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Obituaries: Sergei Kirov, 77

By Chris Oakley


From the New York Times, June 17th, 1963:

Sergei Kirov, the onetime mayor of Leningrad who survived an assassination attempt on his life orchestrated by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, then ousted Stalin as leader of the Soviet Union in a coup supported by elements of the Red Army and later changed the face of Russian society and politics after the Second World War, died last night in Moscow at the age of 77. According to a press statement issued by the Russian Federal Foreign Secretariat, Kirov succumbed to cardiac arrest after a long illness; funeral arrangements were pending as of press time. Among Kirovís most notable achievements during his tenure as Russian premier were his 1938 mutual defense agreements with Britain, France, and Czechoslovakia; his dispatch of Soviet troops to assist the Polish army in thwarting the bungled 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland; his August 1941 conference with Churchill, Roosevelt, and Reynaud which laid the groundwork for an anti-Japanese alliance between Russia, Britain, France, and the United States; and his institution in the early 1950s of the political reform system now known around the world as glasnost, or "openness", an effort to engender greater freedom in Russia after years of totalitarian Marxist rule under Stalin and Lenin.

In a broadcast from the Kremlin, Kirovís successor and longtime friend Nikita Khrushchev hailed the late former premier as "a true champion of the Motherland" and called his death "a tragic loss for humanity". Echoing those sentiments, President Kennedy told a press conference at the White House: "The American people share Russiaís grief at the passing of Premier Kirov...The achievements he made in stopping Nazi aggression and ending the scourge of Stalinism will not be forgotten."

Born Sergei Kostrikov on March 27th, 1886, Kirov was abandoned by his father at an early age and his mother died when he was fifteen; he adopted the alias "Kirov" in 1904 shortly after joining the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, then known as the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Arrested by Czar Nicholas IIís secret police for his participation in the 1905 Russian Revolution, Kirov went into hiding in the Caucasus Mountains only to re-emerge in 1917 when the Communists seized power from the  Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky; fighting on the Communist side during the civil war that engulfed Russia from 1918 to 1921, Kirov was rewarded for his service by being appointed Leningrad city mayor and Leningrad oblast (regional or district) party chief by Joseph Stalin in 1926. However, Kirovís popularity gradually became a threat to Stalin until, in late November of 1934, Kirov received an anonymous warning that the NKVD had on Stalinís orders targeted him for assassination.

That warning saved his life on December 1st, 1934 when two gunmen later identified as NKVD agents opened fire on his car as it was pulling up to his office; Kirov and his top aide immediately threw themselves to the ground as soon as the bullets started flying, and although Kirovís aide sustained a few minor cuts both men were able to escape serious injury. The next day Kirov, worried that he might not be so lucky next time and infuriated that his onetime political mentor had set him up to be killed, secretly met with Red Army tank general (and later Russian defense minister) Mikhail Tukachevsky to begin planning what is now known as the January Revolution.

On January 18th, 1935 Tukachevsky and a group of his fellow officers who supported Kirovís intention to overthrow Stalin deployed their troops to seize key strategic points in Moscow and Leningrad, starting with the Kremlin and NKVD headquarters in Moscowís Dzerzhinsky Square. Stalinís secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, notorious for his brutality and sexual deviancy, was killed while leading NKVD guards in defense of the Kremlin against the rebel forces; Stalin himself fled the Kremlin later that day never to return. The defection of a key Red Army general, Georgi Zhukov, to the Kirovite militia on the eve of the uprising is widely credited with helping General Tukachevsky to win the battle for Moscow and later neutralize Stalinist resistance in Leningrad. By June of 1935 Stalin had been captured and incarcerated at Moscowís notorious Lubiyanka Prison while most of his inner circle had either been killed, driven into exile, or persuaded to go over to Kirovís side.

Kirovís first official act following his takeover of the Soviet government was to cancel a program under which Stalin had planned to collectivize all farmland in the Ukraine and appropriate Ukrainian grains for Russia. His second, and perhaps most important, was to convene a special tribunal to investigate suspected crimes by the NKVD against political dissidents; that tribunal led to the 1936 trial and subsequent execution of Stalin for crimes against humanity.

Despite at least three attempts by hard-line Stalinists to topple his goverment, Kirov was able to retain power by virtue of the support of General Tukachevskyís army as well as that of ordinary Soviet citizens who viewed Kirov as a breath of fresh air after the dreary and oppressive years under Stalinís rule. In March of 1937 Kirov rewarded Tukachevskyís loyalty by appointing him the new Soviet defense minister; Georgi Zhukov became chief of the Soviet army general staff. During the Spanish Civil War, Kirov backed Spainís Republican government against Francisco Francoís Falangist insurgency, sending guns, tanks, planes, and advisors to the Republican army until the Falangist rebellion collapsed in 1939.

One of Kirovís first major diplomatic achievements as premier of the Soviet Union was the 1937 Russo-Finnish Friendship Pact, which defused a long-standing border disagreement between the two countries that under different circumstances could have led to all-out war. The following year Kirov and his foreign minister, Maxim Livitnov, hosted a summit with the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France, and Czechoslovakia to forge a common policy for resisting Adolf Hitlerís persistent efforts to force the Czech government to let Germany occupy the Sudetenland, a region home to a large ethnic German minority as well as much of Czechoslovakiaís military and industrial facilities. When Hitler, desperate to salvage his prestige after being rebuffed over the Sudeten question, ordered a full-scale invasion of Poland in August of 1939 over the objections of his top generals, Kirov raised a Soviet expeditionary force and sent it to Poland to back up the Polish army in opposing the invasion; these troops, often accompanied by civilian volunteers recruited from among Polandís ethnic Russian minority, played a substantial role in countering and then defeating the German assault. After Britain and France joined the war on the Polish side, Kirov established a telephone connection dubbed a "hot line" linking the Red Army general staff headquarters in Moscow to the Anglo-French combined forces staff main office in Paris to enable Soviet troops in the east to co-ordinate their operations with those of the British and French armies fighting Germany in the west.

