On Dec. 1, 1934, a lone gunman walked into the offices of Sergei Kirov, the top figure of the Communist Party in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and a member of the Politburo. Not long thereafter, Kirov was dead, with a bullet hole in his neck.
The murder of the handsome Kirov, a great orator and one of the most influential Bolshevik leaders, was a shock. "The enemy did not fire at Kirov personally. No! He fired at the proletarian revolution," declared the state broadsheet Pravda a day after Kirov's funeral. Stalin, the Soviet leader, directly took charge of the investigation into the incident.
The echo of the past could be heard last week after the killing of Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic and leading opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin. As was the case under Stalin more than eight decades ago, Putin vowed to personally run the inquiry into the murder. And as was the case more than eight decades ago, the shadow of the Kremlin hangs over the scene of the crime.
It has not been conclusively proven that Stalin ordered the assassination of Kirov, whom he almost certainly considered a dangerous political rival. Unexplained anomalies in the Kirov case — the murky motives of the shooter, who was soon executed; the mysterious death of Kirov's bodyguard before he was interviewed by authorities — permanently cloud the matter. Eulogies to the slain party official's greatness drowned out all other lines of inquiry, according to one account in the New York Times:
With astonishing speed, Pravda had managed by 5 December to locate and print extensive biographical details about Kirov, including a secret dossier from the tsarist police archives. By this date also, entire books about Kirov, with reminiscences by former comrades, stories about his childhood, and reproductions of his speeches, had gone to press. It was almost as if someone had assembled all the material beforehand and was waiting for the go-ahead to put it together.
What is clear is that Stalin benefited from Kirov's removal from the stage, and used the latter's death as a pretext to launch an astonishing crackdown on supposed political opponents. He ordered roundups of suspected "terrorists" and staged mass show trials. In December of that year alone, 6,500 people were arrested. Thousands more were disappeared or sent to prison camps in the months ahead. Some 250,000 people were expelled from the Communist Party in 1935. This was all a prelude to the terrors to come in the great purges starting in 1937.
There is no clear evidence linking Putin's government with Nemtsov's death, though there is plenty of suspicion. It should be noted, of course, that for all his authoritarianism, Putin is no Stalin. And Nemtsov was a genuine opposition figure — not a rival apparatchik within a totalitarian regime — who had political clout and had embarked on an important accounting of corruption within Russia's powerful elites.
But many see a similarity in the atmospherics that surrounded the two murders. In the frenzied aftermath of Nemtsov's shooting in Moscow, Russian media started linking his death to a host of conspiratorial forces, ranging from Nemtsov's allies (who would supposedly benefit from the shock of his murder), to Ukraine to militants in the Caucasus. In both contexts, state authorities pointed the finger at foreign enemies and subversive elements at home.
Russia scholar Karen Dawisha lays out how Putin is following Stalin's footsteps:
Much of the Putin era has been absorbed with the suppression of opposition political movements, whether in Russia, by keeping rival party leaders from registering for elections, or abroad, by invading Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine to prevent democratic regimes from succeeding in neighboring states.
Kirov's murder "was the first top-level political assassination of a person who could have become party leader," writes Dawisha. "In the death of Nemtsov, irrespective of who is ultimately found responsible, we once again have the assassination of a person who could have become the leader of the country."