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Nikolaev was a troubled young Soviet Communist Party member in Leningrad. He was a small, thin man, about five feet tall; even as an adult he showed the effects of childhood malnutrition. He had difficulty holding a job, and had been reprimanded by the Party for having refused a posting that was not to his liking. Eventually, the Party expelled him as a member. Unemployed, he soon ran short of money, and blamed the Party for his troubles. His wife Milda Draule was a member of a regional party committee and he had a strong suspicion that she had a love affair with Kirov.
The Kirov Assassination
It is unknown whether Nikolaev had had prior dealings with the Leningrad branch of the Soviet government, headed by Sergei Kirov. What is known is that Kirov had brooked the displeasure of Joseph Stalin, the head of the Soviet Communist Party, by refusing to persecute adherents of a growing Opposition movement to Stalin's leadership. At a Party congress in January 1934, Kirov demonstrated his popularity over that of Stalin, where he received the fewest negative votes of any delegate (three, as opposed to 292 for Joseph Stalin).
As Nikolaev's troubles grew, he became steadily more obsessed with the idea of "striking a blow." On October 15, 1934, he was arrested by the NKVD, allegedly for loitering around the Smolny Institute, where Sergei Kirov, the popular administrator of the Leningrad district, had his offices. In reality, the Smolny guards had discovered a loaded 7.62 mm Nagant M1895 revolver in Nikolaev's briefcase. Though Nikolaev had clearly broken Soviet laws regarding the carrying of firearms into secure government offices, the security police inexplicably released him from custody within a few hours; he was even permitted to retain his loaded revolver. Some Soviet sources later argued that Nikolaev did have a permit to carry a loaded handgun, even though handgun permits for non-Party members without cause for such a weapon in their duties were unknown in the Soviet Union, especially a man with a history of instability and grudges against the Party. Even if granted a permit, he would never have been authorized to carry such a weapon into secured Party buildings, and would have faced charges in a People's Court for doing so.
After Nikolaev's visit, the NKVD failed to augment Kirov's security; instead, it withdrew all police protection for Kirov with the exception of a police escort to Smolny and a manned security post at the entrance to his offices.
On the afternoon of December 1, 1934, Nikolaev paid a final visit to the Smolny Institute offices. With Stalin's alleged approval, the NKVD had previously withdrawn the remaining guards manning the security desk at Smolny. Unopposed, Nikolaev made his way to the third floor, where he shot Kirov in the back of the neck with his Nagant revolver. As former Soviet official and author Alexander Barmine noted, "the negligence of the NKVD in protecting such a high party official was without precedent in the Soviet Union".
According to later press accounts and party communiques, which were never substantiated, Nikolaev was subsequently apprehended with the aid of an electrician, Platanov, who was working in the area; a friend of Kirov's, a middle-aged man named Borisev, also rushed out and helped subdue Nikolaev. Nikolaev was said to have undergone a complete collapse, and had to be carried away.
Aftermath and responsibility for Kirov's death
After Kirov's death, Stalin called for swift punishment of the traitors and those found negligent in Kirov's death. Borisev, one of the first to come upon the scene, was immediately arrested; he died the day after Kirov's assassination, allegedly as the result of a fall from a truck in which he was being transported by the NKVD. On December 28 and 29 1934, Nikolaev and 13 other people as members of the "counterrevolutionary group" were tried by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR under Vasili Ulrikh's chairmanship. At 5:45 AM, December 29, all of them were sentenced to death and executed by shooting an hour later.
Nikolaev's 85-year-old mother, brother, sisters, cousin and some other people close to him were later arrested and killed. Milda Draule survived her husband by three months before being executed herself. Their infant son (who was named Marx following the Bolshevik naming fashion) was sent into an orphanage. Marx Draule was alive in 2005 when he was officially rehabilitated as a victim of political repressions, and Milda was also found innocent retroactively. However, Nikolaev was never posthumously acquitted.
Several NKVD officers from the Leningrad branch were convicted of negligence for not adequately protecting Kirov, and were sentenced to prison terms of up to ten years. However, they never served their prison sentences; instead, they were transferred to executive posts in Stalin's labor camps for a period of time (in effect, a demotion).
