Assassins at Large. Hugo Dewar 1951

Chapter X: Who Killed Kirov?

Our successes are truly enormous. The devil knows – to speak simply as a human being, one wants just to live on and on – Look! Look around at what is being accomplished! This is really fact!! [1]

The speaker’s voice is charged with emotion; his brilliant oratory flows over the audience in a hymn of praise to the Leader who has made this heaven possible; the marvellously cadenced melody of his voice invests the stock phrases with new meaning, banishes from all minds the grim realities of the world outside. In Germany the dark flood of Nazism had engulfed an entire people and is licking at the crumbling bastions of European civilisation, but here in the USSR there is the light of a dawn that none wishes to recognise as false. And in this hall, sounding the note of optimism and hope that all desire to hear, is the foremost spokesman of the ‘new course’, the path of reconciliation; an easing of the tension under which the nation has suffered so long; an end to the bitterness of internal strife and a beginning of the new period in which the blood poured out upon the earth shall yield a harvest of social harmony and physical well-being.

As the speaker ends, his audience rises to him in a storm of loud and prolonged applause, and when the delighted delegates chat during the recess of the congress they openly wonder whose ovation was the greater – Stalin’s or Kirov’s. And what harm can there be in such a comparison? Is not Kirov one of Stalin’s closest comrades-in-arms? Hearing this talk, the genial smile on the face of The Boss does not fade; if he has any private thoughts he keeps them to himself.

How beautiful it is to live now: this was the theme of the Seventeenth Party Congress in February 1934. But in December of that same year the most outstanding exponent of that theme, Sergei Mironovich Kirov, characterised by the former Soviet diplomat Alexander Barmine [Barmin] as an ‘orator second only to Trotsky’, was no longer in a position to enjoy the good times he proclaimed with such eloquence. He lay with a bullet in his brain, struck down by a member of his own party.

At the news of this assassination a sense of gloomy foreboding must have fallen upon many, but few could have foreseen the full extent and frightfulness of the events to which it gave rise. In view of Kirov’s known views, it crossed no one’s mind that his death could possibly be laid at the door of any inner-party opposition, and that it presaged a revival of the terror, directed this time against the party itself. Well, perhaps it is too much to say that such thoughts crossed no one’s mind; perhaps there were those for whom the assassination presented a heaven-sent opportunity... But in the broad party circles this could not be so. A glance at Kirov’s career will show why few, if any, immediately connected his death with any anti-Stalin opposition within the Russian Communist Party.

Sergei Mironovich Kirov joined the Bolsheviks in the year 1904 and became a member of the Central Committee in 1922. In 1923 he was sent to Azerbaijan to strengthen the control of the central government power and in 1926 he replaced Zinoviev as secretary of the Leningrad party organisation. At the decisive Fifteenth Party Congress in 1927, when the Trotsky – Zinoviev Opposition, already split within itself, suffered defeat, he distinguished himself as a spokesman for the Stalin line. He played a prominent role in the ruthless semi-military operations against the peasantry that marked the carrying through of the first Five-Year Plan; he was in charge of the construction of the Baltic – White Sea Canal, and had jurisdiction over the concentration camps of the Kem and Murmansk coasts. In 1930 he became a member of the Political Bureau. There was at no time in his career any question of ‘political deviation’ on his part; he was through and through a man of the governmental machine created by Stalin.

But with the completion of the first Five-Year Plan there arose a widespread hope that the terrible pressure its execution had entailed would be eased. The experiences of those years had left behind an almost universal, bitter resentment of the ruling clique. The mood of the masses was reflected even within the ranks of the Communist Party, where two viewpoints inevitably arose: there were those who favoured a relaxation of the terror and those who mortally feared any ‘liberal’ concessions. Kirov became the foremost representative of the ‘liberal’ tendency. Thus Alexander Barmine says of him that:

... he partly revived the old ‘liberal’ spirit that had made Leningrad in the post-revolutionary period a cultural and scientific centre, carrying the policy of conciliation as far as he could in his own district. In the Politbureau he had been a staunch supporter of Stalin’s ‘general line’, and there could be no question of his orthodoxy. (One Who Survived, GP Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1945, p 247)

