WHO KILLED KIROV? The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery
WHO KILLED KIROV? The Kremlin’s Greatest Mystery. By Amy Knight. Hill & Wang. 331 pp. $26
Bolshevik luminary, firebrand, Leningrad party boss, Stalin’s close associate— Sergei Kirov was all of these until he was killed by a disgruntled, probably deranged militant on December 1, 1934. Contending that political opponents had orchestrated the murder, Stalin launched the Great Terror, the monstrous, four-yearlong purges of party members and the whole of Soviet society. Given his rush to lay blame and the orgy of repression that followed, many have suspected that Stalin—not Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin, or any of the other party leaders—masterminded the most enigmatic crime of the Soviet century, and perhaps the most consequential.
Based on Soviet archival materials and newly published documents, Who Killed Kirov? amasses a vast array of circumstantial evidence to indict Stalin for the murder. Knight, a respected historian of the Soviet secret police and its postcommunist incarnations, provides ample motive. Kirov, she shows, was not the mindless loyalist of earlier portraits. A former journalist for a left-liberal paper in pre-Bolshevik Russia, he was better educated and arguably more complex than the rest of Stalin’s camarilla. While toeing the party line, he repeatedly voiced reservations about specific policies, including the campaigns of terror against the Kulaks. "The Boss," as underlings called Stalin, distrusted dissenters, especially those who, like Kirov, were so popular with the party rank and file as to constitute potential challengers to his rule. So Stalin, even as he pretended to love Kirov, plotted against him.
In addition to ridding himself of a potential rival, Stalin was pursuing a second goal. By blaming the murder on former intraparty factionalists, he could justify the total mobilization that he deemed essential for totalitarian socialism to survive. Mass, unpredictable terror was intrinsic to his rule, Knight shows, and his obsession with traitors and capitulators was more than personal paranoia. Kirov’s murder became the rationale for completely replacing the party bureaucracy, eliminating anyone who had the vaguest recollection of party history, and promoting sycophants who owed their careers to Stalin. Knight’s book is both a lucid analysis of a pivotal event in Soviet history and a bitter reminder of the dark Stalin era.