Dec. 1, 2022

The Assassination of Sergei Kirov

The Assassination of Sergei Kirov

December 1, 1934. Leningrad mayor Sergei Kirov is assassinated by a lone gunman, prompting Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin to purge the Communist Party of his rivals.


Cold Open

It’s January 27th, 1924 on a bitterly cold afternoon in Moscow.

Thousands have flocked to Red Square to pay their respects to Vladimir Lenin, the former leader of the Communist Party and the hero of the Russian Revolution. As Lenin’s coffin is carried toward the Kremlin, mourners crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the solemn procession.

Six men in fur caps and overcoats carry Lenin’s open casket through the snow. Among them is the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Joseph Stalin. At forty-four years old, Stalin is the main contender to succeed Lenin as the leader of the Soviet Union. It’s a job he has coveted since he first joined the revolutionary movement at the age of twenty-five. But Stalin faces stiff competition in the struggle for power, including from his fellow pallbearers - all Communist Party officials who are hoping to secure the top job.

As the funeral procession enters the Kremlin building, a vast portrait of the dead leader watches over the congregation. Stalin feels the ice clinging to his mustache start to melt as they proceed through the cavernous hall.

With a grunt of effort, the pallbearers place the coffin down onto a marble plinth. Then Stalin and the other Communist officials stand back while Lenin’s widow steps forward and looks down at the embalmed body of her late husband.

As Mrs. Lenin fights to hold back tears, Stalin glances across at the stony faces of the other pallbearers - his rivals in the race to succeed Lenin. These men appear undivided - united in grief over their fallen comrade. But the reality is far different. In truth, the Communist Party is a viper’s nest of competing allegiances and fierce rivalries, a dog-eat-dog world in which nobody is to be trusted and everybody is to be feared.

As the heavy stone lid is placed on Lenin’s tomb, it occurs to Stalin that to emerge victorious in this power struggle, he will have to get rid of these rival men by whatever means necessary.

Stalin will soon outmaneuver his opponents and emerge as the next leader of the Soviet Union. But by the early 1930s, opposition to Stalin’s leadership will grow. Believing that as long as his rivals are still breathing, his grip on power will never be secure, Stalin will become increasingly paranoid. And in the end, the opportunity to get rid of his opponents will be provided by a lone gunman, whose killing of a senior Communist Party politician will give Stalin the excuse he needs to purge the Soviet Union of his enemies - real or imagined - and claim the lives of over one million people in a campaign of terror that began following a deadly gunshot on December 1st, 1934.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 1st, 1934: The Assassination of Sergei Kirov.

Act One: Murder in Leningrad

It’s December 1st, 1934 in Leningrad.

A dark-haired young man walks hurriedly along the banks of a frozen river, his teeth chattering in the sub-zero temperatures. Barely five feet tall and thin as a reed, Leonid Nikolaev has always suffered cold. But lately, it’s been getting worse. The thirty-year-old shivers throughout the night, making sleep impossible. Even when he goes down to the basement of his apartment block and stands over the coal-burning furnace, he still feels the chill. It’s as if the cold is insidehim; like his blood is slowly freezing. 

Nikolaev buries his unshaven chin into the collar of his winter coat and plunges his hands deeper into his pockets. He cuts his eyes toward the palatial building overlooking the river - the Smolny Institute - the headquarters of the Leningrad branch of the Communist Party. At the sight of the building, Nikolaev’s heart starts pounding and his grip tightens around the revolver in his pocket.

Until recently, Nikolaev worked as a low-level bureaucrat in the transportation department of the Communist Party. But he didn’t see eye to eye with his employers, who found Nikolaev to be obstinate, arrogant, and vain. After one too many arguments with his superior, Nikolaev was fired and stripped of his Party membership. And despite several appeals to overturn it, their decision was final. The Party simply did not want a man like Leonid Nikolaev among its ranks.

So unemployed and penniless, Nikolaev is forced to live off of his wife’s salary. And every day that passes, he can feel himself becoming lesser in his wife’s eyes: less of a husband, less of a provider, less of a man. He feels wronged by the Communist Party’s leadership. And there’s one man he blames above all others.

Sergei Kirov is a hero of the Bolshevik Revolution, which toppled the Russian monarchy. Now, he is the head of the Leningrad branch of the Communist Party. Although Nikolaev does not know him personally, Nikolaev has grown bitterly resentful of Kirov’s power and status. Kirov is everything Nikolaev is not: charismatic, successful, respected, and making matters worse, Nikolaev suspects that his wife, Milda - who works for the regional party committee - is having an affair with Kirov. Nikolaev has no proof of this; it’s just a feeling he has, another humiliation in the long list of injustices he’s suffered. But having been driven mad with envy and resentment, Nikolaev has decided to take action, to strike a blow against the Communist system that cast him out into the cold.

