Who Killed Kirov?

The murder of Sergei Kirov in December, 1934, was a disaster for the people of the Soviet Union. The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin used Kirov’s death as a pretext to launch a series of purges of the Communist Party and Soviet society which claimed countless lives in the years leading up to World War II. As a result, Kirov’s murder has long held a lurid fascination. Popular and scholarly interest has also been heightened by the mysterious circumstances of the killing. How likely was it that a highly placed Soviet official could be gunned down by a mentally unstable assassin on the third floor of a heavily guarded government building? Or that his bodyguard would die in a traffic accident the next day while under escort by operatives of the secret police? Or that a number of local secret police officers would be “punished” for failing to protect Kirov by swift banishment to comfortable exile in the far reaches of Siberia? Speculation has long centered on Stalin himself as the real author of Kirov’s assassination. But skeptics have questioned why Stalin, at this early date, would have ordered the death of a man publicly loyal to him and reputed to be his good friend.

Amy Knight enters the controversy with Who Killed Kirov?: The Kremlin’s Greatest Mystery by providing a cogent explanation for Kirov’s murder. She has benefited from the ongoing opening of Soviet archives, especially the release of Kirov’s papers. The heart of Knight’s case is an intensive study of the life of Sergei Kirov, whom she finds to have been a more interesting and complicated character than commonly thought. Kirov was troubled by the direction of Stalin’s policies in the early 1930’s. Knight believes that his qualms proved his undoing. Ironically, Kirov’s death justified an official terror that he had feared. Knight’s carefully researched and argued book helps illuminate a dark moment in human history.