This viewpoint gained ground. Hitler’s conquest of Germany strengthened those who favoured a closing of the party ranks. When the harvest of 1933 gave evidence of being exceptionally good, many members of the party expelled for opposition activities were readmitted, among them Zinoviev and Kamenev. Those who hoped for a break with the past also found comfort in the transformation in July 1934 of the dreaded GPU into the Commissariat for Home Affairs. This, although events proved it a change of form and not of content, could, coupled with a certain limitation of the powers of the political police, be taken as reflecting the desire to move towards a milder regime. At the same time, however, the exponents of the ‘hard’ policy continued to press their views. The situation was fluid. But no one could be in doubt about Kirov’s attitude. He stood for the ‘soft’ policy and his support of it was all the more telling in that he had always in the past shown himself a merciless executor of the Stalin line and no breath of suspicion had ever touched his loyalty to the ‘genial Boss’.

At the Seventeenth Party Congress in February 1934, Kirov was re-elected to the Politbureau and also became a secretary of the Central Committee, which involved his transfer to Moscow. However, on one excuse or other this transfer was put off, although he attended the meetings of the Politbureau, where he continued to advance his proposals for the inauguration of the ‘new course’ .

Unknown as Kirov may have been to the outside world before his assassination, he was nonetheless quite a considerable figure among the Soviet ruling élite. All the indications point to the fact that shortly before his death he had in fact become a close runner-up to Stalin in popularity – if such a word is permissible.

This, then, was the man whose death provoked the storm that swept the Soviet world, and whose lightnings struck fatally even in distant lands.

The assassin was caught red-handed, but in spite of this fact he remains for us a shadowy figure. We can only say of him with any degree of assurance that he was a member of the Communist Party and that his name was Leonid Nikolayev. In December 1936 and February 1937, the Menshevik Socialist Messenger published a most interesting document, ‘Letter of an Old Bolshevik’, giving a detailed analysis of the political background, psychological atmosphere and immediate consequences of the Kirov case. According to this letter, Nikolayev had fought in the Civil War from the age of sixteen and become a member of the Young Communist League at the front. He was at one stage associated with the GPU, apparently he even became a member of the guard at the Smolny Institute, where Kirov had his office. But while this document bears evidence of authenticity and is of value to the student of Soviet Russian affairs, our examination of the Kirov case does not have to rely on its statements about Nikolayev. What is important to note is that official Soviet statements keep us in the dark about the personality of the assassin. The only hint of his past career is the statement of WG Shepherd, writing semi-officially as the Moscow correspondent of the British Daily Worker, that Nikolayev was a ‘member of the former Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection’ (The Truth about the Murder of Kirov, Modern Books Ltd, p 7). But we do know that he was in possession of a revolver and that he had access to Kirov’s office in the Smolny Institute. An association with the GPU would account for this. And, as we shall see in due course, the GPU was actually involved.

So, precisely in what circumstances the deed was done; how he gained access to Kirov, where he was working at the time; what his relations, if any, were with the victim – on all these important matters the Soviet communiqués were silent.

At first there was no suggestion that the business was linked with any organised opposition within the Communist Party. On the contrary, the execution of 104 White Guardists who had illegally entered Russia from border states, gave, and was apparently intended to give, the impression that the affair concerned these elements alone. Incidentally, all those executed had been arrested some time before the commission of the crime. Only later was this version abandoned, when the arrest, on 16 December, of fifteen former members of the Leningrad Opposition showed which way the wind was blowing.

Kirov’s death was immediately followed by the announcement of a new government decree aimed at speeding up ‘the investigation and trial of cases of terrorist organisations and terrorist acts against workers of the Soviet power’. This decree, passed the very same day of the crime, signed by M Kalinin and A Yenukidze (he too is fated to fall) [2] laid down that the investigation of such cases should take not longer than ten days; that the indictment should be handed to accused one day before trial; that cases should be heard without participation of counsel for prosecution or defence; that no appeal would be allowed against sentence or for pardon; and that the death sentence was to be carried out as soon as it had been pronounced. The GPU was thus officially given a free hand. The speed at which this decree was drawn up and promulgated shows that the advocates of the ‘hard’ policy were right on their toes.

