The Secret History of Stalin’s Purges (6)

Back in Moscow, I really did get the inside scoop on the Kirov case, and sooner than I thought I would.

Here’s what happened. During the spring and summer of 1934, Kirov began to clash with his fellow Politburo members. Kirov’s bluntness was well known, and he repeatedly criticized his former patron, Ordzhonikidze, at Politburo meetings for giving out wildly inconsistent instructions about the industrial construction of the Leningrad Oblast. Alternate Politburo member Mikoyan was also repeatedly blamed by Kirov for disrupting Leningrad’s food supply. He clashed with Mikoyan on several occasions, the circumstances of one of which I know all too well. On that occasion, Kirov used part of the foodstuffs in the immovable storage of the Leningrad Military District without Moscow’s permission. Voloshilov, the then People’s Commissar of Defense, was greatly displeased with this action of Kirov, who was considered to have overstepped his authority and interfered in the affairs of the army.

Kirov explained at the Politburo meeting that he had come to this point because the food reserves allotted to workers had been exhausted. Moreover, he was borrowing foodstuffs from the military district and would return them as soon as he received a new replenishment. However, Voroshilov was well aware that he had Stalin backing him up. Not satisfied with this explanation. He also attacked menacingly that Kirov had moved food from the army depot onto the factory counter to “earn a cheap reputation among the workers”. Kirov became furious and replied in his characteristic fiery tone: “If the Politburo wants the workers to supply the products, then first of all the workers must be filled!” Then he shouted harshly, “Any crofter knows that a horse can’t run until it’s grazed!” At this point Mikoyan rose to retort that, according to the material he had, the Leningrad workers had been supplied with more than the medium domestic level. Kirov did not deny this. But he cited the growing figures for the products of Leningrad industry, and then pointed out that it was more than enough to exchange these results for that little supplemental food for the workers.

“But why should the workers in Leningrad be better fed than those in other regions?” Stalin intervened at this point. Kirov, unable to hold back for a moment, yelled again, “I think the rationing should have been abolished a long time ago, and our workers should be fed decently!”

Kirov’s fiery temper was seen as disloyal to Stalin. Ever since Stalin had taken sole power, an unwritten rule had been established that no member of the Politburo could bring any issue up for discussion without Stalin’s permission.

As a result, Kirov became a target in the Politburo. Some minor quarrels were artificially enlarged, as if he had committed some heinous crime. In the summer of 1934, Olzhonikidze, the People’s Commissar for Heavy Industry, an influential member of the Politburo, summoned the chairman of the Leningrad Executive Committee and several industrial leaders to a meeting. These men took with them all kinds of statements and budgets and left immediately for Moscow. They waited for two days in the reception room of the People’s Commissar for Heavy Industry, but Ordzhonikidze never found time to meet them, and the meeting was postponed again and again. On the third day, the chairman of the Leningrad Executive Committee spoke to Kirov on the telephone and reported to him the situation here. Kirov’s decision was decisive: “If Ordzhonikidze doesn’t receive you today, then you’ll go home by train!”

The chairman of the Leningrad Executive Committee really did so.

Ordzhonikidze reported on this at a meeting of the Politburo immediately afterwards. Kirov’s decision was seen as “instigating Leningrad cadres into partisan habits and disobedience to the Central Committee”. Kirov tried to explain the matter, but to no avail. He was so fed up that he declared, “I will do the same from now on. I need to have my men with me when I work in Leningrad. They don’t have to sit on the bench in the reception room at Ordzhonikidze!”

Gradually, Kirov’s relations with the Politburo were strained to the breaking point. He began to try not to run to Moscow. What irritated the Politburo members and Stalin the most was Kirov’s growing popularity among the people. None of them, the Politburo members, including Stalin, were talented orators. Their public speeches were always so dry and boring. Kirov, on the contrary, was known for his brilliant speeches and knew how to approach the masses. He was the only member of the Politburo who dared to go to the factories and address the workers. He was a former worker, so he was very good at listening to the workers and always tried to help them. Many senior Party and industrial front cadres working in other cities wanted to move to Leningrad because they had heard that Kirov encouraged initiatives and innovations from his subordinates and was happy to promote those who were willing and good at their work. His prestige in Leningrad was unshakable. In the eyes of the leaders of the Leningrad factories and enterprises, the people’s commissars of the Moscow ministries together were no match for one Kirov.

Kirov’s enormous popularity became even more widely known after the 17th Party Congress. This congress was held in early 1934. Before the congress, all the procedures were preordained, even the applause of the delegates in welcoming the leader. When each member of the Politburo took the podium, applause was set at two minutes, and the applause to welcome Stalin was supposed to last ten minutes. But when Kirov appeared in the Presidium of the Congress, there was a storm of applause. The enthusiasm with which the Leningrad delegation welcomed him carried the whole room. The applause that Kirov won lasted longer than any other Politburo member could even dream of. There was talk outside of the meeting that the honor given to Kirov had been preordained for Stalin alone.

Kirov was so arrogant and untamed that he angered Stalin. He decided to transfer Kirov from Leningrad, and the transfer order informed Kirov that an important leadership position was waiting for him in the Central Organization Department in Moscow.

But Kirov was in no hurry to go to Moscow, and he delayed month after month. The excuse was to finish the series of important business he had embarked on in Leningrad. Not only that, but his attendance at Politburo meetings was becoming less and less frequent. This looked close to a provocation already.