Nikolaev climbs the steps of the Smolny Institute and enters the lobby, stamping snow from his boots. He notices with relief that security seems light this afternoon. He walks through the building unopposed and heads straight to the third floor, where he knows Kirov’s office is located.

After climbing the stairway, Nikolaev emerges at the end of a long corridor. Hearing men’s voices, he darts around a corner and presses himself against the wall, his heart thumping faster. He removes the revolver from his pocket, then peers tentatively from his hiding place.

Sergei Kirov is striding toward him, his military-style boots echoing down the hallway. Nikolaev holds his breath as Kirov passes, not noticing Nikolaev lurking in the shadows. Realizing that it’s now or never, Nikolaev dashes into the open, lifts his revolver, and squeezes the trigger.

The sound of the gunshot reverberates throughout the building and Nikolaev lowers the weapon. Kirov falls face-first on the hardwood floor, blood gushing from a bullet wound in his neck. Nikolaev trembles. He can hear the shouts of guards from somewhere in the building - and the thunder of their approaching footsteps - but Nikolaev doesn’t run. He stands still, staring slack-jawed at the body of the man he’s just killed. Suddenly, Nikolaev decides he doesn’t want to live with the consequences of his actions. So he raises the revolver to his own head and fires a second time.

But Nikolaev’s attempt to take his own life will fail.

Shortly after turning the revolver on himself, Nikolaev will be apprehended and remanded in the custody of the NKVD - the Soviet secret police. Upon interrogation, he will confess to acting alone. But when news of the assassination reaches Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Premier will recognize an opportunity to rid the Communist Party of his troublesome opponents. Stalin will instruct the NKVD to round up any individuals who have ever stood against him, falsely implicating them in Kirov’s assassination and using this single act of violence as an excuse to purge the Soviet Union of anyone who could stand in his way.

Act Two: Zinoviev and Kamenev

It’s early on December 29th, 1934; in a forest clearing outside Moscow, nearly a month after the assassination of Sergei Kirov.

Fourteen blindfolded prisoners stand before a firing squad, shivering in the pre-dawn cold. Among them is Leonid Nikolaev, recently convicted of the murder of the man he thought responsible for his suffering, Communist Party leader, Sergei Kirov. Nikolaev confessed to the crime, and to acting alone.

But that admission was rejected by Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, who used the assassination as an excuse to round up his opponents within the Party and bring them before a military tribunal. But there was never any question of the defendants receiving a fair trial. The verdict of the court was already decided before the hearing began: these defendants were convicted of conspiring against the state and sentenced to death by firing squad.

Most of the men standing in the clearing today are known associates of Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev - two blacklisted Communist Party politicians who resisted Stalin’s rise to power during the 1920s. These two men worked closely with another of Stalin’s sworn rivals, the former head of the Soviet military, Leon Trotsky.

While Trotsky was banished from the Soviet Union and sent into exile, Zinoviev and Kamenev were still in the country – a fact that presented Stalin with a problem. As long as these two men live and breathe, for Stalin, there will alwaysbe potential opponents to his leadership, ready to strike against him at any moment…

But prior to Sergei Kirov’s murder, Stalin couldn’t simply execute his rivals without direct provocation, for fear of sparking a revolt against his regime. But then came the assassination. The murder shocked the entire nation, and Stalin moved quickly to blame Zinoviev and Kamenev for the crime. 

Right now, the two men are in custody awaiting trial. But here in this clearing on the outskirts of Moscow today, their associates are about to be the first victims of Stalin’s Great Terror.

At 5:45 AM, the commanding officer barks an order and the soldiers take aim. The prisoners stiffen as the sharp crack of rifle fire shatters the early morning stillness, and fourteen men crumple to the snow-covered earth.


Meanwhile, inside a dank prison cell in Moscow, Grigory Zinoviev hangs his head, reflecting miserably on the dark future of his country.

The 51-year-old has been at the heart of the Communist takeover in Russia since the earliest days of the Russian Revolution. And after the death of Vladimir Lenin, Zinoviev opposed Joseph Stalin’s rise to power. When Stalin outmaneuvered him and emerged as leader anyway, Zinoviev was expelled from the Party, along with his longtime ally, Lev Kamenev. Rather than continuing to resist Stalin’s oppressive regime, Zinoviev and Kamenev capitulated. They apologized for their disloyalty toward their Comrade Stalin and both were eventually readmitted to the government - albeit in a reduced capacity as mere pen-pushers.

And so for a short while, Stalin ruled unopposed. But when his so-called Five Year Plan of economic and agricultural reforms ended in catastrophic failure, sparking famine and death on a massive scale, clamors for the dictator’s removal began to sound from subversive factions within the Party. Stalin quickly descended into paranoia. He became convinced that Zinoviev and Kamenev were involved in a plot to assassinate him - a scheme orchestrated by the exiled Leon Trotsky.