But the ten days’ limit laid down in the above decree were not enough to extract a confession from Nikolayev and his alleged associates. Only on 27 December was the indictment against him, LI Kotolinov, NP Myasnikov, NN Shatski and ten others made public. All were allegedly former members of the Zinoviev Opposition (this is understandable, since in 1925, ninety per cent of the Leningrad membership had sided with Zinoviev). Then for the first time the name of the ‘arch-fiend’ Trotsky was mentioned. According to Nikolayev’s confession a certain foreign consul had given him 5000 roubles for the commission of the crime and had asked for a letter to Trotsky. Henceforth anyone who had at any time given support to Trotsky’s inner-party struggle, and their name was legion, knew that he was suspect.

The name of this consul, at first not divulged, was later, on the insistence of the diplomatic corps, revealed as the Latvian Consul Bisseneks. After the revelation of his name Bisseneks disappeared from the scene. What his exact role was is hard to determine, but it is significant that his name is not mentioned in any of the subsequent trials, all of which stemmed from the Kirov case.

Was Bisseneks in fact an agent provocateur? The complete absence of any further reference to him or to the Lettish Government, also charged with complicity in the murder, gives ample room for suspicion. But if so, on whose behalf was he really working?

On 2 and 3 December the head of the Leningrad GPU, FD Medved, and eleven of his colleagues were arrested. On 23 January Medved was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment; his deputy, Zaporozhets, to the same term; Baltsevich to ten years; and the other nine to two years each. This trial, like that of the actual assassin, took place in secret, but the official communiqué stated that the accused had ‘possessed information concerning the preparations for the attempt on SM Kirov... and failed to take the necessary measures’; they ‘took no measures for the timely exposure and prevention’ of the crime ‘although they had every possibility of so doing’ [author’s emphasis]. In the circumstances these sentences were astoundingly light, particularly since it appears that the prisoners were given positions of trust in the concentration camps to which they were sent. They had ‘every possibility’ of preventing the crime – that is categorical enough in all conscience. And if Zinoviev, Kamenev, Yevdokimov and other long-service party members could be given terms of imprisonment ranging from five to ten years simply for ‘moral responsibility’ (for which there was no evidence other than ‘confessions’; and if 104 persons already in jail at the time of the murder could be shot as accomplices; and if anything from 100 000 to 200 000 inhabitants of Leningrad alone could be deported to the Volga, the Urals, Central Asia and Siberia as suspects – the questions naturally arise: Why were the sentences of these GPU men so mild? Who stood behind them, protecting them?

More than four years after the crime Henry G Yagoda, former chief of the entire GPU, speaks at his trial:

In the first place, the murder of Kirov. How did the matter stand? In 1934, in the summer, Yenukidze informed me that the centre of the ‘bloc of Rights and Trotskyists’ had adopted a decision to organise the assassination of Kirov. Rykov took a direct part in the adoption of this decision... It became quite clear to me that the Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorist groups were making definite preparations for this murder. Needless to say here, I tried to object, I marshalled a series of arguments about this terrorist act being inexpedient and unnecessary. I even argued that I, as a person responsible for guarding the members of the government, would be the first to be held responsible in case a terrorist act was committed against a member of the government. Needless to say, my objections were not taken into consideration and had no effect. Yenukidze insisted that I was not to place any obstacles in the way; the terrorist act, he said, would be carried out by the Trotskyite-Zinovievite group. Owing to this I was compelled to instruct Zaporozhets, who occupied the post of Assistant Chief of the Regional Administration of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs [that is, the GPU – author] not to place any obstacles in the way of the terrorist act against Kirov. Some time later Zaporozhets informed me that the organs of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs had detained Nikolayev, in whose possession a revolver and a chart of the route Kirov usually took had been found. Nikolayev was released. (Official Report: Moscow Trial March 1938, pp 572-73; author’s emphasis)

If Yagoda is speaking the truth, then the complicity of Medved and his colleagues is beyond question. He asserts that the Leningrad political police actually arrested Nikolayev before the crime; that he had in his possession a revolver and a chart of the route Kirov usually took. Yet in spite of these more than suspicious circumstances, Nikolayev was released. Now – the question arises: How, with all the top-ranking GPU connections the conspirators had, did Nikolayev ever come to be arrested in the first place? According to Yagoda’s secretary Bulanov ‘there was an occasion when the whole affair was nearly exposed, when several days before the assassination of Kirov the guard detained Nikolayev by mistake, and a notebook and revolver were found in his portfolio, but... Zaporozhets released him in time’ (ibid, p 558). Yagoda’s statement that he had given Zaporozhets instructions ‘not to place any obstacles in the way’ has already been cited. From this it appears that the release of Nikolayev resulted from these instructions. But earlier testimony on the part of Yagoda contradicts this. On page 376 of the trial report we find:

Yagoda: ... Zaporozhets came to Moscow and reported to me that a man had been detained...

