The Secret History of Stalin’s Purges (4)

Stalin’s hatred of past opposition leaders has long been known. As a result, socialist groups abroad were deeply disturbed, fearing that Stalin would use Kirov’s murder as a pretext to settle accounts with Zinoviev and Kamenev. Rumors circulated in certain foreign newspapers that Zinoviev and Kamenev had been secretly executed. The Soviet powers-that-be thought it necessary to crush these rumors. So, on December 22, TASS issued a statement: “In view of the lack of evidence,” the case of Zinoviev and Kamenev would not be brought to court, but would be heard by a “special commission of the People’s Commissars of Internal Affairs of the USSR.

And so, in a little more than two weeks, the Soviet government published two completely contradictory versions of Kirov’s murder. First, it accused the White Guards, who had infiltrated the country from abroad, and then it accused the leaders of the former opposition. Under these circumstances, the Soviet people naturally waited impatiently for the trial to begin, hoping to hear Nikolaev’s confessions in court.

But the people were doomed to be kept in the dark. On the 28th of December the indictment was formally announced, alleging that Nikolaev and thirteen others were participants in the conspiracy. On the following day the newspapers reported that the fourteen had been sentenced to death in an internal court, and that the death sentence had been carried out. Neither the indictment nor the verdict says a word about how Zinoviev and Kamenev were involved in the assassination of Kirov.

The trial of Nikolaev in a secret court has deepened the nation’s distrust of the official version of events, generated by the two contradictory government communiqués of the past. One wonders: what does the public trial of Nikolaev do to crush the gossip? There is no doubt that it was the same man who was arrested on the spot who shot Kirov, so what is there to keep secret about all this? What made Stalin afraid to hold a public trial?

I was not in the Soviet Union in those days, so I could only judge on the basis of the official reports that appeared in the Moscow newspapers. From the very beginning, however, I was convinced that there was a fraud in the matter, because neither the first Kremlin account nor the fallacies later attributed to Zinoviev and Kamenev were convincing.

I could not accept the first story, the one about the one hundred and four executed White Guards, because it was pure fantasy. As a former commander of the border guards of the post-Caucasian republics, I am well aware that such a large number of terrorists were trying to sneak across the heavily guarded Soviet border. As if it were a fantasy. Besides, it was even more difficult for these 104 terrorists to hide in Leningrad, where the citizenship permit system was very strict and the police surveillance was omnipresent. Moreover, the fact that the newspapers and magazines, when reporting on their executions, did not even mention the names of the perpetrators, contrary to the usual practice, made it all the more suspicious, did it not?

Moreover, the claim that Zinoviev and Gaminev were involved in the killing of Kirov is equally absurd. The history of the Party makes it clear to me that the Bolsheviks have always opposed individual assassinations and have always avoided resorting to them even in their struggle against the Tsar and his government officials. The Bolsheviks believed that. Terrorist methods are useless and can only corrupt the revolutionary movement. Moreover, it was impossible for Zinoviev and Gaminev not to consider that the killing of Kirov would play right into Stalin’s hands, and that the latter would use it at every opportunity to remove the leader of the former opposition. This is precisely what happened.

On January 23, 1935, almost a month after the execution of Nikolaev, the newspapers reported again that the head of the Leningrad branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Philip Medvedki, his deputy, Komborozhets, and ten other Ministry of Internal Affairs staff had been sentenced to deprivation of liberty in a secret trial before the Supreme Court on the charge that, “having learned that the murder of Kirov was being contemplated, After the intelligence …… did not take the necessary measures to prevent the murder.”

The extraordinary mildness of this verdict really surprised me: surprisingly, only one of the defendants was sentenced to ten years’ detention; the rest, including Medvedki and his deputy Kompodorets, were sentenced to only two to three years’ imprisonment. All this was terrifying to the ambassador, because for Stalin the murder of Kirov was a threat not only to his policy but to himself: if the Interior Ministry could put Kirov’s life and death at risk today, tomorrow he, Stalin himself, could fall into the same perilous situation. Anyone who knew Stalin was full of the belief that Stalin would surely order the shooting of People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs Yagoda and demand the execution of all the staff responsible for Kirov’s security. He should have done that, even if only to kill one person as an example to the rest of the Interior Ministry staff so that they would not forget that their heads were tied directly to the lives and deaths of their leaders.

What amazes me most is that Stalin dared to go to Leningrad himself immediately after learning of Kirov’s murder. How he valued his own life is something I know well. His trip to Leningrad was indeed somewhat unusual in such a dire situation.

Stalin was particularly cautious about his personal safety and was on edge at all times. Here are a few examples that best illustrate this point.

It is well known that whenever there was a celebration on Red Square and Stalin appeared at Lenin’s mausoleum, he was surrounded by a wall of men made up of a squad of elite guards and a large group of personal bodyguards from the Ministry of the Interior. Not only that, but he had to wear a heavy bulletproof vest inside his uniform, which had been specially made for him in Germany.

Stalin often went to his suburban residence. To ensure safety on the way, he asked the Ministry of the Interior to move a third of the residents in the streets along the way and to make the vacated houses available to the Interior Ministry staff. The distance from the Kremlin to the suburban residence was thirty-five kilometers. However, as Stalin’s exclusive line of communication, patrols by the staff of the “Organs” guarded it around the clock. There were three shifts of up to twelve hundred men on duty.

Even within the high walls of the Kremlin, Stalin did not risk going it alone. For example, if he had to leave his office to go to the Great Kremlin Palace, the guards would first carefully remove all the people on the way, regardless of their rank.

Every year Stalin went on vacation to Sochi. Before he left, he always ordered his special train to be ready in Moscow and his special ship to be ready in Gorky at the same time. Sometimes he was happy to take a special train directly from Moscow; sometimes he had to go down the Volga to Stalingrad and from there to Sochi by special train. No one could tell in advance which route Stalin would take this time, or when he would leave. His special train and ship had to be prepared several days in advance, but it was only in the last few hours before his departure that Stalin told a few of his cronies about his chosen route. There was a train full of guards in front of and behind his train, which was fitted with special shields. Stalin’s train was extremely well stocked to survive the two-week siege. At the first alarm, the steel armor shields outside the windows of the special trains would automatically close.

Stalin, who considered himself the leader of the working class, never went to any factory during working hours because he was afraid of direct contact with the workers.