The editors and staff of The Day asked me to comment on a recent event in Russia. It seems that Marx Draule, the son of Leonid Nikolayev, the killer of the Leningrad Bolshevik leader Sergey Kirov, has been officially recognized as a victim of political reprisals. Placed in an orphanage at age 6,5, Marx Draule lived most of his life not knowing who his parents were. According to Russia’s Deputy Prosecutor General Sergey Fridinsky, when he learned of their fate, he appealed to the Russian government for recognition as a victim of political reprisals, believing that his parents, Leonid Nikolayev and Milda Draule, had been wrongfully convicted of Kirov’s murder. In 1935 the couple was sentenced to death by firing squad. In 1991 Milda Draule was posthumously rehabilitated pursuant to an order by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on the grounds that the case files did not confirm her complicity in the killing. The rehabilitation order, however, did not exonerate her husband.
In 1935 Nikolayev’s son, wife, and mother-in-law paid for his crime. In 2005 justice seems to have been restored in keeping with Stalin’s famous aphorism: “The son is not responsible for his father.” The great chief spoke these words while addressing a meeting of harvester operators on December 1, 1935, exactly one year after Kirov was killed.
There is every reason to believe that neither Milda nor Marx Draule had anything to do with plotting the assassination, which is why their rehabilitation is absolutely justified, although belated, as is the case with all rehabilitations. It is also just that Nikolayev was not rehabilitated. On December 1, 1934, he indeed shot and killed Kirov outside his office at Smolny Palace. This point is indisputable. But there is a different problem.
WHO WAS BEHIND THE KILLING?
Little time passed before the murder of Kirov was linked to Stalin. This was not the first mysterious death that had been imputed to the “Kremlin highlander.” Rumor had it that it was Stalin who ordered the killing of Mikhail Frunze while he was undergoing surgery. There were rumors about the allegedly deliberate poisoning of the famous medical scientist Vladimir Bekhterev, who diagnosed Stalin with an “inconvenient” mental disease. In Tyflis (now Tbilisi), in seemingly peaceful conditions a truck hit and killed the famous revolutionary fighter Simon Ter-Petrosian, a.k.a. Kamo, who knew a great deal about Stalin’s involvement in various plans to expropriate property and funds for the party’s coffers.
Still, the murder of Kirov must be recognized as a special case. It proved to be a turning point in Stalin’s career, heralding the era of show trials as well as secret trials of former Bolshevik activists. Some scholars even believe that nowhere else in the world had a single assassination ever occurred of a high-ranking official, which then triggered such wholesale carnage as the one that ensued after Kirov’s death.
With Stalin dead, a new version surfaced and was supported by Nikita Khrushchev. Allegedly, Kirov was assassinated by Nikolayev with the backing of Leningrad NKVD chiefs Medved and Zaporozhets, but on orders from Stalin. Khrushchev pointed to the fact that many party leaders had asked Kirov to submit his candidacy for Secretary General at the 17th Communist Party Congress, and accused Stalin of deciding to eliminate Kirov after learning he was facing opposition. This version of events enabled Khrushchev to expand the long list of Stalin’s crimes. He emphasized the fact that 1,5 months before the assassination, Nikolayev was arrested on two occasions. The second time he was caught with a revolver and bullets, which he had obtained at a sports facility of the NKVD-owned Leningrad Dynamo club. He was released both times.
According to Khrushchev’s memoirs, “Stalin was a wise man, and he realized that if only 260 or 160 delegates voted for him at the 17th Party Congress, this would be a sign of growing dissatisfaction within the party. Stalin realized that the old cadres in the leadership are dissatisfied with him and would like to replace him if this could be done. These people could influence the delegates of the regular party congress and secure changes in the leadership. But then Kirov was assassinated and wholesale carnage ensued.”
Indeed, after the assassination Stalin launched purges among the veterans of the Bolshevik “old guard.” The Association of Old Bolsheviks and the Association of Former Political Prisoners were disbanded in mid-1935. Nearly all the participants of the 17th congress of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik), which was dubbed the “victors’ congress,” were exterminated (of the 1,225 delegates who had a casting or deliberative vote, 1,108 suffered reprisals). A wave of political show trials ensued, based on “evidence” from noted party figures — former oppositionists. These were the trials of Grigoriy Zinovev, Leo Kamenev, and others in August 1936; Georgy Piatakov, Karl Radek, and others in January 1937; Mikhail Bukharin, Aleksey Rykov, and others in March 1938. A group of military commanders, including Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Iona Yakir, and others, was convicted in a closed trial in June 1937.
In 1937 the number of arrests rose tenfold from 1936. Stalin expected these trials and the wave of arrests, as well as official permission to use torture granted to the NKVD (unofficially torture had been used long before) to teach a lesson to the new generation of party managers who had been promoted amid the reprisals and permanent purges in the party’s ranks. This created an avalanche of new cadres displaying the prerequisites of ideological chastity, maximum ideological flexibility, and an absence of independent political thinking, along with a readiness to follow directives from the top unflinchingly. It was in the course of the cadre revolution, which began after Kirov’s assassination and continued throughout the period of the “Great Terror,” that such individuals as Mikhail Suslov, Leonid Brezhnev, Mykola Pidhorny (Podgorny), Oleksiy Kyrylenko, and other future leaders of the stagnation period, rose to the level of middle party managers.