Vyshinsky: In whose briefcase...

Yagoda: There was a revolver and a diary. And he released him.

Vyshinsky: And you approved of this?

Yagoda: I just took note of the fact.

Vyshinsky: And then you gave instructions not to place obstacles in the way of the murder of Sergei Mironovich Kirov?

Yagoda: Yes, I did... It was not like that.

Vyshinsky: In a somewhat different form?

Yagoda: It was not like that, but it is not important.

Thus, according to this version, it was only after he had been informed of Nikolayev’s arrest that he gave the instruction not to place any obstacle in the way of Kirov’s assassination. But at the same time he did not approve of Nikolayev’s release, he merely noted the fact. And the notebook becomes a diary. But it was ‘not like that’ – although this is ‘not important’. And then in his final plea Yagoda goes back on it all and says:

It is not only untrue to say that I was an organiser, but it is untrue to say that I was an accomplice in the murder of Kirov. I committed an extremely grave violation of duty – that is right. I answer for it in equal measure, but I was not an accomplice. Citizen Procurator, you know what complicity is just as well as I do. The entire material of the court proceedings and the preliminary investigation has failed to prove that I was an accomplice in this vile murder.

So – Yagoda gave instructions not to place any obstacles in the way, and he did not give any instructions; he gave them before the first arrest of Nikolayev, and he gave them only after the arrest; he was an accomplice and he was not an accomplice; in the preliminary investigation he ‘summoned Zaporozhets from Leningrad and instructed him not to hinder the terrorist act’ (ibid, p 22), and in the court proceedings Zaporozhets went to Moscow on his own initiative to inform Yagoda of Nikolayev’s first arrest... Nobody asks what were the circumstances of the assassin’s first arrest, on what grounds he was arrested. Nobody is curious as to what was in the diary – or was it a notebook? – or was it simply a chart of ‘the route Kirov usually took’? Nobody wants to know where the assassin got his revolver and nobody is interested an longer in the peculiar role of the former Latvian consul, Bisseneks.

And Medved, Zaporozhets, the members of the Leningrad GPU Guard – where are they? These key witnesses are not called; nor is the evidence of their secret trial available to check with the contradictory statements of Yagoda. A Public Prosecutor anxious to probe down to the last minute detail of the Kirov assassination would not have left this vital stone unturned. But Vyshinsky dared not turn it – for beneath it lay a mass of intrigue and corruption that would have destroyed his whole case.

Let us recapitulate. Kirov, champion of the new course of conciliation towards the opposition elements within the party, is killed. Immediately afterwards 104 White Guards are shot (the number is variously reported but all accounts agree on more than 100). The news of the death inevitably raises in all minds the question: who benefits from this? The chief of the Leningrad GPU and eleven of his staff are arrested. Stalin himself speeds post-haste to Leningrad to interrogate personally the assassin (he is accompanied by Ordzhonikidze, Commissar for Heavy Industry, whose sudden death on 18 February 1937 was perhaps convenient, but not necessarily unnatural). Members of former oppositional tendencies are arrested. Nikolayev and thirteen alleged accomplices are tried in secret and shot. Zinoviev and Kamenev admit ‘moral responsibility’, that is, admit that their past opposition to Stalin’s policy could have inspired Nikolayev. The purge gets under way. Tens of thousands are swept up into the GPU drag-net. A series of trials, public and secret, wipe out practically the entire surviving Bolshevik ‘Old Guard’. After the first Moscow Trial, Henry G Yagoda is demoted to the post of Commissar for Communications, Yezhov taking his place. Yagoda, among the few who know all the facts behind the public façade of Soviet justice, has taken the first step down the stairway leading to the execution cellars over which he once ruled. And still for nearly two years after the Kirov murder he is not in any way held responsible for it; is not charged as connected with it either directly or indirectly. It is more than three years later when he at last faces the court. Then he tells this strange tale of Nikolayev’s arrest and release before the murder. His statement, however, does no more than make more explicit the indictment against Medved and company that they ‘possessed information concerning the preparations for the attempt on SM Kirov’. Right from the beginning, then, the investigating authorities knew that these GPU men ‘possessed information’. What information? Clearly they must have known about the arrest and release of Nikolayev, presuming that this ever took place. Yezhov had already been given a watching brief over the whole investigation of the case, and was already working to oust Yagoda. If the circumstances had been as Yagoda at first confessed at his preliminary investigation and trial, and which he later denied, would not Yezhov have quickly discovered these facts? The indictment against Medved and company shows that he would have and in fact did, unless this indictment was false and the GPU men were simply scapegoats.

