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The Assassination of Kirov: State Conspiracy or Terrorism?

Domenico Losurdo

Translated using the Portuguese edition of the book, often consulting the Spanish edition, not the original Italian edition.

Translated by David Ferreira

The Assassination of Kirov: State Conspiracy or Terrorism?

From the start, The leadership group that takes power in October 1917 proves to be profoundly divided around the most important domestic and international political questions. That division, contained only while Lenin was still alive, becomes unbridgeable following the passing of the charismatic leader. Will the clash remain isolated to the political-ideological realm?

Long gone are the times in which, with regards to the Sergei M. Kirov case (frontline leader of the CPSU, shot and killed at his office’s front door by a communist youth, Leonid Nikolaev, December 1st, 1934, in Leningrad), one could write that “there’s no doubt about the fact that the assassination was organized by Stalin and executed by his police agents."204 The account and the insinuations contained in the Secret Report had already raised strong doubts in the middle of the 1990s.205 But now we can make use of the work by a Russian researcher, published in French by Stéphane Courtois and Nicolas Werth―the editors of The Black Book of Communism. We have before us research that is presented with the most anti-Stalinist credentials possible. And yet, while denying that there was a vast conspiracy behind the assassination, it rips apart the account contained or raised by the Secret Report to the Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU. Khrushchev’s report proves to be somewhat “inexact” on a number of details; at the same time, its author “knew that he needed powerful arguments to provoke a psychological shock among the supporters of the ‘peoples’ father’”; thus, the theory of “Stalin’s plot against Kirov perfectly answered that need."206

The truly cooperative and friendly relationship that exist between the leader and his colleague become apparent in the account written on Kirov by the Russian historian:
This open man had no love for intrigue, lies, or trickery. Stalin had to have appreciated these character traits that were the basis of their relationship. According to those who knew him at the time, Kirov was in fact capable of raising objections to Stalin, and softening his distrustful and rude spirit. Stalin sincerely cared for him and trusted him. Loving to fish and hunt, he often sent fresh fish and meat from animals he caught. Stalin had such trust in Kirov that he often invited him to the sauna, an “honor” that was conceded to only one another living man, general Vlassik, head of his personal guard.207
Until the very end, nothing intervened to disturb that relationship, as is confirmed by the investigations of another Russian historian. In the archives there’s nothing to suggest a political split or a rivalry between the two. This theory is even more ridiculous for the fact that Kirov only participated irregularly “in the activities of the party’s highest organizational body”, the Politburo, in order to concentrate on the administration of Leningrad.208

But while “the idea of a rivalry between Kirov and Stalin has no basis”,209 the reaction from Trotsky, on the other hand, raises questions:
The right-wing political turn on both the internal and external front couldn’t not alarm the most class conscious segments of the proletariat [...]. The youth are also overtaken by a profound unease, especially those that live close to the bureaucracy and observes its arbitrariness, its privileges, and its abuse of power. It’s in this atmosphere that Nikolaev’s gun was fired [...]. It’s extremely probable that he wanted to protest against the existing regime within the party, against an unaccountable bureaucracy and against the turn to the right.210
The sympathy or understanding for the author of the attack is transparent, and the disdain and hatred for Kirov are explicit. Far from mourning him as a victim of the dictator in the Kremlin, Trotsky classifies him as the “skilled and unprincipled dictator of Leningrad, a typical personality in his organization."211 And he goes on to add: “Kirov, the brutal satrap, stirs no compassion in us."212 The victim was an individual who, for sometime, inspired the wrath of the revolutionaries:
Those who resort to the new terrorism are neither the old ruling classes nor the kulaks. The terrorists in the past few years have been recruited exclusively among the Soviet youth, in the ranks of the communist party’s youth organization.213
At least at this time―between 1935 and 1936―the attack on Kirov is in no way discussed as a set-up. It’s stated, yes, that anything can be exploited by the “bureaucracy as a whole”, but at the same time it’s stressed, with some satisfaction, that “every bureaucrat trembles before the terrorism” arising from below.214 Despite not having the “experience of the class struggle and the revolution”, these youths, who are inclined “to enter clandestine struggle, learning to fight and prepare themselves for the future”, give reason to hope.215 Trotsky appeals to the Soviet youth, who have already started to spread fear among the members of the ruling elite, calling on them to join the new revolution that draws near. The bureaucratic regime has fought a “battle against the youth”, as has already been denounced in the title of a central paragraph in The Revolution Betrayed. Now, the oppressed will  topple the oppressors:
Any revolutionary party will first find support from the ascendant class’s generation of youth. Political senility is expressed by the loss of their capacity to carry the youth [...]. The Mensheviks got their support from the higher and more mature strata of the working class, and for this reason they became haughty and looked down upon the Bolsheviks. Events ruthlessly demonstrated their errors: at the decisive moment, the youths dragged along the mature and even older men.216
It’s a dialectic destined to be repeated. However immature the initially forms may be, a revolt against oppression always has a positive value. After having made clear his disdain and hatred for Kirov, Trotsky adds:
We remain neutral in relation to the one who killed him only because we don’t know his motives. If we learned that Nikolaev consciously fired his gun with the intention of avenging the workers whose rights have been trampled on by Kirov, without reservations our sympathies would lie with the terrorist.

