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Imaginative Infamy

Soviet-era postage stamps honoring Sergei Kirov

No one could say that Josef Stalin was unimaginative when it came to being one of the greatest tyrants in living memory. You may have heard of the old saying “Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer.” In the 1920s and 1930s, Sergei Kirov was a rising star in the Communist party, and reputed to be one of the dictator’s best and closest friends. They even took working vacations together on the Black Sea.

But there was this nagging problem: Kirov was getting much too popular. At the Seventeenth Party Congress early in 1934, both positive and negative votes for various leaders were cast; and it appeared that a large number of negative votes were cast against The Man of Steel (Stalin). In fact, some party leaders approached Kirov and suggested that he take over the reins of power. As a loyal party member, Kirov reported this to Stalin, who thereupon rigged the vote count so that he himself won.

On December 1, Kirov was shot in the back of the head just outside his second-floor office at the Smolny Institute in Leningrad. When Stalin was contacted in Moscow, he rushed at once to Leningrad and took over the investigation in person. The gunman was, in all probability, Leonid Nikolaev.

But it didn’t stop there. Stalin saw Kirov’s death (which he may or may not have engineered himself) as the perfect opportunity to rid himself of some enemies from the earliest days of the party. Hurled into prison were Lev Kamenev and Grigorii Zinoviev, two of the early Bolsheviks whom Stalin accused of masterminding a massive conspiracy leading to his friend’s death. Before it was all over, upwards of several thousand enemies and families and friends of enemies of Stalin were fingered by the NKVD and either imprisoned, exiled, or shot outright.

In the meantime, Stalin make a big show of grieving for Kirov, being one of his pallbearers, and retrospectively naming him as one of the Heroes of the Revolution. Also he authorized some postage stamps honoring his memory (see illustration above), renamed streets around the Soviet Union to honor him, and even changed the name of the Maryinsky Ballet in Leningrad to the Kirov Ballet.

This was only the beginning of what came to be known as Stalin’s Purges, which reached their peak in 1937-1938. In the end, untold millions of lives were affected, and the literature of the era has given birth to many great novels in which these events were mirrored, books such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tularev, and Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat and Fear. And these in turn gave birth to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s many works about the Gulag Archipelago.

I have just finished reading Amy Knight’s excellent Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin’s Greatest Mystery, in which she concludes:

The story of Kirov’s murder did not end with the trials of January 1935. On the contrary, the murder and its aftermath marked the beginning of a nightmare that would consume the Soviet Union for the next four years. Some historians insist that the police terror that unfolded after Kirov’s assassination was not the product of any grand strategy of Stalin’s, but rather a haphazard, frenzied process that fed on itself. But when one considers how Stalin meticulously pored over transcripts of interrogations and indictments and how he systematically meted out retribution to his real or perceived enemies, a picture of a carefully planned vendetta emerges.

Friendship with those who are too powerful and too paranoiac has its price.