Annual Newsletter of the Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University
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English News  No.13 , February 2006
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Matthew Lenoe

Key to the Kirov Murder on the Shelves of Hokkaido University Library

Matthew Lenoe (University of Rochester, USA/Foreign Fellow, SRC, 2005-06)

During my fellowship at the Slavic Research Center I have been researching the 1934 assassination of Leningrad Communist Party chief Sergei Kirov. Kirov was shot at Leningrad party headquarters on December 1, 1934 by Leonid Nikolaev, a disaffected Communist Party member with a history of conflict with his work supervisors and local Communist officials. In the following four years Joseph Stalin used the Kirov murder as one of the main pretexts for the Great Terror. The NKVD and the Soviet prosecutorial apparatus put Stalin’s former political rivals Grigorii Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin, and Aleksei Rykov on trial for conspiracy to kill Kirov and Stalin himself. Ultimately most of the prerevolutionary leadership of the Communist Party (the so-called “Old Bolsheviks”) was charged with participating in the supposed conspiracy and imprisoned or shot.

Stalin’s obvious use of the assassination for his own political purposes, combined with two suspicious incidents (the murderer Nikolaev had been detained once previously by the NKVD, Kirov’s bodyguard died in an “auto accident” the day after the killing) led by the late 1930s to speculation that the dictator himself had ordered a hit on Kirov.  Boris Nicolaevsky, a Menshevik living in Paris, and NKVD defectors Alexander Orlov and Walter Krivitsky fueled the speculation by reporting rumors from inside the USSR that Stalin or some of his closest associates were involved.  Nicolaevsky also claimed that in his last years Kirov became a significant “moderate” counterweight to Stalin’s terroristic inclinations, and challenged Stalin for leadership of the party.

In his 1956 “Secret Speech” denouncing Stalin’s “cult of personality,” new Communist Party chief Nikita Khrushchev implied that Stalin might have been behind Kirov’s execution.  Confirmation of their suspicions from inside the USSR led Western Sovietologists to conclude that Stalin almost certainly had ordered the assassination.  Although individual scholars such as Harvard’s Adam Ulam and University of California’s J. Arch Getty dissented, by the late 1980s the conventional wisdom among scholars outside the Soviet Union was that Stalin had ordered Kirov’s killing as part of his preparations for the eradication of the Old Bolshevik leadership.  With the opening of Soviet public discourse to outside influences under perestroika, this version spread rapidly also inside Russia.

However, in 1990-1991 the KGB, the Soviet Supreme Court, and other instances released a number of documents from top-secret post-Stalin investigations of the Kirov murder done at Politburo order in the 1950s and 1960s.  Based on these documents and her own encyclopedic knowledge of Leningrad regional archives, Alla Kirilina, an historian and former curator of the Kirov museum in Petersburg, published a number of works arguing that Nikolaev was a lone gunman.  Kirilina also traced in detail Stalin’s use of the murder as a pretext to attack his former political rivals.  Oleg Khlevniuk strengthened Kirilina’s conclusions by demonstrating that there was practically no evidence inside central party archives that Kirov was a rival to Stalin or challenged any of the latter’s policies.  The picture revealed by the new archival evidence was consistent – Nikolaev was a lone gunman who had delusions of grandeur.  He was disappointed in the failure of Communism to improve the workers’ lot and he hoped to make a name for himself in history as the executor of one of the Bolshevik tyrants.  The documents also made clear how Stalin decided in the week after the murder to implicate his former party opponents in Kirov’s death.

In 1999 Amy Knight published a renewed argument that Stalin plotted to assassinate Kirov, entitled Who Killed Kirov?. Knight defended some of the pre-1990 Western sources on the murder, including Nicolaevsky’s articles, and she pointed out certain inconsistencies in the archival documents released after 1989. She also expressed doubt about the recently released archival documents, in particular excerpts from Nikolaev’s diary and the records of early witness interrogations. These documents had been processed by the security police (NKVD-MGB-KGB) and they could well be forgeries designed to hide Stalin’s guilt.

