Sergei Mironovich Kirov (Сергей Миронович Киров 1886-1934)
Sergei Mironovich Kirov is not as well known for his role in the post-revolution USSR as Stalin, Zinoviev, Trotsky or even Bukharin. He was a straightforward man but one with the gift for a forceful, impromptu speech that Stalin lacked, and his popularity in the Bolshevik party in the early 1930s made him the only viable alternative to Stalin as leader of the people. Assassinated in 1934, Kirov's death became Stalin's Reichstag Fire, an excuse to purge Russia's political landscape of his enemies.
Born Sergei Kostrikov on the 15th of March 1886, the son of Miron and Ekaterina Kostrikov, he spent the first years of his life in Urzhum, a town in the Ural mountains. His father left in 1892, leaving his already impoverished mother and sisters struggling to provide for and educate him. In 1893, Ekaterina died, leaving Kostrikov in the care of his grandmother until he was seven, when he was sent to an orphanage.
In 1901, local benefactors gave Kostrikov a scholarship to Kazan Technical School, where he earned a degree in engineering. It was his experiences in school that lead to him becoming a Marxist and he joined the Social-Democratic Workers' Party in 1904. He participated in the 1905 revolution and was arrested for illegal agitation against the state, serving three months in prison for his actions. Shortly after this, he joined the Bolsheviks and moved to Tomsk in Siberia, helping to organize a strike of railway workers. He was arrested in 1906 for printing illegal literature and was then sentenced to three years in prison, which was getting off lightly, considering some of his comrades were executed. The prison had a good library and so Kostrikov took the time to brush up on his education, although he was often disturbed because, as he wrote in 1924, "on many a night the solitary block of the Tomsk country prison echoed with condemned men shouting … as they were led away to execution". On his release, he continued his revolutionary activities, distributing leaflets to fellow workers.
The revolutionary Kirov
In 1912, Kostrikov became Kirov in order to mask his identity, choosing Kir because it reminded him of a Persian warrior. After being arrested again in 1915 and imprisoned for a year, Kirov moved to the Caucasus, where he remained until the abdication of Nicholas II. After the revolution, he fought in the Russian Civil War. He became a Red Army leader in the North Caucasus, fighting until the defeat of Anton Denikin, one of the White Army generals, earning him respect within the party. He was posted as Russian Ambassador to Georgia, aiding its annexation into the Soviet Union. In 1921, he was made Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbajin, which effectively made him the boss and was elected to the Central Committee before Lenin's death, which suggests it was an achievement of his own merit, rather than Stalin's interference.
Kirov was a supporter of Stalin's policies and as a reward became secretary of the Leningrad Communist Party after it was purged in 1926, an influential position, and in the same year gained candidate membership of the Politburo. His implementation of the first Five-Year Plan in Leningrad was very successful by national standards and also important as Leningrad and its surrounding areas were crucial in the manufacture of the machines required for industrialization. Although he often did not implement Stalin's more brutal methods of collectivization, he was not an opponent of them and the White Sea-Baltic Canal, built with forced labour was within his jurisdiction. He also supported Stalin in Central Committee during the introduction of collectivization in 1928, in opposition of more established Old Bolsheviks such as Bukharin or Rykov and was a member of the Central Purge Commission set up in 1933.
Despite not being an open opponent, Kirov was by no means a blind follower of Stalin. For example, Riutin, who had been expelled from the party in 1930 for writing a 200-page anti-Stalin treatise known as the "Riutin platform" in 1932 authored an "Appeal to All Party Members". Stalin was not amused and demanded that the Politbuto sanction the arrest of Riutin as a traitor. Kirov was the only person to break the silence, suggesting that "people won't understand" the decision. He also supported, with Ordzhonikidze and Kuibyshev, the cause of A. M. Nazeretain, a party secretary in Transcaucasia, who, after repeatedly warning Stalin about the consequences of the coercive methods used for collectivization, had been blamed for the consequences and recalled to Moscow without work and left to starve. Such actions, along with a softer approach to party rule, led to him becoming widely and affectionately known throughout the party, being referred to by his patronymic, Mironych, as they had referred to Lenin as Illych.
In the early 1930s, Stalin was not at the height of his popularity. Widespread dissatisfaction with the methods used in collectivization and the subsequent famine led to some looking for alternative leadership. They wished for a "reconciliation with the people", a curbing of the rampant government terror and some democratization of the political system. The proponents of such a strategy included several Politburo members, of whom Kirov was foremost, although Ordzhonikidze, a close friend of Kirov, was also a powerful associate of the proposal. Maxim Gorky, an incredibly influential literary force who Stalin would not dare to punish was another important supporter.
