Kirov, Sergei (1886–1934)

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KIROV, SERGEI (1886–1934)


Soviet leader whose murder inaugurated the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.

On 1 December 1934, Leonid Nikolayev, a disgruntled former member of the Communist Party, shot and killed Sergei Kirov, head of the Leningrad Region Communist organization. Party workers apprehended Nikolayev immediately at the Leningrad party headquarters where the murder took place. In early interrogations Leningrad police sought evidence of a local conspiracy to kill Kirov, while Nikolayev initially claimed to have acted alone. However, Joseph Stalin intervened in the case within forty-eight hours and began concocting a narrative about a widespread plot to destroy the Soviet leadership. In the coming years of the Great Terror (1936–1938) Stalin and his subordinates used this story line to justify the arrest, torture, and execution of millions of Soviet subjects. At public show trials the Stalinist government convicted former rivals of Stalin in the Communist Party leadership (Nikolai Bukharin, Alexander Rykov, Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, and others) on various charges, including plotting to murder Kirov and Stalin himself, working with foreign intelligence services, and sabotaging industrial production. Because of Stalin's political use of Kirov's murder, many scholars suspect that the dictator organized the assassination himself as an excuse to initiate the Terror.

Rumors of Stalin's involvement in Kirov's death began circulating in Leningrad well before the onset of the Terror, in fact within days of the assassination. Then, as the show trials developed in 1936–1938 a few Western journalists and socialist commentators speculated that Stalin might have ordered the killing in order to justify the Terror. In 1936 the Paris-based Socialist Herald, the organ of the Menshevik Party in exile, published a report purportedly from a senior Bolshevik leader that implied that Stalin might have organized the assassination. This "Letter of an Old Bolshevik" indicated that Kirov had been a "moderate" opposed to the excesses of Stalinist coercion.

From 1940 various journalists and scholars in the United States promulgated this narrative, in which Stalin had ordered Kirov's killing because the latter was a moderate and a serious threat to his power. In 1953 Alexander Orlov, a defector from the Soviet intelligence services, published memoirs in which he claimed to have heard from high-level NKVD sources that Stalin had most likely initiated the "hit" on Kirov. Three years after the publication of Orlov's memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor as head of the Soviet Communist Party, went public with his destalinization program. At the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956 Khrushchev denounced Stalin's personal tyranny, his "cult of personality," and his persecution of innocent party members. As part of his attack on Stalin's former lieutenants still in the party leadership (Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich), Khrushchev raised questions about Kirov's assassination and the death of Kirov's bodyguard in mysterious circumstances soon after. At a closed Central Committee session in 1957, Khrushchev supporters hinted broadly that Molotov had ordered Kirov's murder.

In 1968 the English poet and historian Robert Conquest made the claim that Stalin had ordered Kirov's murder a key element of his book The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. Conquest based his account of the crime largely on Orlov's memoirs, the transcripts of Stalin's show trials, and Khrushchev's revelations. As a result of his writings, many well-read Americans came to assume that the case for Stalin's involvement in the assassination was ironclad.

Since the 1980s, however, several scholars have questioned Conquest's narrative of the assassination plot. In 1985 J. Arch Getty challenged Conquest's claim that Kirov's killing was part of a long-term plan by Stalin to initiate the Terror. Getty argued that the Soviet defector Orlov was an unreliable source, that Kirov was not a moderate but a loyal Stalinist, and that Stalin did not plan the Terror years beforehand. In the 1990s the Russian historian Oleg Khlevnyuk found no evidence in Central Committee documents that Kirov was a moderate. Another Russian scholar, Alla Kirilina, pointed out that in the weeks after the assassination Stalin was slow to settle on a single public version of the supposed plot. This was inconsistent with the claim that he himself had conspired to kill Kirov. Kirilina used documents on early interrogations of Nikolayev to argue that he was a lone gunman. She also noted that Khrushchev's investigation of the murder and his public comments on it had the political goal of discrediting Stalinists in the party leadership.

The question of Stalin's involvement in Kirov's murder remains open. There is no doubt, however, that Stalin used the killing to justify the Great Terror and the millions of arrests, deportations, and deaths associated with it.

See alsoPurges; Soviet Union; Stalin, Joseph; Terror .


Conquest, Robert. Stalin and the Kirov Murder. New York, 1990.

Getty, J. Arch. Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933–1938. New York, 1985.

Khlevniuk, Oleg V. Politbiuro: Mekhanizmy politicheskoi vlasti v 30-e gody. Moscow, 1996.

Knight, Amy. Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery. New York, 1999.

Lenoe, Matthew. "Did Stalin Kill Kirov and Does It Matter?" Journal of Modern History 74, no. 2 (June 2002): 352–380.

Matthew Lenoe

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Kirov, Sergei (1886–1934)

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