The murder of the Soviet party chief in Leningrad, Sergei Kirov, on Dec. 1, 1934, led to one of the great crimes of modern history, Joseph Stalin's reign of terror in the Soviet Union that left enormous numbers dead, several million imprisoned in the grim labor camps and a vast nation numbed by fear into silence.
"Who Killed Kirov?" asks the question that was on the minds of many Soviets from the very beginning. Was the murder, in Kirov's headquarters, solely the work of fired government employee Leonid V. Nikolaev, as the secret police first indicated?
Or was Nikolaev, as the secret police later charged, the agent of a huge and growing anti-Stalin conspiracy?
Or, as some came to believe, was the assassination carried out on orders from Stalin himself to eliminate a possible rival in the younger and much more dynamic Kirov?
Amy Knight, a research associate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the author of books on the KGB's successors and Stalin's secret police chief Lavrentii Beria, does not answer the question posed in the title of her book. She can't. The Russians have released some formerly secret documents, but not enough to allow historians to get at the truth of this crime, which, with its aftermath, shook the Soviet Union to its foundations. Instead, what Knight does is present a gripping portrait of one of the grimmest periods in modern Russian history.
The Soviet government itself tried several times, beginning even before Nikita Khrushchev's anti-Stalin campaign, to grapple with Kirov's death. Its efforts always fell short, Knight argues, because Stalin's successors were unwilling to undermine the legitimacy of Soviet power by inquiring too closely into the crimes of its leaders.
Even under the current government, she writes, "the keepers of the archives are former Communist and KGB officials schooled in the habits of secrecy that the Soviet system engendered."
"Moreover," she adds, "they are not inclined to provide further ammunition to those who condemn the past Soviet system of which they were a part."
And, she says ruefully, the Russians, eager right after the fall of communism to unearth the truth about their history, now seem worn out enough by economic struggle to prefer forgetting the past to coming to terms with it. Knight argues that they sooner or later "will have to do what people of other nations with dark pasts have done and confront head-on the horrors of what their country went through under Stalin.
"Only then," she writes, "will Russia be able to rediscover its full identity as a nation."
Knight may be too optimistic. While Germany and South Africa have faced shameful aspects of their pasts, and Argentina and Chile have partially done so, Japan has resolutely refused to, and China is no model of openness.
But despite Knight's perhaps excessive optimism and her inability to answer conclusively the questions she states, she has done a valuable service in producing this book. Using some newly revealed sources and exhibiting her intimate knowledge of the Soviet power structure from before the 1917 revolution up to its final collapse, she paints a deft picture of the tensions and rivalries, the jealousies, the hatreds and the murderous feuds among the leaders of the revolution that was supposed to free all mankind but ended up enslaving much of it.
She presents a not-unattractive picture of Kirov. A skilled speaker and writer, he rose from the party's ranks to a position just below the top leadership. As leader of Azerbaijan, he put the critical oil fields of the Baku region back into production after the revolution and the ensuing civil war.
That Stalin was perfectly capable of ordering the death of a man ostensibly his friend and then proclaiming him a hero of the Soviet Union are matters upon which neither Knight nor most other historians have doubts.
Knight places much of the blame for Stalin's consolidation of the dictatorship on the men around him, including some he later executed in the 1938 purge trials that followed Kirov's death. These men, she argues, were loath to oppose Stalin's growing power and brutality for fear of bringing the whole Soviet edifice down. But in the end, their inability to mount an opposition ensured their doom.
Was Kirov one of these men? Knight is ambivalent. There were signs that Kirov was deeply troubled by Stalin's dictatorship. And he could be as ruthless as his colleagues (even though there is no evidence that he would have turned on Stalin, or could have). Whatever the answers may be, Kirov proved to be exactly what Stalin needed to justify the mass killings: the perfect victim.