In his memoirs, former NKVD General Pavel Sudoplatov mentions Stalin’s complicity in Kirov’s assassination. In his view, “every word of the official version of the killing, which appeared in the press in early December (1934 — author), is a fabrication.” Stalin insisted that Nikolayev had been helped by Medved and Zaporozhets, who were acting on orders from Trotsky and Zinovev. Sudoplatov proposed the following version: “From my wife, who in 1933- 35 was working at a secret NKVD political department dealing with issues of ideology and culture (in particular, her group oversaw the Bolshoi Theater and the Leningrad Theater of Opera and Ballet, which was subsequently named after Sergey Kirov), I learned that Sergey Mironovich [Kirov] had a passion for women and had many mistresses both at the Bolshoi and the Leningrad theaters. (After Kirov’s assassination, the NKVD painstakingly examined Sergey Mironovich’s affairs with the actresses). Milda Draule was a maid at some of Kirov’s parties. This attractive young woman was also one of Kirov’s girlfriends.”
According to Sudoplatov, “Milda was planning to file for divorce, and her jealous husband killed his ‘opponent,’ i.e., the killer acted out of purely personal motives.”
So was it a political assassination or merely a cuckolded husband’s revenge? It is impossible to establish the truth without examining data on Leonid Nikolayev.
NIKOLAYEV AND THE ECHOES OF HIS SHOTS
“Picture a man with quite a pleasant face; short (5 feet) and narrow-shouldered, with short, bowed legs, long arms that almost reach the knees; a man who is extremely selfish, emotional, ambitious, proud, withdrawn, and nervous. This is Leonid Vasilyevich Nikolayev.” These words were written by Alla Kirilina, a reputable researcher of the Kirov assassination.
Kirov’s official biography, published in 1938, describes the assassin as follows: “On December 1, 1934, just as the Bolsheviks of Leningrad were gathering at Uritsky Palace to hear Kirov’s report on the last plenary meeting of the party’s Central Committee, Kirov was killed at the door of his office at Smolny by a criminal bullet of a foul fascist hireling, a Trotskyite-Bukharinite bandit, who sneaked up on him from behind.”
All of this is true except for the part about the “fascist hireling, a Trotskyite-Bukharinite bandit.” Leonid Nikolayev was neither a hireling nor a bandit. Born in 1904 into a family of laborers, he did not participate in the Civil War or raids by food collection brigades, contrary to a version that was widely circulated at one time. His last place of employment was the Institute of the History of the All- Union Communist Party (Bolshevik). However, Nikolayev had a very unyielding character, which is why in the spring of 1934 the institute’s administration tried to demote him to the transportation department as part of the party’s mobilization campaign. Nikolayev raised a fuss, as a result of which he was initially expelled from the party, but then reinstated after persistent appeals. He got away with “a reprimand that went into his personal file.”
But Nikolayev didn’t give up. He demanded that the reprimand be expunged from his record and he asked to be reinstated in his position, appealing to various authorities and to Kirov personally. He complained of wrongful treatment. With a wife, two children, and a mother-in-law at home, he had to live off his wife’s salary. Plainly put, he was in dire straits.
All of this was compounded by rumors alleging that Nikolayev’s wife, Latvian-born Milda Draule, had had an affair with Kirov. Alla Kirilina doubts the rumors about Draule’s alleged affair with the Bolshevik leader of Leningrad, calling Nikolayev “a fanatic who had decided to make it into the history books through an act of terror.” Kirilina bases her arguments on Nikolayev’s behavior during his interrogation. He struggled hysterically and screamed that his “shot had echoed across the world.” Moreover, during questioning both Milda Draule and the assassin’s sister testified that Nikolayev took the loss of his job and the party reprimand very painfully, and he was relentless in his markedly anticommunist criticism of party policies.
Nikolayev spilled out his frustrations in his diary, which has been preserved. He writes that “it will be impossible to build communism even in a millennium,” threatens to take revenge upon the “soulless officials and bureaucrats,” and even mentions his intention to kill somebody, “best of all Kirov.” In October 1934 he made the following entry: “Now I won’t stop at anything, and no one can do anything to stop this. I am making preparations, just like Zheliabov did.”
During interrogations on December 1-6 Nikolayev stated that he had committed a one-man act of terror. On the second day he was questioned by Stalin, who descended on Leningrad with a large retinue of officials. Many authors have written about this interrogation, alleging that Nikolayev pointed an accusing finger at secret police officers of Leningrad, telling Stalin that they taught him how to kill Kirov. In reality, none of this happened. Meanwhile, there is one interesting and true eyewitness account from an officer who guarded the killer in his detention cell. After returning from questioning, Nikolayev said: “Stalin promises to let me live. What nonsense! Who would believe a dictator? He promises he will let me live if I reveal my accomplices. I have no accomplices.” Of course, they wouldn’t let Nikolayev live, but his accomplices were exposed nonetheless.
