have used newly available archival documents to chip away at the old orthodoxy. However the issue has remained as controversial as ever, as critics have accused the ‘revisionists’ of naivety in trusting secret police sources and even of whitewashing Stalin.

Now an American academic, Matthew Lenoe, has stepped fearlessly into this fraught debate with the fullest account of the affair yet published. In a book that pairs acute analysis and extensive extracts from archival documents with pacy narrative he insists that there was no conspiracy. Nikolaev acted alone and he was motivated by both personal and political disillusionment with the regime. However, as Lenoe makes clear, this finding is in no way intended to exonerate Stalin. Rather it helps to place the atrocities he did commit in context.

One of the problems with the old story is its assumption that everything in the USSR happened because an omnipotent, Machiavellian Stalin willed it. The Terror, according to this view, was a crude power-grab, launched against entirely imaginary opponents. But, as Lenoe shows, Stalin did not have to invent opposition, for the USSR was rife with ‘social tension and hostility to authority’. In one of the most interesting parts of the book he uses recently released documents from the secret police (FSB) archive to explore the reasons for Nikolaev’s dissatisfaction – the first scholar to do so. He was born into a poverty-stricken family and the Bolshevik revolution presented him with an opportunity. He became a committed Communist (even naming his child ‘Karl Marx’) and worked in various party administrative roles. However, he was unpopular among his colleagues and bosses. They saw him as a ‘squabbler’, always complaining, while he believed he was a true Marxist, standing up to official injustice. And, while he certainly comes across as an eccentric and a rather self-important malcontent, he was not the only Soviet citizen to resent official high-handedness. When he was sacked from his job in the Leningrad Institute of History for insubordination he first considered suicide and then determined on revenge.

For Stalin himself the murder presented an ideal opportunity to smear his opponents and Lenoe reproduces secret police interrogations to show how witnesses were intimidated and tortured into implicating Stalin’s chosen victims. But, as Lenoe also reveals, a genuine fear of sedition was intertwined with Stalin’s cynicism.

Though Lenoe cautions that the new evidence does not prove categorically that Nikolaev acted alone this reader was wholly convinced. But more importantly Lenoe and the documents he presents give us a fascinating insight into the tension, anger and fear among rulers and population alike. This is not only a book for fans of historical murder mysteries but also for readers seeking to understand this extraordinary era.

David Priestland is the author of The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World (Allen Lane, 2009).

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