Like the “Irish terrorists” or those of other countries, the “Russian” terrorists also deserve respect.217
Initially, the investigations by authorities centered on the “White Guards." In fact, in Paris these groups were well organized; they have had success in carrying out a “certain number of terrorist attacks in Soviet territory." In Belgrade similar groups operated: their monthly publication specified, in the November 1934 edition, that, in the aim of “toppling the leaders of the Soviet nation”, it’s worthwhile “to utilize the weapon of terrorism." Among the leaders to be assassinated was Kirov himself. However, those investigations were not making progress; Soviet authorities then began looking in the direction of the left opposition.218

As we have seen, it’s Trotsky who corroborates the new investigative lead, and he does not stop at highlighting the revolutionary fervor of the Soviet youth, but he also clarifies that those who resort to violence are not, and couldn't be, a definitively defeated class that’s close to surrender:
The history of individual terrorism in the USSR strongly characterizes the country’s general evolutionary stages. At the dawn of Soviet power, the Whites and the socialist revolutionaries organized terrorist attacks in the context of civil war. When the old property owning classes lost all hope for restoration, the terrorism stopped. The attacks by kulaks, that continued on until recently, had a local character; they fought an insurgency against the regime. The most recent terrorism does not get its support from either the old ruling classes or the rich peasantry. The latest generation of terrorists are drawn exclusively from the Soviet youth, from the communist youth wing and from the party, and frequently from the children of party leaders.219
While the old ruling classes, swept away by the October Revolution and later with the collectivization of agriculture, have given up, the same does not occur with the proletariat, the protagonists of the revolution, but which is momentarily obstructed and oppressed by the Stalinist bureaucracy. It’s the latter who should be afraid: the attack against Kirov and the increase in terrorism by the Soviet youth are symptomatic of the isolation and the “hostility” that surrounds and harasses the usurpers of Soviet power.220

It’s true that Trotsky is quick to clarify that individual terrorism is not really effective. But it’s a classification that’s not all that convincing, and possibly said without much conviction. Meanwhile, under the existing conditions in the USSR, it’s an inevitable phenomenon: “terrorism is the tragic outcome of Bonapartism."221 Moreover, while it’s not able to resolve the problem, “individual terrorism nevertheless has the importance of being a symptom, as it characterizes the severity of the antagonism between the bureaucracy and the vast popular masses, and particularly the youth." Regardless, the critical mass is rising for an “explosion”, that’s to say a “political cataclysm”, destined to inflict on the “Stalinist regime” the same fate suffered by the regime “led by Nicholas II."222


Terrorism, Coups and Civil War

204. Cohen (1975), p. 344.

205. Thurston (1996), pp. 20-23.

206. Kirilina (1995), pp. 223 and 239.

207. Kirilina (1995), p. 193.

208. Khlevniuk (1995), p. 365-66.

209. Kirina (1995), p. 203.

210. Trotsky (1988), pp. 573 and 575.

211. Trotsky (1988), p 986 (= Trotsky 1968, p. 263.

212. Trotsky (1967), p. 75.

213. Trotsky (1988), p. 655.

214. Trotsky (1988), p. 655.

215. Trotsky (1988), p. 854 (Trotsky, (1968, p. 149).

216. Trotsky (1988), p. 851 (= Trotsky 1968, p. 146)..

217. Trotsky (1967), p. 75.

218. Kirilina (1995), pp. 67-70.

219. Trotsky (1988), p. 857 (Trotsky, 1968, p. 152).

220. Trotsky (1988), p. 553.

221. Trotsky (1988), p. 655.

222. Trotsky (1988), pp. 854-61 (= Trotsky, 1968, pp. 152-55).

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