Initially, a Communist Party communique reported that Nikolaev's guilt had been established, and that he had confessed that he acted at the behest of a 'fascist power', receiving money from an unidentified 'foreign consul' in Leningrad. 104 other defendants, who were already in prison at the time of Kirov's assassination, and who had no demonstrable connection to Nikolaev, were found guilty of complicity in the 'fascist plot' against Kirov, and were summarily executed.
However, a few days later, during a subsequent Communist Party meeting of the Moscow District, the Party secretary announced in a speech that Nikolaev had been personally interrogated by Stalin the very next day after the assassination, an unheard-of event for a party leader such as Stalin:
Comrade Stalin personally directed the investigation of Kirov's assassination. He questioned Nikolaev at length. The leaders of the Opposition placed the gun in Nikolaev's hand!
Other speakers rose to condemn the Opposition: "The Central Committee must be pitiless - the Party must be purged..the record of every member must be scrutinized..." No one at the meeting mentioned the theory of fascist agents. Later, Stalin even used the Kirov assassination to eliminate the remainder of the Opposition leadership against him, accusing Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Abram Prigozhin, and others who had stood with Kirov in opposing Stalin (or simply failed to acquiesce to Stalin's views), of having connections with Nikolaev and facilitating the assassination.
After Nikolaev's death, there was some speculation that his motivation in killing Kirov may have been more personal. His wife, Milda Draule, worked at the Smolny, and unsubstantiated rumors surfaced that she was having an affair with Kirov. It is unknown whether these had a basis in fact, or were deliberately fostered by the NKVD. What is known is that Nikolaev's wife, Milda Draule, was noted for her physical plainness, while Kirov was known to prefer liaisons with ballerinas and other Soviet women of notable beauty and grace. It is also curious that Nikolaev, allegedly a deranged ex-party hack with no connection to the NKVD, would - in the heat of anger over his wife's affair - carefully shoot her lover in the back of the neck, a favorite target of NKVD executioners. Even more curious is the fact that Soviet courts also convicted and executed Nikolaev's wife Milda for Kirov's death.
However, given the circumstances of Kirov's growing popularity, the clear indications of Stalin's disapproval of Kirov, and the danger to Stalin in losing effective control of the Politburo and party apparatus, the probability is that Kirov's death was arranged by the NKVD on Stalin's orders. This theory is bolstered by the fantastic allegations of a fascist plot by foreign consuls, used to summarily execute 104 defendants already in NKVD jails at the time of Kirov's assassination. Incredibly, the 'fascist plot' theory was itself discarded only a few days later, after disclosure of Nikolaev's alleged confession implicating the leaders of Stalin's opposition, (extracted by none other than Stalin himself).
Kirov's death, as the most popular leader of the Opposition, meant the definite end of the 'reconciliation' movement exemplified by Kirov, and the beginning of Stalin's Great Purge. As author and Marxist scholar Boris Nikolaevsky pointed out:
One thing is certain: the only man who profited by the Kirov assassination was Stalin.
- Knight, Amy, Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin’s Greatest Mystery, New York: Hill and Wang (1999), ISBN 978-0-8090-6404-5
- Barmine, Alexander, One Who Survived, New York: G.P. Putnam (1945), pp. 247-252
- Knight, Amy, Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin’s Greatest Mystery, New York: Hill and Wang (1999), ISBN 978-0-8090-6404-5, p. 190: Shooting a person in the back of the neck was an established custom of trained Soviet NKVD executioners, as it provided a quick one-shot kill.
- Barmine, Alexander, One Who Survived, New York: G.P. Putnam (1945), p. 252
- "XIII. Процесс Николаева-Котолынова - Сталинский неонэп - В. Роговин".
- Агранов. "Сообщение Агранова по делу Л. Николаева".
- Сойма, Василий. "СТАЛИН И КИРОВ - Страница 4".
- Pure Terror, TIME Magazine, December 17, 1934
- Barmine, Alexander, One Who Survived, New York: G.P. Putnam (1945), p. 248
- Barmine, Alexander, One Who Survived, New York: G.P. Putnam (1945), p. 249
- Nikolaevsky, Boris, The Kirov Assassination, The New Leader, 23 August 1941
- Barmine, Alexander, One Who Survived, New York: G.P. Putnam (1945)
- Knight, Amy, Who Killed Kirov: The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery