Max Shachtman


Behind the Kirov Assassination

(January 1935)

From New International, Vol.2 No.1, January 1935, pp.4-6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

REVOLUTIONISTS will be left unmoved by the avalanche of denunciation let loose by the bourgeois press on the occasion of the measures taken by the Soviet Union against those charged with complicity in the assassination of Sergei M. Kirov. Indeed, if whole sections of the working class camp have been driven to the extreme of a blanket endorsement of all the actions of the Soviets, it has been largely as a revulsion against the utter hypocrisy of the bourgeois plaintiffs. Without the twitching of a muscle, the press has, for example, reported the indignation expressed over the recent Russian events by Benito Mussolini, who waded through a river of proletarian blood to attain his present post.

The merited contempt which the revolutionist feels for this choir of pious jackals, does not, however, absolve him from the duty to make a critical analysis of the events. It is not only a duty but a need, in view of the fact that the official communist press has been silent when it should have been voluble, obscure instead of clear, ambiguous instead of unequivocal, and – true to itself – lying instead of truthful. Let us therefore recapitulate the official account of the sequence of events.

On December 1, Sergei M. Kirov was fatally wounded by a shot fired at him in the Smolny Institute in Leningrad, where he headed both the party organization and the Soviets. Only several days later was the name of his assassin, Leonid Nikolaiev, revealed.

Days later, following upon a myriad of unofficial rumors and an astonishing paucity of official details, came the report that several score (the final figure runs to 103) counter-revolutionists, connected with the assassination in one way or another, have been given secret, summary trial and executed on the spot.

Still later, Moscow reports that a number of communist party members or ex-members, connected or once connected with the Zinoviev group, have been arrested as a result either of independent investigation or of information divulged by Nikolaiev.

Weeks after his arrest, Nikolaiev is reported to have confessed that the killing of Kirov was not a personal affair, but was part of an extensive plot participated in by Zinovievists, by a foreign consular agent, who supplied financial assistance, by Leon Trotsky and others unnamed. The goal of the conspirators was the assassination of Kirov, Stalin, Kalinin, Kaganovitch, Molotov and other leading figures of the present regime, and their replacement by Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trotsky.

A few days later, a group of 14 party or ex-party members, plus Nikolaiev, is given a brief and secret trial before a military court, sentenced to death and shot. The fate in store for others who were arrested has, as this is written, not yet been made known.

To expect anything but bewilderment, suspicion, or stupefaction from a worker given this narrative and explanation, one must be imbued with that peculiar faith, sustained by servile and cynical gullibility, which is the compulsory attribute of official Stalinist spokesmen. For what else can be expected from such a polychromatic picture, where all sorts of colors are slapped on, sometimes one over the others, and wide spaces on the canvas are left either confusingly blank or only vaguely outlined? An attempt must nevertheless be made to bring some clarity into the confusion created by the official version of the affair. The handicap of meager information about so sensational a series of events only makes critical analysis more necessary. Such an analysis will be facilitated if those charged with complicity in the assassination are divided into five categories:

The official report asserts that the confession made by Nikolaiev just before his execution admitted that his first story, i.e., that he had shot Kirov as an independent personal act without political motive, was without foundation. “He prepared a diary designed to show that he killed Kirov because he was in bad straits and had been badly used,” says the Moscow dispatch. But this was merely a ruse to throw off suspicion from the Zinovievists involved, who had plotted a terroristic campaign for political ends. “When he shot Kirov at Leningrad he believed another section of the gang would immediately attempt to kill Stalin and other leaders in Moscow,” continues the dispatch, which adds that in his confession Nikolaiev further admitted that “I thought our shot must be the signal for action against the party and the Soviet government” Papers like the Daily Worker confirm this as the official view by pointing out the significance of the German Nazi press surmise that Nikolaiev’s shot was a personal act and by adding that those who consider such a conclusion possible are only helping to cover up the political conspiracy of the White Guards and their accomplices.

