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Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar: Commentaries

What Happens in this Passage?

Kirov is shot by Leonid Nikolaev. Witnesses differ in their versions of exactly what happened next. Kirov was certified dead and it was decided that Stalin should be informed.

Commentary

This is a lively reconstruction of Kirov’s assassination. It is full of detail, even down to Nikolaev letting Kirov pass in the stairwell or Kirov’s friends loosening his collar. The detail is such that we can feel almost that we are there too; even the uncertainty about the exact sequence of events adds to the reality since, as Montefiore says, there is indeed a special sort of miasma (i.e. a cloud that envelops events, rendering them opaque and unreal) which descends in moments of extreme emergency.

It might be thought that all Montefiore is doing here is reconstructing events as far as he can from the various eye-witness accounts. Crimes generate such accounts by their very nature and so lend themselves to this sort of reconstruction. Nevertheless, Montefiore does let slip some of his own take on events. His comment that doctors in dictatorships are scared of dead eminent patients, offered without further corroboration, is a personal comment on dictatorships, though one for which there are certainly plenty of other examples. When it comes to the Bolsheviks themselves, Montefiore is quite sarcastic. He gets in a jibe at the dying Kirov as ‘a Bolshevik workaholic to the last’ because he was still holding (Montefiore’s word is ‘gripping’) his briefcase as he died; you might consider how well the comment works in this particular context. The reference to ‘a trail of heroic Bolshevik sacrament’ is more openly sarcastic, deliberately contrasting the lofty concept of a sacrament with the more prosaic ‘down the corridor’. The image here is of a blood sacrifice for the general good, in which the blood itself is revered as a holy relic: the obvious comparison is with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the idea here is that Kirov was regarded as a sort of Soviet Christ. The imagery invites us to imagine Bolsheviks mopping up Kirov’s blood from the floor as a holy relic, as people are reported to have done with Charles I’s blood, dipping their handkerchiefs in it after his execution. He does not, however, mention any Bolsheviks actually doing this.

Lastly, aware always that he is writing for a general readership who may know little of the people and events he describes beyond what is in his book, Montefiore adds a brief reference to something he can be fairly sure his readers will have heard about, the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. It is popularly said that everyone around at the time could remember for years afterwards where they were when they heard the news of his assassination; this is taken as a measure of the impact his death had on the world and of the affection and esteem in which he was held. Comparing Kirov’s death to Kennedy’s gives a sense not just of the impact of his death but of the hopes for the future that people had invested in him; it also helps to underline the contrast between Kirov’s popular image and Stalin’s.


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