In truth, neither of these two men were plotting to assassinate Stalin. But when Sergei Kirov was shot by a crazed gunman, Stalin seized the opportunity to round up his opponents. Shortly after the shooting, NKVD agents turned up at Zinoviev’s apartment. They seized him, beat him, and questioned him for hours. Now he and Kamenev are languishing in their grimy cells, awaiting whatever brutal punishment Stalin has in store.

Several days later, guards arrive at Zinoviev’s cell and transport him to a nearby government building to stand trial before a military tribunal. The draggled former politician stands in the dock, his face blotchy with bruises. Kamenev stands alongside him, expressionless and stoic behind his goatee and spectacles.

The dour judge accuses both men of being “morally complicit” in the assassination of Sergei Kirov. If found guilty, they will serve ten years in the Soviet prison camp system - known as the Gulag. Both Zinoviev and Kamenev know that to plead their innocence would be pointless. So instead, they comply with Stalin’s demands, confessing to “moral complicity” and accepting their sentences. 

But Zinoviev and Kamenev are not shipped off to the Gulag. Instead, they are returned to their prison cells, where new charges of espionage and terrorism are leveled against them. In August 1936, Stalin orders the two men to appear before another judge, along with over a dozen other men he has deemed disloyal.

This is the first of what will become known as the Moscow Show Trials.

Once again, it’s not a legitimate hearing, but merely a charade designed to create the illusion of fair practice. Zinoviev and Kamenev accept another plea deal, confessing to these fictitious crimes on the promise that their lives will be spared. But Stalin has no intention of keeping that promise. Soon, Zinoviev and Kamenev are removed from their cells. Though again, it’s not the Gulag that awaits them but the firing squad.

Now, with Zinoviev and Kamenev dead, and Trotsky in exile, Stalin has disposed of the foremost opponents to his leadership. Still, the Soviet Premier is not satisfied. In fact, the demise of these men is the beginning of what will come to be known as the Great Terror. During this brutal period, Stalin embarks on a frenzied campaign of arrests, show trials, and executions. He purges not just the Communist Party, but also the military, the clergy, and members of the Soviet intelligentsia - in a frantic killing spree that will leave approximately one million dead.

Act Three: The Great Terror

It’s May 22nd, 1937 in Moscow; at the height of Stalin’s Great Terror.

A prison van wends its way through dark and deserted streets. Slumped in the back, nursing a throbbing black eye, is Mikhail Tukhachevsky. Mikhail, a decorated war hero, is the Marshal of the Soviet Union - the highest rank in the Red Army. But tonight, the famous general has been reduced to a common prisoner.

Hours ago, NKVD officers arrived at Mikhail’s military headquarters and placed him under arrest. Mikhail has no idea why. He’s never shown anything but loyalty toward Stalin. But Mikhail’s apprehension is merely part of a wider campaign of high-profile arrests as Stalin carries out his bloodthirsty purge of powerful political figures.

Eventually, the van arrives outside a nondescript building on the outskirts of the city - an unobtrusive hideout where the NKVD can quietly go about their business of interrogating and torturing any suspected “subversives”. Once inside, Mikhail is led to a basement room, unfurnished except for a lone wooden chair and a single flickering lightbulb. Mikhail is forced to sit in the chair and wait. Moments later, the door opens, and a short, sickly-looking man with oily black hair steps inside.

Nikolai Yezhov is the head of the NKVD, and the man Stalin has entrusted to oversee his Great Terror. As Yezhov walks toward the prisoner, a jangling sound emanates from his breast pocket, where he keeps as a memento the two bullets used to execute Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev - the two Communist Party dignitaries whose deaths kicked off Stalin’s purge.

Yezhov coldly appraises Mikhail, then accuses him of being part of an anti-Soviet conspiracy to turn the Red Army against Comrade Stalin. Mikhail can barely hide his contempt for the outlandish accusation. But when he denies the charge, Yezhov just smiles thinly and quietly instructs his NKVD goons to loosen Mikhail’s tongue… 

After hours of brutal torture, Mikhail will sign a bloodstained confession. Days later, he will be tried before Stalin’s appointed supreme court judge, and found guilty of conspiring against the Soviet Union. He and eight other Red Army generals will be driven to a remote location, lined up against a wall, and shot.

During Stalin’s Great Terror, nobody in Soviet civic life was safe - not even the NKVD. Just one year after the execution of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Nikolai Yezhov himself will be accused of disloyalty. He will be tried, sentenced, and executed - meeting the same fate as the one he inflicted on countless others.

By the end of 1938, Stalin’s Great Terror will have claimed between 700,000 and one million lives. Due to the secretive nature of many of the arrests and executions, this figure will be kept hidden from the general public for years. Indeed, a veil of silence will be cast across the atrocities until the 1980s when it finally becomes legal in the Soviet Union to speak openly about what happened during Stalin’s Great Terror, a horrific purge that began following the assassination of a Communist Party official on this day, December 1st, 1934.


Next onHistory Daily.December 2nd, 1908. In a lavish enthronement ceremony, a two-year-old boy becomes the Emperor of China.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.