"Who Killed Kirov?"

Since it isn't hard to guess, this investigation works better as a biography than as a whodunit.

Published June 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad Communist Party boss, was shot dead on a steely December afternoon in 1934. The Soviet Union quickly generated a fog of state-sponsored mourning, myth-making and investigation that effectively obscured the crime. The Oliver Stone part of your brain should think "government coverup." Author Amy Knight, a research associate at George Washington University, pounces right on the Kennedy parallels: A charismatic politician takes a bullet to the head and an assailant is publicly identified and killed while guarded; subsequently, the dead man is deified (Kirov lent his name to countless squares and streets as well as to Russia's famous ballet company -- a nice touch, in that his penchant for the company of ballerinas was notorious); the public and private inquiries are divisive and inconclusive.

The monstrous difference between the two deaths is Russia's tragedy. Stalin lunged with animal instinct to turn Kirov's death into political red meat. The Soviet leader had already been persecuting opponents, but with Kirov's death, the scale increased unimaginably; the series of "retributions" that rippled out from it morphed into a self-sustaining, ever-widening spiral that sucked in millions of politicians, soldiers and peasants in the infamous purges of the 1930s.

So who was Kirov? Soviet sainthood has blurred the contours of a compelling personality as effectively as it cloaked Stalin's involvement in the crime. Knight sensibly turns Kirov's life into the heart of the book, making it a kind of Bildungsroman of a revolutionary; her prose lacks color, but she compensates for that by meticulously mining post-glasnost archival materials.

What she finds in Kirov is a union of earthy provincial and erudite autodidact. It was an ideal combination, really, for ensuring his rise in the party as the Bolsheviks ripped away the medieval strictures of the czarist world. Kirov lasted as long as he did because he was highly adaptable. He learned quickly to subvert his idealism, tacitly accepting the murderousness of the revolution. In other words, he was Stalinist when it suited him.

Because Kirov is so remarkable a presence, "Who Killed Kirov?" actually ropes you in less as a whodunit than as a biography. Deserted by his alcoholic father, struggling up from the provinces (he was raised 700 miles northwest of Moscow), he seems almost superhuman: a gifted military improviser during the Civil War, construction supervisor, labor negotiator, party ideologue, commanding stump speaker. At Baku, he resuscitated creaky oil works while marshaling support from a fantastic mosaic of religious and ethnic groups -- a lesson in diplomacy for the parties currently battling over proposed pipelines in Azerbaijan.

In analyzing the assassination, Knight navigates waters choked with decades of Kremlin murk. The "solving" of the case became a political chimera, as each successive leader sought to distance himself (Khruschev) or align himself (Brezhnev) with the Stalinist legacy and to arrange or doctor evidence as it suited him. Knight quickly builds the case for Stalin's probable guilt. (As for motive, chalk it up to the pathology that forever drove him.) Her other sleuthing passages read somewhat aridly, though the NKVD, the secret police organization, enlivens the proceedings with an investigation that seems to have been led by homicidal Keystone Cops. There was no forensic analysis of the bullets until the 1960s. The office building where the shooting occurred was not secured, and people entered and left at will. Kirov's bodyguard was killed in an "accident" the morning after the murder.

Events propel Knight's story -- a fact that also explains the book's flaws. She doesn't spend enough time disengaged from the narrative to examine the psychology of the man. We get a few word pictures. A Leningrad acquaintance recalls him as "pockmarked, with bad teeth  one who smokes cheap tobacco and wears a coat made of coarse cloth." Other vignettes show a hard-drinking insomniac who was also a voracious reader and a womanizer. Some of these descriptions are wonderfully evocative. The book could use more of them, though.

In the end, the tragic subtext of this gifted man's life was the inexorable grinding away of his humanity in the service of Bolshevism, his willingness to expose himself to political and physical danger in opposition to Stalinist brutality even as he served as an instrument of that brutality and, ultimately, his failure to stop Stalin when the leader was vulnerable. "Who Killed Stalin?" of course, is a title that would have marked a change in history.

By Katharine Whittemore

Katharine Whittemore is the editor of American Movie Classics magazine.

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