Skip to main content

Who Killed Kirov? "The Crime of the Century"

The murder of Sergei Kirov--as the event that set off the purges in the Soviet Union--set the stage for Stalin's dictatorship and had a tremendous impact on the entire twentieth century, said Amy Knight, Visiting Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Carleton University, and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center, at a Kennan Institute lecture on 24 February 2000.

At the time of his death, Sergei Kirov was the Leningrad Party Chief, a full member of the Politburo, and Secretary of the Central Committee. According to Knight, he was enormously popular within the party and a charismatic and talented orator. He was one of the closest Politburo members to Stalin, and their friendship was widely accepted. After he was murdered by a "crazed assassin" on the third floor of the Smolny Institute in December 1934, he became a saint and was mourned for weeks by the leadership and the people.

Knight noted that the murder is a critical event in Soviet history in that it set into motion the purges that swept the country in 1936-8, leading to the death of millions of Soviet citizens. Knight remarked that on the very day of the murder Stalin signed two new laws authorizing the NKVD (secret police) to arrest people suspected of planning terrorist acts, sentence them without a court or lawyers, and execute them within twenty-four hours. Thousands in Leningrad and Moscow would be implicated in the "conspiracy."

Knight went on to explain that the murder, although it occurred over sixty-five years ago, continues to be a subject of controversy and debate by historians. Some historians have put forth the theory that Stalin himself was involved in the assassination by ordering the NKVD chief to arrange for the murder. Knight explained that the suspicions arose from the unusual circumstances of the crime: the floor on which he was killed had restricted access; Kirov's bodyguard was too far behind him to be of assistance, and was killed the next day in a mysterious truck accident; and the shooter had been caught by the NKVD at least once prior to the assassination in possession of a handgun and released. The theory posits that Stalin's motive was to do away with a "moderate" politician and possible rival (there are rumors that Kirov received more support than Stalin at the 17th Party Congress).

According to Knight, Stalin's complicity has been rejected by revisionist historians who concentrated on societal themes and the deeds of the ordinary citizen rather than elite politics. It has also been rejected by Soviet and some Russian historians. In order to determine the validity of the allegations, Knight's research focused on the circumstances surrounding the murder and the relationship between Stalin and Kirov.

Knight offered several examples of inconsistencies surrounding the murder. Although it was commonly assumed that Kirov had arrived unexpectedly at the Smolny Institute, in fact one of his bodyguards had called at least one-half hour before his arrival, leaving (limited) time for the plan to be set in motion. Strangely, the assassin was found unconscious at the scene. Witnesses in the hallway provided conflicting stories that were never investigated by the NKVD; moreover, the police did not close off the building immediately after the murder.

Archival evidence also lends credence to Stalin's motive. There was considerable tension between the two comrades. Knight showed how, upon his transfer (at the order of Stalin) from Azerbaijan to Leningrad, Kirov bitterly complained about the situation in letters to his wife. Kirov's letters show that he was very unhappy to have been called to vacation with Stalin in Sochi in the summer of 1934. Knight's research also led to a typed archival transcript of a previously unpublished speech Kirov gave around the time of Stalin's fiftieth birthday. At that time, party leaders were revering Stalin in their orations. According to Knight, Kirov not only damned his boss with faint praise, but went so far as to bring up Lenin's Testament, in which Stalin was described as rude and unfit to rule. Although he did so in order to illustrate Lenin's mistake, the very mention of the testament was considered heresy.

Based on archival work and an investigation of Kirov as a man and politician, Knight concluded that there is a "fairly convincing circumstantial case" linking Stalin to the crime. Not only was there tension between the two, but the circumstances surrounding the crime and its investigation point to NKVD involvement. Knight is sure that the NKVD would not have acted without the consent of Stalin, which means that Stalin punished thousands of innocent people for a crime committed because of his own lust for power.

Stalin's role in the murder is, therefore, critical to an understanding of foundations of the Stalinist system. Knight remarked that the murder has important contemporary implications as well. In Knight's opinion, the Russian population still seems incapable of looking squarely at their Soviet past. Knight observed that the Russians have not gone back to ask what the KGB was doing during the Soviet era. Instead, former KGB elite now hold top positions in the Russian political system and, in 1998, only 37 percent of Russians disapproved of Stalin. Knight warned that in the long-run this lack of unbiased review of Soviet history will hinder the country's fundamental transition to democracy.


About the Author

Nancy Popson

Senior Associate
Read More

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more