Attempted assassination of Leonid Brezhnev

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An assassination attempt was made upon Leonid Brezhnev on 22 January 1969,[1] when a deserter from the Soviet Army, Viktor Ilyin, fired shots at a motorcade carrying the Soviet leader through Moscow. Though Brezhnev was unhurt, the shots killed a driver and lightly injured several celebrated cosmonauts of the Soviet space program who were present in the motorcade. Brezhnev's attacker was captured and a news blackout on the event was maintained by the Soviet government for years thereafter.

The would-be assassin[edit]

Viktor Ivanovich Ilyin (Russian: Виктор Иванович Ильин) was born in Leningrad in 1947. After his graduation from a technical college, he was inducted into the Soviet Army in 1968[2] at the rank of lieutenant.[3] Ilyin was said to have been resentful of his forced conscription[4] and distressed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.[2]

On 21 January 1969, Ilyin stole two standard-issue Makarov handguns and deserted his army unit.[5] He went back to his family in Leningrad where he stole his brother-in-law's authentic police uniform. Ilyin then left on an unannounced, solitary journey to Moscow.[4]

The cosmonauts' motorcade[edit]

The four cosmonauts of Soyuz 4 & Soyuz 5

Dressed like a policeman, Ilyin moved unimpeded through a large crowd waiting at the Kremlin. They were clustered at the Borovitsky Gate, where a special motorcade was expected to pass: it would be bearing the successful cosmonauts of Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 to an important official ceremony.

The spaceflight crewmembers—Vladimir Shatalov, Boris Volynov, Yevgeny Khrunov, and Aleksei Yeliseyev—had returned only a week earlier from their historic manned-ship-to-manned-ship docking mission in space, the first of its kind. Arriving at Vnukovo Airport, they were being driven with Brezhnev and Soviet head of state Nikolai Podgorny to their commemorative celebration inside the Kremlin's Palace of Congresses. The four honorees rode in an open convertible at the front of the line, waving to spectators while a line of closed limousines trailed behind them.[1]

Assassination attempt[edit]

At 2:15 pm on 22 January 1969, as the motorcade passed through the gate, Ilyin drew pistols in both hands. Ignoring the waving cosmonauts, he opened fire on the second car in the line: he later admitted that he only assumed it carried Brezhnev. Unbeknownst to him, this ZiL limousine was filled only with other cosmonauts from earlier missions: Alexey Leonov, Valentina Tereshkova, Georgy Beregovoy and Andrian Nikolayev.[1]

Ilyin's shots struck the limousine fourteen times,[4] killing the driver,[2] Ilya Zharkov, before a guard ran Ilyin down with his motorcycle.[5] The other occupants of the car were unscathed or suffered only superficial wounds.[2] After Ilyin was arrested, the cosmonauts' ceremony took place as planned, just slightly delayed.[4]

Aftermath[edit]

Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982); photo c.1973

Ilyin underwent a lengthy interrogation led by KGB chief and future Soviet leader Yuri Andropov.[5] He was pronounced insane and sent to Kazan Psychiatric Hospital[3] where he was kept in solitary confinement until 1988.[6]

According to Russian sources, Ilyin was released in 1990 and moved to Saint Petersburg.[7] The bullet-holed limousine has been preserved and is occasionally put on public exhibition.[8]

Legacy[edit]

News was scant and slow to emerge. An official Soviet press statement was made two days after the shooting, but did not say if the shooter was a man or a woman.[1] However, even without official confirmation, the event was seen as an assassination attempt on Brezhnev.[1][9][10]

Years later, the cosmonaut Leonov recounted how Brezhnev confided to him after the incident: "Brezhnev took me aside and told me, 'Those bullets were not meant for you, Alexei. They were meant for me, and for that I apologize.'"[4] But until the dissolution of the Soviet Union the KGB released little information about the shooting. The entire incident was "so effectively hushed up"[4] that it was sometimes cited by Western observers as an example of Soviet secrecy.[9]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e "Gunman Attacks Car in Kremlin, 2 Wounded". The New York Times. 24 January 1969. Retrieved 2014-09-26. 
  2. ^ a b c d Zubok, Vladislav M. (2009). Zhivago's Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 297. ISBN 0-674-03344-2. 
  3. ^ a b Albats, Yevgenia (1995). KGB: State Within a State. London: I.B. Tauris. p. 191. ISBN 1-85043-995-8. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f French, Francis; Burgess, Colin (2007). In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965–1969. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 277–278. ISBN 0-8032-1128-7. 
  5. ^ a b c "Eurasian Secret Services Daily Review". Axis Information and Analysis (AIA). 25 January 2009. Archived from the original on 1 February 2009. Retrieved 2014-09-26. 
  6. ^ "Gunman Fires Twice Close to Gorbachev at a Moscow Parade". The New York Times. 8 November 1990. Retrieved 2014-09-26. 
  7. ^ "Shots at the Borovitsky Gate" (in Russian). Pereplet. 1999. Retrieved 2014-09-26. 
  8. ^ "That Old Car Smell: Soviet motor nostalgia grows among Russian elite". Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 20 June 2010. Retrieved 2014-09-26. 
  9. ^ a b "Kremlin: Then There Were Shots". The New York Times. 26 January 1969. Retrieved 2014-09-26. 
  10. ^ "Brezhnev Seen as Target in Cosmonaut Shooting". The Morning Herald. Hagerstown, MD. AP. 24 January 1969. Retrieved 2 December 2016 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication – free to read