But this story is obviously contradictory. If Nikolaiev and the Zinovievists “who participated in the conspiracy” intended the assassination of Kirov as a, demonstrative political act against the present regime, to be followed by similar acts against Stalin and others, why then did Nikolaiev insist, upon his arrest (which he must have counted upon), that the act was not political in character? Why should a man (or men) who intended to give a political signal to the masses, go to the trouble of preparing a diary to be read after his arrest, calculated to prove that his act was not political but personal ? One can understand why a trapped assassin would not disclose the fact that he had associates, or give their names. Terrorists – revolutionary or counter-revolutionary – rarely do. At the same time, such terrorists, when apprehended, have never made it a practise to conceal the political motive behind their act by the claim that the affair was purely personal – just the contrary. Examples in both camps: Maria Spiridonova, Vera Figner, Boris Savinkov, Raoul Vilain. If the Stalinist version is accepted, we shall have, we believe, the first case on record of a political terrorist seeking to deny the political nature of his act and admitting it only weeks afterward under stress. Further, why the ‘‘personal alibi” diary, if it was expected that half a dozen or more assassinations of prominent figures were to take place almost simultaneously, which would make it as clear as day to a child that a political movement was involved? Did the other conspirators also concoct misleading diaries?

Despite the efforts to throw everybody connected with the shooting into one group, there seems; to us to be no visible link between the 103 “White terrorists” executed at the beginning, and the 14 executed two to three weeks later. Careful examination of the official accounts shows that nowhere is the assertion made that there was any direct connection between the first group and the so-called Zinovievists, although every succeeding day the Stalinist press lumps them together ever more indiscriminately – and vaguely.

Why was no public trial held of the 103? For answer, we have thus far had abuse, blustering condemnations, but no intelligent reply from the Stalinist spokesmen. It goes without saying that our question does not concern the problem of revolutionary terror by a proletarian regime. The Bolsheviks did not launch the Red terror in November 1917. They were compelled to resort to it afterwards only when savage terroristic assaults were made on them by the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. Even at the present time, despite all the official absurdity about a classless society in the Soviet Union in a couple of years, certain circumstances may well compel the workers’ state to resort to measures in its defense, and sometimes in retaliation, which strike terror into the hearts of those class enemies who seek to restore the old order and once more impose capitalist slavery upon the masses. The fact remains, however, that counter-revolutionary groups in the past have been dealt with openly, so that the proletarian government was able to prove its case in public court, by impressive evidence, with the world working class studying both the accused and the accuser and hearing what both had to say, Why not this time ? There is an explanation, given by the Stalinists in a studied whisper: “A foreign power is involved. The world situation is very delicate now; the evidence, if brought out, would have precipitated serious international complications.” True or not, the explanation is nonsense. In the first place, it is nobody’s particular secret that by the “foreign power” is meant Germany. If it was to be kept so strictly secret, why is it now possible for the Daily Worker to declare in so many words that the Nazis were behind the terrorists? Why such delicacy? In the 1922 trial of the Social Revolutionists, the Bolsheviks did not hesitate to bring out the connection between the culprits and the French and English governments. In the 1930 trial of Ramzin and associates, there was no hesitation in showing the link between the “wreckers” and France. In the quite recent trial of Mr. MacDonald of Metropolitan-Vickers, there was no sign of this suddenly acquired bashfulness. In addition, in these as well as in dozens of similar cases, open trials were held.

Moreover, what assurances are there that the 103 were what they are purported to have been – White Guards, and persons of similar stripe? There is the Stalinists’ word for it – but as Lenin so rightly said, if you take anybody’s word for anything, you’re an idiot who can be disposed of with a wave of the hand. Whoever may look with equanimity upon being placed in such a category, we refuse to be among them. In all the trials of counter-revolutionists mentioned above, and in hundreds of others, those finally imprisoned, exiled, shot, or set free were always listed. There names were given, their political and social biographies were attached, as were the exact and formal charges levelled against them. Under such conditions, it was always possible in the past to know who was involved and why. Why, in this case, have the Stalinists made it impossible? Even aside from Lenin’s salutary admonition, one would be a political child, inviting catastrophe, to place blind trust in the integrity of those who have so often abused it. It is therefore impossible to accept offhand and on mere say-so the assertion that all of the 103 were White Guards and counter-revolutionists who deserved prompt execution. For the sake of the Soviet Union and the workers’ cause in general, we should like to believe the assertion. But being communicants of no church, we cannot believe it on pure faith.

