Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Kirov and Richard II

Please forgive me for discussing the early Soviet era with little or no reference to the dean of Stalinist History, Robert Conquest. Conquest helped to document the Great Terror and Collectivism and indeed almost every dark facet of Soviet authoritarianism. His books include Power and Policy in the USSR, Common Sense About Russia, Courage of Genius: The Pasternak Affair, Russia After Khrushchev, The Great Terror, the Nation Killers, Where Marx Went Wrong, V.I. Lenin, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, Present Danger: Towards a Foreign Policy, We and They: Civic and Despotic Cultures, What to Do When the Russians Come, Inside Stalin's Secret Police, and the Harvest of Sorrow.

Conquest was one of the most honorable Cold Warriors ever to have put pen to paper in the service of history. His short book, Stalin and the Kirov Murder, is my first foray into the Conquest's work, although almost all other historians of the era refer to Conquests many discoveries. The work helps to illuminate the importance of Kirov's assassination in Stalin's evolving plan to terrorize ever widening circles of Russian citizens.

The book, written in 1989, is helpful in terms of explaining Stalin's rise to absolute power. But it's also useful in terms of explaining how the decline and fall of communism began to influence the historiography of the era. For Conquest is careful to document the limits to what we previously knew about the Kirov assassination. We learned what we knew from defectors, emigrants, propaganda, or, eventually, Khrushchev's Secret Speech and memoir. By 1989, Soviet artists and some academics began to leak accusations against Stalin. In the end, the book assumes that even Glasnost will not produce all of the details about the Kirov Affair.

On the other hand, Conquest assumes that the basic outline of the story are clear enough: whether or not we find the conclusive proof of Stalin's personal responsibility for the murder, that responsibility appears highly probable. Stalin saw Kirov as an obstacle to his unlimited authority; Stalin benefited from his demise; no other actor benefited from Kirov's fall or had the opportunity to remove his NKVD guard at a critical moment in time; Stalin behaved as if he feared any sort of honest investigation into the incident.

Eventually, Stalin used the murder to kills his old opponents, especially the remnants of the Zinoviev Opposition, the Trotskyites, and Bukharin and the Right Opposition. Indeed, Stalin went further and soon annihilated Kirov's allies, while publicly canonizing the man. Conquest believes that the murder of Kirov opened the door to the Great Terror that consumed millions of Soviet lives. Rather romantically, he also assumes that the murder reveals a special brand of Stalin's villainous personality. While observers might claim that Stalin destroyed his enemies for reasons of state, the murder of his former friend and political ally, was cynical and hypocritical (to say nothing of being anti-socialist) as well as ruthless. The story of the Kirov murder had a complicated history in Russia.

After Stalin's death, official history soon had nothing whatsoever to say about the matter. Clearly, claims that Stalin was killed by Zinoviev or Bukharin or Trotsky or even Kirov's political allies made no sense at all and had no evidence (save for the ridiculous testimony of the Show Trials) to support them. But Stalin, preserver of the nation during World War II, was too important a historical figure to tarnish with this kind of Shakespearean evil. Who would kill his friend and rush off the next day to carry the coffin? Who would kill his colleague and then blame that murder on his colleague's own friends?

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