The most reasonable explanation of the puzzle seems to be that these GPU men were indeed made the scapegoats. It was calculated that if Nikolayev went so far as to make an attempt on Kirov’s life, this action would once and for all settle the question as to whether a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ policy should be pursued. It was not necessary that Kirov should actually be killed, only that Nikolayev should be given the opportunity to expose himself in the act of making an attempt. If he were arrested in the Smolny building, with a revolver and some compromising written material, a diary for example, on his person, this would suffice. This is most probably what was intended. Later, when it became necessary to get rid of Yagoda, this intended arrest of Nikolayev was made to appear as though it had actually taken place – and used against Yagoda. Had everything gone according to plan the Leningrad GPU would have been congratulated on its vigilance. As it was they had to be sacrificed, but not too harshly dealt with, because at that time everything hung in the balance. But the fact that Nikolayev struck ‘unexpectedly’ and actually killed Kirov, did not materially alter the situation; it only strengthened the hands of those who wanted a ‘hard’ policy.

In his testimony, Yagoda himself exposes the fact that the Kirov killing could in no circumstances have benefited the so-called conspirators. He says that he told his accomplices that the killing was ‘inexpedient and unnecessary’ and would lead to his, Yagoda’s, undoing. Unnecessary! It was unnecessary to kill the very man who was in favour of making things easier for the alleged conspirators, aiding them to do what they wanted to do: get back into the party and work there for their subversive ends. Surely these plotters were not so politically infantile as to need convincing of that. They had nothing, absolutely nothing, to gain by Kirov’s death; they had everything, as events demonstrated, to lose by it. And yet Yagoda asserts that he pleaded with them: ‘I even argued that I... would be the first to be held responsible...’ A sound argument. What reply could have possibly been given to it. We do not know. Neither did Yagoda. All he knew was that his objections had no effect, they were not even taken into consideration. But all these men had years of revolutionary experience behind them; they did not need Yagoda to tell them what would ensue from the use of individual terrorism against a tyranny; they knew perfectly well the deadly weapon placed in the hands of those against whom the terrorist aims his blow, and they were fully aware of the terrible repression that must inevitably follow such actions, whether successful or unsuccessful. And in spite of all this, Yagoda’s warning was not even so much as considered.

Let us, for the sake of argument, discount all the evidence tending to show that Kirov was favourable to a more ‘human approach to the inner problems of the ruling clique’; let us assume that he really was the foremost candidate for extermination by these terrorists so strangely unlike any other terrorists that Russia, or any other country, has ever known. Assuming this, their attitude after the deed remains inexplicable. Given the years of preparation and the nation-wide network of terrorist cells in almost every sphere of Soviet life depicted by the prosecution, this assassination should have been the signal for an all-out struggle to overthrow the regime. Instead it was the signal for the commencement of the systematic destruction of every possible actual or potential enemy of Stalin’s dictatorship. And all the members of this, according to the Soviet authorities, extremely powerful counter-revolutionary organisation, not only stood passively by and watched its destruction without lifting so much as a little finger, but even did all they could to assist in their own defeat.

There was no Counsel for the Defence to put any embarrassing questions to Yagoda at his trial. To ask, for example: Did it not surprise you that you were not the first to be held responsible for Kirov’s death? You were at the time so desperately sure that Yezhov would expose your part in the plot that you even tried to murder him. True, the method, spraying the curtains and walls of his room with poison, was one more likely to occur to a writer of ‘penny-dreadfuls’ than to a man of your considerable experience in these matters; but at least it shows that you really felt yourself on the brink of exposure. You were so desperate that you even, according to your secretary, Bulanov, had one of the Leningrad GPU employees, Borisov, who ‘had a share in the assassination of Kirov’, ‘accidentally’ killed. How, then, do you account for the fact that you were not dismissed until 27 September 1936: that is, nearly two years after the crime for which you were so certain you would immediately be held chiefly responsible? Even then you were not accused of the crime. It was not until 4 April 1937 that you were officially stated to have been removed from the post of Commissar for Communications for ‘crimes in office’. Still no mention of the Kirov case. How did you manage to conceal your part in the plot for so long, when all your fellow-conspirators were falling around you like ninepins and showing themselves only too ready to confess to everything and implicate anyone and everyone connected remotely, at any time, with oppositional politics?

No, there was no such Counsel for the Defence to ask these or any other questions that might have torn down the curtain of lies and half-truths and revealed the facts. There was no one to insist in particular on that most embarrassing of all questions: Who benefited from Kirov’s death?

The Kirov assassination was the starting point of and the basis for eight trials: Nikolayev et al, December 1934; Zinoviev and Kamenev, January 1935; Medved et al, January 1935; Kamenev et al, July 1935; Zinoviev and Kamenev, August 1936; Novosibirsk Trial, November 1936; Pyatakov – Radek et al, January 1937; Bukharin – Rykov – Yagoda et al, March 1938. In each of these trials ‘different persons organised the assassination of Kirov by different means and for different political objectives’, as Trotsky has pointed out. There is concrete evidence only in the case against the actual assassin. For those trials not held in camera the available official records offer no scrap of real evidence that any of the accused had anything to do with Kirov’s death. Yet this was the excuse for the trials, this was their basis – for the good and sufficient reason that this was the only real crime in the whole fantastic story of wrecking, sabotage, espionage, wholesale poisoning and so on. The entire case for the prosecution rests upon confessions, confessions riddled through and through with manifest absurdities, contradictions and illogicalities, confessions that individually and in toto cannot be regarded by any balanced person as other than nightmarish phantasmagoria. The Dewey Commission investigated the Moscow Trials of 1936 and 1937 and demonstrated that they were frame-ups. The entire crazy structure of all the trials rests upon one crime committed by one person – the assassination of Kirov by Nikolayev. And the true facts of this murder are not probed, and deliberately concealed by the authorities.

If this ‘bloc of Rights and Trotskyites’ of which Yagoda tells really had the power to make him do their bidding, even although he was firmly convinced he was putting his head into the noose, why did it confine its attentions to Kirov? Why did it even think of Kirov? Why did it not aim straight at the heart of the regime – at Stalin? The indictment of the third Moscow Trial itself states: that the terrorists were preparing to act ‘first and foremost against Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich and Voroshilov’. (Note that in the first Moscow Trial Molotov’s name was not included among those honoured by the terrorists’ attention, because Molotov was at that time under a cloud. This fact alone is a highly significant pointer to the purely political nature of the trials.) This makes sense – ‘first and foremost’ the leaders. But what came of it? Nothing – nothing at all. In spite of the fact that the ‘plotters’ had the powerful Yagoda acting like their office boy, at their beck and call; in spite of the fact that their organisation had, according to the prosecution, a nation-wide network of groups and agents; in spite of the fact that many of the accused sat side by side with Stalin for years – no one struck. Yet Yagoda testified that Yenukidze, Stalin’s bosom friend, had told him towards the end of 1932 that a ‘military conspiratorial organisation had been set up in the Kremlin and that it was ready to effect the coup at any moment’ (ibid, p 570). (This ‘evidence’ is a little by-play on the affair of the secretly executed Tukhachevsky and the other Red Army leaders.) A year goes by. Nothing happens. Then there were ‘preparations for a coup d’état entailing the arrest of the Seventeenth Congress of the party’. Again – nothing. And so on... Always preparations, always ready at a moment’s notice, all set to go – but – nothing happens.