Nikolayev’s family was the first to be accused of complicity. Interestingly enough, Stalin a priori named other “accomplices” immediately after the killing. According to Yezhov, Stalin summoned him and the Secretary General of the Komsomol Central Committee, Aleksandr Kosarev and said, “Search for the killers among Zinovev’s people.” This idea was so far-fetched that even the NKVD refused to act on it. However, Stalin was clear and consistent in his demands. According to Nikolai Yezhov, then deputy chairman of the Central Committee’s Controlling Commission, Stalin placed a call to the NKVD chief, Genrikh Yagoda, demanding an “investigation” of this lead and threatening: “Behave or we’ll smash your face.” (Before he was purged Yagoda indeed had his “face smashed” in 1936, when Yezhov replaced him as People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs).
Thus, Stalin determined the killer’s “accomplices” without any qualms or delays, pointing at his political opponents, who were a constant thorn in his side on his road to power. Yet his retribution had to be given legal justification.
On December 1, 1934, the day Kirov was murdered, Stalin drafted a very unusual decree of the Soviet Central Executive Committee. This extraordinary legal instrument, which was not discussed by the Politburo of the Central Committee or at the session of the Soviet Central Executive Committee, can rightfully be called a charter of terror. Under the decree, cases involving purported terrorist organizations and acts of terror had to be investigated within 10 days, tried in court in the absence of the plaintiff and defense; verdicts could not be appealed; appeals for pardon were not to be accepted; and execution verdicts had to be carried into effect immediately.
This document automatically increased the role and significance of penal institutions whose numbers started to grow after December 1, 1934. On December 4 Pravda published notices about the arrests of a large group of “White Guard terrorists.” They were followed by the arrests on December 16 of veteran party managers under Lenin — Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinovev. In a December 28-29 away session, the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court sentenced to execution by firing squad 14 individuals accused of plotting Kirov’s assassination.. The verdict read that all of them, including Nikolayev, were “active participants of Zinovev’s anti-Soviet group in Leningrad.”
Much like in Leningrad, arrests happened with lightning speed in Moscow. But the fact is that earlier, on December 18, the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court chaired by Vasiliy Ulrikh traveled to Kyiv to hear the cases of 37 individuals accused of participating in the Union of Ukrainian Nationalists (UUN), an organization that allegedly aimed to topple the regime in power. In its verdict the court “established that most of the accused arrived in the USSR through Poland and some of them through Romania with the task of committing a series of terrorist acts on the territory of the USSR. Revolvers and hand grenades were confiscated from most of the accused during their arrests.”
Among those sentenced to death were Roman Skazynsky, Taras and Ivan Krushelnytsky, Dmytro Falkivsky, Hryhoriy Kosynka, Kost Bureviy, Oleksa Vlyzko, and others. In this connection Robert Conquest, the American researcher and author of the books The Great Terror and The Harvest of Sorrow, was right to point out that although in all three cases (i.e., the trials in Leningrad, Moscow, and Kyiv) most of the accused allegedly arrived from abroad with the aim of committing acts of terror, “we can see that almost all of those executed in Ukraine were well known writers, cultural and public figures. With the exception of one young diplomat and one writer, who occasionally traveled to Germany, none of them had left Ukraine for many years.”
In essence, this fact was of no consequence in the system of Stalin’s “justice.” For Ukraine, which since late 1932 had in fact been governed by Moscow’s emissary Pavel Postyshev, the date of December 1, 1934, marked the starting point of a new round of terror. Mass arrests ensued, and prominent Ukrainian intellectuals, politicians, and cultural figures were forced to sign the most absurd accusations linking them to “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism,” “Trotskyism,” and “terror plots.”
WHO KILLED KIROV AFTER ALL? (IN LIEU OF CONCLUSIONS)
To answer this question, I will venture to offer the following formula: the system killed him with the hands of Leonid Nikolayev. Whether it was indeed an assassination-for-hire or not, this murder can rightfully be called the Soviet version of the Reichstag arson. In any case, if it had not happened, Stalin would still have come up with something else.
Sensing not so much a threat to his power as the mere hint at dissatisfaction from party bureaucrats, he had no scruples about reminding everyone of who the boss was and that he had chosen to rule by means of brutal terror once and for all. In the wake of the cruel Civil War, inhuman collectivization and expropriation, and the infernal famine of the early 1930s, Stalin deliberately unleashed new waves of violence on society.
To this day few know what Stalin said about his December 1934 decision when he was having dinner at Klim Voroshylov’s Kremlin apartment on November 7, 1937: “Every leader must have the noble fear of failing on the job. Then he will justify the trust accorded to him. We needed Kirov’s sacrifice to realize this. With his blood Kirov opened the eyes for us fools (excuse the clarity of expression).”
As always, Stalin’s words are a mixture of truth and demagoguery. That Sergey Kirov’s blood was spilled is an undeniable fact. But it is a lie that it opened the tyrant’s eyes. The eyes of dictators are always open. Otherwise they would not be able to cling to power for such a long time.