This uneasiness is enormously heightened by the fate meted out to those who fall into our third category. For the second it is at least claimed that they were out-and-out White Guards. But the fourteen appear to have been members of the communist party, and at least at one time, proletarian critics of the Stalinist regime who had absolutely nothing in common either with counter-revolution or with individual terrorism. There is reason to believe that all fourteen were at one time not only members of the party, but supporters of the former Opposition Bloc (Trotsky-Zinoviev group). Not all the names are familiar, but a search through old periodical files reveals a number of them and indicates their political trend. L.I. Sositsky, one of the executed fourteen, was expelled from the party in Leningrad, on October 11, 1927, for supporting the Opposition. The rest remain unknown to us, except for four others – I.N. Katalinov, Vladimir Rumyantsev, Georgi Sokolov and Vladimir Levin – who were expelled, the records show, by the 15th congress of the Russian party in 1927, also for membership in the Opposition. Ivan Katalinov, the youngest of those executed, was, we recall, the delegate of the Russian Young Communist League on the Executive Committee of the Young Communist International in 1928, from which he was later removed for supporting the Zinoviev group. As for V. Rumyantsev – unless there is someone else bearing exactly the same name – he was elected to the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union at its 17th congress, that is, as recently as February 1934, to the committee to which was also elected the same Kirov he is now accused of having helped murder! (It should be remembered, by the way, that the Zinovievists referred to capitulated in 1928 or later, and were taken back into the party.)

“Beaten in open political struggle,” exclaims Pravda on December 19, “exposed before the masses, the miserable remnants, the degraded dregs of the anti-party Zinoviev group, concealed themselves from the sight of the party, lay in ambush and began to resort to the last, White Guardist and Fascist bandit method – to individual terror.”

The charge appears to us to be utterly incredible! It becomes even more fantastic when the Stalinists add to those at whom they hurl it such names as G. Zinoviev, L. Kamenev, G. Yevdokimov, P. Salutsky, G. Safarov (who are reported arrested in connection with the murder) and Leon Trotsky. All of them, plus the 14 executed, have years, even decades, of revolutionary activity behind them. Zinoviev and Kamenev joined the party in 1901; Trotsky in 1898; Yevdokimov in 1903; Salutsky in 1907; Safarov in 1912. All of them were reared in the rigid Marxian tradition of antagonism in principle to the theory of individual terrorism. All of them have occupied posts of the highest trust in the party and the Soviets. Zinoviev was chairman of the Communist International all during Lenin’s lifetime and head of the Leningrad Soviet for years. Kamenev was Lenin’s literary executor, head of the Moscow Soviet, chief of the Council of Labor and Defense, Lenin’s substitute as chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, and chairman, in his absence, of the Political Bureau of the party. Yevdokimov was secretary of the party in Leningrad, a member of the party secretariat and organizational bureau, and – like Rumyantsev – elected to the Central Committee of the party as late as February 1934. Safarov was a prominent Leningrad leader and editor of Pravda in that city.

Is it conceivable that such men could be enmeshed in a conspiracy for individual terrorism, backed and financed, moreover, by Hitler Germany ? Terrorism – that is no individual aberration; it arises in certain social conditions. What must be the conditions inside the party that impel 14 young communists, and an unknown number of Bolsheviks of long standing, including two members of the Central Committee, to resort to such a desperate measure as terrorism for the purpose of making what they believe are needed changes in the situation? It is not hard to understand that a desperate supporter of capitalism should “resort to the last, White Guardist and Fascist bandit method – to individual terror”. But why a group of communist party members, why a Zinoviev, a Kamenev, why two members of the highest governing body of the party itself? Have they no other recourse – is that what Pravda is unwittingly conveying to its readers? Are there no normal channels available in the party through which to express dissatisfaction with a state of affairs, and proposals to alter it?

The very charge which it directs against its opponents is a merciless indictment of the bureaucratic Stalinist regime itself!

The more one reflects on the situation, the clearer it becomes that a plot has indeed been hatched, a monstrous and dastardly plot, but one which has no real relation to the murder of S.M. Kirov.

In the first week of the Kirov affair, on December 7, Izvestia specifically repudiated the idea that the assassination was the act of opponents inside the communist party and, instead, placed the blame upon a source which is, in any case, possible and plausible: the White Guard and counter-revolutionary elements abroad. Denouncing the theories of the reactionary Finnish paper, the Huvudstad Bladet of December 4, Izvestia then wrote:

“The fabrications which this paper concocts about ‘dissatisfied Left-radical groups’ and ‘discontentment among the troops’ are just as true as the invention of the ‘independent North Russia’. Important in the idiotic inventions of the Finnish sheet, is the hint that in its opinion the approachment of the Soviet Union to France is going too far. We are convinced that the counter-revolutionary elements who hatch terroristic conspiracies, aim precisely at this moment at disrupting the approachment of France and the Soviet Union.”

