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

In this passage Montefiore describes the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the popular and charismatic head of the Communist Party in Leningrad (St Petersburg). The assassination led to the Purges and, partly for this reason, it has often been claimed that Stalin had ordered the assassination, although this is not supported by the evidence.

Kirov turned right out of the stairwell and passed a dark-haired young man named Leonid Nikolaev, who pressed himself against the wall to let Kirov pass – and then trailed along behind him. Nikolaev pulled out a Nagan revolver and shot Kirov from three feet away in the back of the neck. The bullet passed through his cap. Nikolaev turned the pistol on himself and squeezed the trigger but an electrician working nearby somehow knocked him down and the second bullet hit the ceiling. Borisov the guard staggered up breathlessly, gun drawn impotently. Kirov fell face down, head turned to the right, his cap’s peak resting on the floor, and still gripping his briefcase – a Bolshevik workaholic to the last.
Several minutes of chaos followed in which witnesses and police ran in every direction, seeing the same events differently and giving conflicting evidence: even the gun was variously seen on the floor and in the assassin’s hand. There seems to be a special sort of miasma in the air at terrible events and this one was no different. What matters is that Kirov lay lifeless on the floor near the unconscious Nikolaev. Kirov’s friend Rosliakov knelt beside him, lifting his head and whispering: ‘Kirov, Mironich.’ They lifted Kirov, with Rosliakov holding his lolling head, on to a conference table, with the blood seeping from his neck leaving a trail of heroic Bolshevik sacrament down the corridor. They loosened his belt and opened his collar. Medved, the Leningrad NKVD boss, arrived but was stopped at the door by Moscow Chekists.
Three doctors arrived, including a Georgian, Dzhanelidze. All declared Kirov dead but they still kept on giving him artificial respiration until almost 5.45 pm. Doctors in totalitarian states are terrified of eminent dead patients – and with good reason. As the doctors surrendered, those present realized that someone would have to tell Stalin. Everyone remembered where they were when Kirov was assassinated: the Soviet JFK.

Simon Sebag Montefiore Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (London: Phoenix 2004) pp.146-7

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