The Seventeenth Party Congress
Held at the end of January 1934, a few days after the tenth anniversary of the death of Lenin, the Seventeenth Party Congress — heralded as "The Congress of Victors" by Pravda — was the first after the completion of the Five-Year Plan. Dominated by Old Bolsheviks, this was a chance for them to express their anger at Stalin and his policies. Some felt that the personality cult had grown too much and that it was time for a change of leadership. At the end of the congress the Central Committee would be elected, which would in turn elect the Politburo, Orgburo and Secretariat. A member of the latter would become General Secretary of the Central Committee, Stalin's position of power. Many felt this position should instead be filled by Kirov. For this to happen, they had to have Kirov's consent. According to Khruschev, it was Sheboldaev who approached Kirov, telling him that "the oldsters" said the time had come to carry out Lenin's wish to displace Stalin because of his personal qualities and they wanted Kirov to replace him. What followed is questionable. By Khrushchev's account, Kirov told Stalin about the conversation, who replied "Thanks, I won't forget you for this". Shatunovskaya, on the other hand, writes that Stalin learned what had come to pass and summoned Kirov for an explanation. Kirov did not deny it and said it was Stalin's actions that caused the approach. Kirov told friends and relatives that his head was on the block. Whatever happened, it is unlikely that Stalin was pleased.
What actually passed during the congress is largely irrelevant for the purposes of this node. It was dominated by reports on the success of the Five-Year Plan and also the verbal prostrations of ex-oppositionists such as Grigorii Zinoviev and Bukharin. However, in the discussion of Stalin's report on the plan, Kirov was the last to speak, in which he too lavished praise upon Stalin, suggesting that instead of preparing a resolution for later acceptance of the suggestions in Stalin's speech, it should be entirely approved as guidance, an indication that he considered every word to be indispensible. The congress complied.
Voting for Central Committee members involved being given a list of candidates and striking out those who you wished to vote against. An absolute majority was required for election. The results for the 17th congress showed only three or four anti-Kirov votes, compared to more than 100 negative votes for Stalin, Molotov and Kaganovich. Most of the vote-counters were shot in the Terror and Kaganovich rigged the results so it appeared that Stalin also only had three or four opposing votes, but the damage was done.
Kirov was elected to all the powerful standing bodies of the party, including the newly-reduced (from seven members to four) Secretariat at the nomination of Stalin. However, although Stalin declined to announce a general secretary of the Central Committee, none of this did anything to reduce his power over the party. As well as expressing its support for Kirov, the congress had also swelled the number of pro-Stalin supporters in the standing committees. Other than Stalin and Kirov, the two members of the Secretariat were Kaganovich and Zhdanov, ardent supporters of Stalin. Stalin proposed to that Kirov should move to Moscow so that he could perform his duties as a Central Committee secretary, but Kirov declined, wishing to be permitted to stay as to ensure the fulfillment of the second Five-Year Plan. He was supported in this request by Ordzhonikidze and Kuibyshev. Kirov went back to Leningrad, Stalin remained in power, taking some time in the middle of the year to set up the NKVD. So it went.
The Assassination of S. M. Kirov
Kirov was shot in the back of the head on Saturday the 1st of December, 1934 in his workplace (the Smolny Institute) a short distance from the office in which a committee meeting was to be held. In the corridor Leonid Nikolaev, a young ex-party member, was found lying on his back with a pistol in his right hand. After those who had been waiting for Kirov had phoned for medical aid and the NKVD, Kirov's bodyguard, Borisov, arrived gasping for breath. He had probably been waylaid somehow, since he was very loyal to Kirov, and was fearful that Kirov's life was in danger after Nikolaev had been caught stalking Kirov with a gun previously, once in possession of a map of his route to work.
Why Nikolaev had chose to kill Kirov1 is a subject of discussion. According to Medvedev, head of the Leningrad NKVD regional office and a friend of Kirov, he was embittered by his failure in life and chose to kill Kirov in a dramatic political act as part of the old Russian terrorist tradition. He has also reported to have confided to a companion that he intended to kill the Party Control Commission member who had expelled him from the party. Some suggest that Zaporozhets, who had recently been appointted as first deputy to Medvedev had encouraged this and assisted him, but instead persuaded Nikolaev to kill Kirov. Another version is that Stalin, after discovering that Kirov was in close relations with Nikolaev's wife had invited him to Moscow, showing him sympathy for his plight and so inciting a desire for revenge. Whatever happened, there is evidence to suggest that there was at least some help given to Nikolaev by the state, since every time he was arrested with a firearm, he was released under Zaporozhet's orders, mostly on the grounds that there was no basis for the arrest.
The aftermath of the assassination
Coincidentally, on the day of Kirov's assassination, Stalin prepared two directives, one of which ordered investigative agencies to speed up prosecutions of terrorist, forbade the judiciary to delay execution of sentence and directed the NKVD to execute the sentences immediately. The second dictated that investigation in to cases against Soviet officials suspected of terrorism were to be finished within ten days. The outrage that would have followed such directives being issued was dampened by the shock of Kirov's murder. On the justification of hunting down terrorists, Stalin would conduct The Great Purge.
1 For the purposes of this node, I have assumed that Nikolaev was responsible for Kirov's death, because of the strong evidence that he did (presence at the scene, etc.) Readers should note that his guilt has not been proven and it is possible he was part of some evil conspiracy.
Cyrillic from Using Russian on E2
Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power - The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941 ISBN: 0393308693