It is quite clear that on December 7, it had occurred to nobody in the Soviet leadership to implicate inner-party opponents in the murder. Among the 103 who were instantly shot, no attempt was made to wrest a confession that would involve the Zinovievists or Trotskyists or any other party current. This was done in the case of Nikolaiev, some two weeks later. At the height of the indignation and horror felt by the workers at the assassination, it occurred to the Stalinist leaders (as we analyze the developments) to subject to this indignation all of their opponents, both counter-revolutionists and inner-party and proletarian critics, that is, to throw White Guards, Nazis, terrorists, Zinovievists and Trotskyists into the same group.

In the declining days of the French Revolution, the Thermidorians and the trail-blazers of the Thermidorian reaction pursued a similar course. When the revolutionary Hebertists were sent before the tribunal, the reactionaries threw the communistic Momoro, the idealistic “orator of mankind”, Anacharsis Cloots and Leclerc into the same group with counter-revolutionary bankers and German agents. When Danton, Desmoulins and Phelippeaux were arrested, they were combined with forgers like Fabre and Delaunay, thieves like Lacroix, and men like Chabot who had taken 100,000 francs from the royalists. This reactionary abomination came to be known as a Thermidorian amalgam. It was devised to confuse and bewilder, to make it possible for a growing reaction to dispose of revolutionists under the guise of combatting counter-revolutionists.

Stalin is an old hand at just such Thermidorian amalgams. We have not forgotten 1927, when Stalin accused Trotsky and Zinoviev of conspiring with a Wrangel officer against the party and the Soviets – with a Wrangel officer who turned out to be a confidential agent of the GPU! What we have in 1934 is, if anything, a more despicable and outrageous amalgam. Taking advantage of whatever White Guard elements are involved in the affair, the Stalinists are seeking to kill (literally!) two birds with one stone: White Guards outside the party and revolutionary oppositionists inside the party.

Zinoviev and Kamenev as oppositionists? It is almost as hard to believe as the charges made against them by the Stalinists. Three times they have been charged with “counter-revolutionism”, each time more violently. Three times they have capitulated to Stalin, each time more self-debasingly. In 1928, Zinoviev and Kamenev announced the renunciation of their views. On June 16, 1930, Zinoviev begged the party to understand that as a result of his factionalism he had conducted an “embittered struggle against comrade Stalin, who most consistently and steadfastly combatted deviations from the party line”. On October 9, 1932, Zinoviev, Kamenev and others were expelled again for having allegedly connived with the Riutin-Uglanov group for nothing more or less than the “creation of a bourgeois-kulak organization for the restoration of capitalism, especially of kulakdom, in the Soviet Union”. On May 20, 1933, the duo again begged for readmission: “I was one of those who often came forward against the Central Committee of the party and against Stalin and agitated strongly against them,” wrote Zinoviev. “I was absolutely wrong. The name of Stalin is the banner of the entire proletarian world. He it was who understood, together with the party Central Committee and at its head, how to preserve and augment the theoretical and political heritage of the party ...” This was not enough. At the 17th party congress, last February, the leaders of all and sundry groups that had ever opposed Stalin were marched across the stage like so many marionettes – Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Toinsky, Rykov, Lorninadze, Radek, Preobrazhensky – to beat their breasts in public and to explain how they finally became convinced that they had always been wrong, and Stalin always right, and that obedience to Stalin was the supreme party virtue.

That Zinoviev and Kamenev, at least, were engaged in any active political opposition to Stalin, is highly doubtful. That they have continued to play with such an idea, in the hermetic privacy of their chambers, is entirely possible. Among those arrested, must have been men like them, and also men who, unlike them, were engaged in more active opposition to the bureaucracy. The new blow struck at the old Zinovievists, particularly at the two former leaders, is not only an infamous piece of vindictiveness, but it calculatingly pursues a political aim. The plan to dispose of them – physically, by execution or imprisonment or exile; politically, by calumny and discreditment – is a preventive measure.