The picture of the murder presented by the new archival documents did not fit well with Knight’s forgery thesis. If the documents had been forged in the Stalin era, one would expect them to show the murder as the product of a plot by Zinoviev, Kamenev, and their associates. But they did not. If the documents had been forged in the Khrushchev era, then one would probably expect them to show Stalin’s involvement clearly (newly published evidence on the de-Stalinization process indicates that Khrushchev was quite serious about demonstrating Stalin’s guilt in the Kirov murder). But they did not.

Nevertheless, Knight’s doubts about the new archival evidence had to be taken seriously. It would not do to accept uncritically documents selectively released from the KGB archives.

And thus we come to prewar Japan, and to Genrikh Samoilevich Liushkov, an NKVD commissar who defected to Japan in June 1938 as Stalin’s net closed around him. At that time Liushkov was commissar of the Far Eastern Regional NKVD directorate. At Stalin’s orders he had led the purge of the Far Eastern NKVD organization and the Far East army command. After Manchurian police detained Liushkov on the border, the Japanese Korea Army quickly took custody of him and sent him to Tokyo, where he was debriefed by the Russian section of the Army’s Intelligence Department. Liushkov lived until 1945 in Tokyo, more or less under house arrest, working for the Japanese Army’s intelligence and propaganda apparatus. In 1945 the Japanese military sent him back to Manchuria to advise the Kwantung Army, which faced a massive Soviet assault in August 1945. There a young Japanese intelligence officer shot him.

Based on his own claims and on KGB archives, it is certain that Liushkov had been one of the head investigators of the Kirov murder. He arrived in Leningrad on the morning after the assassination on the same train with Stalin and NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda, and he interrogated a number of the key witnesses in the case as well as Nikolaev himself. Thus, he is a key witness about the investigation and the murder itself.

The American Japan specialist Alvin Coox and Japanese journalist Nishino Tatsukichi (Nazo no bomeisha Riyushikofu) have chronicled Liushkov’s life in Japan. According to Japanese intelligence officers who handled Liuskhov’s case, the defector was passionately anti-Stalin and wrote reams of memoirs and commentary on Soviet affairs while in Tokyo. Unfortunately the Japanese military burnt most or all of his manuscripts at the end of World War II. However, there remain the articles that Liushkov published in Japanese journals and newspapers, and one English translation of a Japanese interrogation of Liushkov released secretly to the US embassy in 1938 by Japanese diplomats in Moscow.

The information Liushkov provided the Japanese about NKVD insider politics, number of executions during the Great Terror, Soviet military dispositions, and other matters correlates extremely well with newly released archival documents. This applies, for example, to his account of the purges of the Far Eastern NKVD and military commands. Unlike defectors such as Alexander Orlov, Liushkov was well-informed and provided very accurate data both in his interrogations and in his published articles.

In April of 1939 the Japanese journal Kaizo published a Japanese translation of an article by Liushkov entitled “An Open Letter to Stalin” (Sutarin e no kokaijo) which was largely about the Kirov assassination and its deployment by Stalin against his former political competitors. The article confirms in remarkable detail the picture of the murder and subsequent investigation that has emerged in recent years from the newly released archival documents. Nikolaev was a psychologically unbalanced lone assassin who longed to go down in history as a hero. The bodyguard’s death really had been an accident, caused by a broken spring in the steering mechanism of the truck he rode in. Stalin used the murder to put his rivals out of the way.

Liushkov’s evidence is of great importance because it provides independent confirmation of the archival documents released by the KGB-FSB since 1989. This confirmation is of an early date – 1939, and from a reliable source. Liushkov had direct inside knowledge of the Kirov investigation and of NKVD leadership politics. He wrote outside the Soviet Union from an anti-Stalin perspective. He certainly was not trying to whitewash the dictator (his whole article is an anti-Stalin polemic), nor did he accept the official version of Kirov’s assassination.

We will never be able to eliminate the possibility that Stalin had a hand in Kirov’s murder. But Liushkov’s confirmation of the archival evidence gets us as close as we can come to certainty about the crime. We can see that it is very unlikely that Stalin had a hand in ordering the assassination, just as we can see that he used it to fabricate false and murderous charges against thousands of Soviet subjects, inside and outside the party. When I first arrived at the SRC, I could not have imagined that I would find the key to the Kirov mystery on the shelves of the Hokkaido University library. But that is how it turned out.

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