To the Editor:
In his review of The Tsar’s Lieutenant, by Thomas G. Buston [Books in Review, April], Henrik Bering-Jensen describes Stalin’s purges as being the “response to the assassination of Leningrad boss Sergei Kirov” in 1934. This is seriously misleading, suggesting as it does that Stalin’s repression was motivated by the murder of an ally by a terroristic opposition. In fact, Kirov was killed on the orders of Stalin, who saw Kirov and the Leningrad party as the center of an anti-Stalinist Old Bolshevik opposition in the party and Politburo. The assassin, Leonid Nikolayev, acted under the orders of Vanya Zaporozhets, whom Stalin had installed shortly before as Deputy Head of the Leningrad NKVD in place of a Kirov loyalist.
Alexander Orlov, a senior NKVD officer, wrote after his defection:
Stalin decided to arrange for the assassination of Kirov and to lay that crime at the door of the former leaders of the opposition, and thus with one blow do away with Lenin’s former comrades. . . . He then would be justified in demanding blood for blood.
Kirov’s murder was immediately followed by mass arrests among Leningrad party members.
It is also wrong to suggest that the purges began only in 1934. After the 15th Party Congress in 1927, more than 3,000 party members accused of “deviations” were expelled, many deported or imprisoned; Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev were all removed from office and sent to Siberia. That Congress was the one which, in the first Five-Year Plan, provided for the purge of the kulaks which led to millions of deaths while Kirov still ruled in Leningrad.
Richmond, British Columbia
Henrik Bering-Jensen writes:
I am familiar with Alexander Orlov’s book, with Khrushchev’s hints, and with the literature of the Kirov assassination. But one would not guess from Arthur Lyons’s letter that the question of Stalin’s involvement in the Kirov murder remains a matter of controversy among historians of the Soviet Union. While writers like Robert Conquest and Roy Medvedev have advanced theories along the lines sketched by Mr. Lyons, others, chief among them Adam B. Ulam in his magisterial biography Stalin: The Man and His Era, dismiss such claims as unsubstantiated and based on later reconstructions. What is more, the method itself defies common sense: as Ulam argues, the last thing Stalin would have wanted to create was the precedent of a successful assassination attempt against a high Soviet leader, thereby encouraging people to take pot shots at their masters. If Kirov, why not Stalin? Ulam cites several examples of precisely this kind of logic, and Stalin, the former professional revolutionary, would certainly have been the first to recognize the risks of contagion.
As Ulam further notes, the fact that Nikolayev’s deposition was never even referred to during the subsequent trials would tend to suggest that Kirov’s murder was the act of a single individual, acting on his own. But in Stalin’s Russia such an explanation would of course never do; and indeed, it did not take Stalin long to seize on the murder as a useful pretext for getting at his enemies.
Concerning Mr. Lyons’s second complaint: he and I surely have no disagreement as to the extent of Stalin’s villainy. I was simply using the term “purge” in the sense which has become universal in discussing Soviet history, while he seems to extend it to cover earlier events, everything from exiles and party exclusions to the effects of the first Five-Year Plan. Other than in Mr. Lyons’s letter, I have been unable to find a single use of the word “purge” to describe the liquidation of the kulaks.