Radek let it slip out at his trial in 1937. In his last plea he says:

And what a picture did I see? The first stage, Kirov had been killed. The years of terrorist preparation, the scores of wandering terrorist groups waiting for a chance to assassinate some leader of the party... (Official Report: Moscow Trial, January 1937, p 545; author’s emphasis)

There it is – ‘scores’, literally scores, of wandering terrorist groups. It would be laughable were it not so tragic. What do these words mean if not that in spite of this vast network of determined terrorists the party leaders were all too well guarded – all, that is, except Kirov. Apparently Radek, at the very centre of the conspiracy, did not know that they had as their staunch henchman none other than Yagoda himself – the man responsible for safeguarding all the leaders.

Go back to Yagoda’s words. He pleaded with the plotters that the assassination of Kirov was ‘inexpedient and unnecessary’, that it would inevitably expose him. His fears were pooh-poohed. What assurances did the plotters give him? None. Yet he went ahead – this man who is pre-eminently a GPU man, whose testimony in court evinces his venomous contempt for the politicians, the ‘theoreticians’ (these ‘babblers’ he calls them). He went ahead... and... someone gave him protection...

In the surrealistic canvas presented to our eyes by the trials there are elements of reality; blurred and distorted as they are, we sometimes seem to see shapes we recognise as real. Is it possible that Yagoda really did marshal a whole series of arguments against the murder of Kirov and that he received assurances that everything would be all right, assurances from someone he trusted, someone he was really close to, someone he knew had the power to make good his word?

It is not suggested that the whole gigantic frame-up was premeditated. But, on the other hand, the ground for it had not been entirely unprepared. Right back in the early days of the inner-party struggle the Stalin faction had raised against its opponents accusations that were the seeds of the monstrous growths of later years. And in the course of the struggle those doomed to stand accused of all the crimes in the Soviet calendar had, by recantations, by public confession of their political sins, by mutual recriminations, by boundless adulation of the Leader, been prepared and prepared themselves for the final humiliation.

As has been noted, the situation prior to Kirov’s death was fluid; there were two wings within the party, which we have designated as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. Stalin appeared to lend ear now to the one, and now to the other. But isn’t it absolutely certain that this master of intrigue, this consummate political wire-puller, this adept in the art of shady manoeuvre, must have feared a milder regime tending towards a democratisation of party life? Despite all the oft-repeated declarations of loyalty on the part of those who had at one time or another opposed him, did he really trust them? Would he not welcome the opportunity once and for all to be rid of these inveterate critics? History has given an unequivocal answer to all these questions.

The man who concocted the ‘terrorist reserve centre’, the ‘parallel centre’ of the Moscow Trials, knew a great deal about this kind of matter. The ‘reserve centre’, the ‘parallel centre’ did not exist only in his imagination; for had not one been organised along these lines – in the GPU. When Yagoda had served his turn he was replaced by Yezhov. A reserve centre had been carefully prepared against the day when it would be necessary to remove Yagoda. But Yezhov himself did not last long. Yezhov to whom Vyshinsky paid this glowing tribute:

Yagoda and his vile criminal activities have been exposed, exposed not by the treacherous intelligence service which was organised and directed against the interests of the Soviet state and our revolution by the traitor Yagoda, but by the genuine and truly Bolshevik Intelligence Service which is guided by one of Stalin’s most remarkable comrades-in-arms – Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov.

This Yezhov vanishes from the scene in December 1938. Being a comrade-in-arms of Stalin is truly no sinecure. Thus all those who held any of the threads in the strange case of Sergei Mironovich Kirov, upon whose grave has been reared a mountain of skulls, are liquidated. And this fact alone speaks volumes against the only remaining man who holds all the threads. It is possible that he was all the time the only one who held all the threads, for this is one of the major aspects of the technique by which he maintains his personal power – that no one but he holds all the keys to the intrigues that pit each of his henchmen against every other, making each in the final analysis a completely isolated individual who cannot trust his closest friend. Whether Stalin deliberately planned Kirov’s death or whether it was an unfortunate ‘accident’ arising from a manoeuvre calculated to discredit his opponents once and for all will never be known. There is no one left to tell except Stalin and he will never speak. Nor is it necessary. No confession is needed here in order to reach a verdict: for this one murder, whether deliberately connived at by him or not, was still used by him to ‘justify’ the judicial murder of hundreds.


1. 17 Syezd Vsesoyuznoi Kommunisticheskoi Partii (B) (Moscow, 1934), p 258.

2. Abel Yenukidze, one-time Secretary of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet, Stalin’s closest friend, almost like a brother to him, shot in 1936 without trial.