That there is a basis for a growing opposition, cannot be doubted for a moment. The internal regime has become progressively worse. Imagine a situation where neither the rank and file communist nor the old and experienced party leader can speak his mind publicly, where the bureaucratic lid is screwed down so tightly that men in the most responsible posts must discuss their party problems in secret, in deadly fear of being discovered. In 1929, the world learns that Rykov, head of the government, Bukharin, head of the Third International and Tomsky, head of the Russian trade unions, have been conspiring to restore the power of capitalism and the kulaks. In 1930. the man who had replaced Rykov as head of the government – Syrzov – and a prominent leader of the Central Committee – Lominadze – are expelled for plotting a counter-revolution in the party. In 1931, Riazanov, the head of the Marx-Engels Institute, is expelled and exiled for having plotted with counter-revolutionary Mensheviks. In 1932, two new members of the Central Committee, Riutin and Uglanov, the latter the head of the Moscow organization, are expelled for “having attempted, in an illegal manner” to restore capitalism, in the Soviet Union – nothing less. In 1934, one member of the Central Committee is executed for plotting to assassinate other members of that body, a second is arrested on the same charge.

Throughout these years, to an ever-increasing extent, the. party regime has become highly personalized. The compulsory flattery of Stalin, the artificial invention and heralding of his virtues and genius, the fawning and toadying and scraping and crawling before, the Master and what Pravda calls “our Stalinist Central Committee”, has had nothing to parallel it since the days of the Byzantine Empire. Were there no other facts, these few would suffice, to damn the internal regime.

There are other grounds for the rising revolutionary opposition.. In little more than a year, the Third International has revealed its. incurable impotence in three decisive events: the advent of Hitler to power, the civil war in Austria, and the Spanish uprising. The fact that only one congress of the Third International has been held in eleven years, is undoubtedly having a disturbing effect upon the serious revolutionary elements in Russia. The fact that while the Comintern crumbles, the Soviet Union enters the League of Nations and hails it as a triumph, that it concludes a close alliance with France, is impressing itself upon the minds of the unstultified Marxists in Russia as the reflection of the Rightward swing of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Coincidentally, has come the marked turn to the Right inside the Soviet Union. At the 17th congress of the party, early in 1934, Stalin issued the slogan: “The collective farm peasants must become well-to-do!” – a new edition of the notorious Bukharinist slogan in 1925: “Enrich yourselves!” Toward the end of the year, the party leadership accentuated the Rightward turn under the guise of a step forward: the bread card system, which has existed for six years, is to be ended at the beginning of 1935. The consequences of this measure will be far-reaching. Up to now, bread has been rationed to the workers by the stamped-card system. Though the ration might be low, it was nevertheless assured. The better paid workers and employees augmented their rations by purchases on the speculators’ markets. Now, bread is to be bought. at will, in controlled stores, at fixed prices, and the speculators’ markets are to be wiped out. Prices are to vary in accordance with the eight zones into which the Union has been divided. On November 26, the Central Committee provided for an increase in the retail price of bread to a point about half-way between the. former normalized and the commercial (speculators’) prices. So that the workers shall be able to meet the price rise, wages are to be universally increased about 10% by January I. The better-paid workers, therefore, who previously paid commercial prices for bread, now receive a wage increase and a bread-price decrease. The average and the low-paid workers, who previously obtained bread at the low government-normalized price, must now pay a higher price for it. According to Molotov, the increased revenue, accruing to the state from the rise in the retail price of government bread, will be used to pay higher prices to those peasants producing grain, cotton, flax, tobacco, etc. In a word, the division of the national income is being shifted away from the industrial population to the agricultural population.

It is in these economic and political shifts, in the last analysis, that the causes must be sought for the bewildering succession of events following the murder of Kirov. These shifts relentlessly create the basis for the resurgence of a proletarian opposition to the Stalin regime. The Thermidorian amalgam, the shooting, imprisonment and exile of critics – actual and potential – are calculated to behead this opposition or to crush it in the egg. That the real interests of the Soviet Union, and the international labor movement, are profoundly and most adversely affected by these developments, lies in the very nature of the Stalinist course, All the keener must be the vigilance of revolutionists throughout the world, all the livelier their readiness to come to the defense of Russia as her need becomes greater, all the firmer the steps they take toward restoring the movement of the vanguard, the Fourth International.


Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 17.11.2005