When Italy declared war on the Allied powers in March of 1940, Kirov formed a mutual defense alliance with Yugoslavia to deter Mussoliniís aggressive designs on his Adriatic neighbors; he then had Soviet agents infiltrated into Italian territory to aid Italian Communists in organizing and waging a guerrilla campaign against the Fascist regime. Six months later, under the direction of General Zhukov, Soviet and Polish ground forces launched Operation Suvorov, the Red Army drive toward the Spree River and Berlin; this offensive, coming on the heels of Operation Overlord, the Anglo-French campaign to establish an Allied foothold on the Rhine, stretched the already seriously overtaxed German army to the breaking point. By the spring of 1941, both Soviet and Anglo-French divisions were deep in German territory and the Mussolini regime in Italy had been overthrown in a military coup.

In mid-August of 1941, as the Red Army and the Anglo-French coalition were getting ready for their final push on Berlin, Kirov met with Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Paul Reynaud in San Francisco to discuss how their respective countries could meet the growing threat posed to their individual and collective interests in the Far East by the expansionist policies of the Japanese Empire. The result of that summit was the Pacific Charter, a mutual defense accord under whose terms the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain would share intelligence data on Japanese military activities; the critical element of the Charter was a proviso stating that if one of the signatories were attacked by Japan, the other three would regard it as an act of war against themselves and intervene on behalf of the nation being attacked. Two months after the Charter was signed, Soviet naval intelligence officials advised the US government that they had uncovered evidence the Imperial Japanese Navy was making preparations to attack American naval bases in the Philippines and Hawaii.

That crucial data, subsequently confirmed by President Rooseveltís own naval intelligence operatives, prompted the United States to pre-emptively declare war on Japan in November of 1941. By then Germany had surrendered to the Allies and Italy was squarely in the Allied camp, leaving the Japanese Empire to face alone the full combined armed might of the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Britain. In the bitter conflict that followed, Japan lost most of her navy and a considerable part of her army to the Allied powers, leaving little in the way of military strength to hold on to the territories she had occupied in the Far East. By late January of 1943 Japan had lost her colonies in Manchuria and Taiwan and Allied forces were poised to invade the Korean Peninsula.

When the invasion of Korea came General Ivan Chernyakovsky, a hero of the Red Armyís Polish campaign, led Soviet and Chinese divisions along with a volunteer guerrilla army under the command of Korean Communist Party stalwart Kim Il-Sung across the Manchurian frontier into northern Korea while a multinational assault force of 200,000 men under the leadership of American general Douglas MacArthur (and including a group of anti-Japanese and anti-Communist partisans led by future Korean prime minister Syngman Rhee) made an amphibious landing at the western port of Inchon. On July 25th, 1943 the two invasion forces linked up at the town of Panmunjom, effectively sealing thousands of Japanese troops inside a steadily shrinking pocket and forcing the Imperial Army to dip into its reserves to shore up Japanís weakening front on the Korean Peninsula.

Despite heavy casualties, by December of 1943 Allied troops controlled most of Korea and were aggressively pushing to eject Japanese forces from the rest. By this time Hideki Tojo, the army general whoíd been prime minister when the Pacific war began, had been forced to resign from office and his successor, Mamoru Shigemetsu, was beginning to make peace overtures to the Allies. Shigemetsuís peace overtures were given added urgency by the knowledge the Allied powers were preparing to launch an invasion of the home islands sometime in the spring of 1944; though Imperial Army intelligence sources hadnít been able to determine the precise time when the assault would take place, it was generally believed that the initial landings would be attempted no later than June 6th. In mid-January of 1944 MacArthurís troops captured the vital port city of Pusan, giving the Allies an additional staging area for the invasion of the home islands and cutting off one of the last escape routes left for the remnants of the Imperial Armyís occupation forces in Korea.

In April of 1944 the Allies took the surrender of the last remaining Japanese occupation troops in Korea. One month later Shigemetsuís fears of an invasion of the home islands intensified when the Allied powers began a combined air and naval campaign to eliminate what was left of the Imperial Japanese Navy and Japanís air forces; the Soviets targeted air and naval bases on Hokkaido while the Western Allies hit air and naval installations on the islands of Kyushu, Honshu, and Shikoku. It was about this time that the US Army Air Corpsí Pacific bomber squadrons mounted their highly controversial "fire raid" campaign, firebombing major cities like Toyko, Osaka, and Yokohama in an effort to break Japanís morale.

But the Japanese stubbornly refused to give up, and on June 5th, 1944 General MacArthur gave his troops the green light to commence Operation Coronet, the Allied invasion of Kyushu and Honshu. The next day General Chernyakovsky initiated his own landings on the island of Hokkaido, and from that moment on until Japan finally gave its unconditional surrender nearly a year later the Red Army and the Western Allies were in a tight race to be the first to reach Tokyo. MacArthur was on the verge of winning that race when Shigemetsu, desperate to spare his country further needless bloodshed, capitulated to the Allies on May 7th, 1945, officially ending the Second World War.

The Soviets would maintain a substantial troop presence in Hokkaido until 1952, when Kirov would began scaling back the Red Armyís garrison there as part of the terms of Japanís surrender pact with the Allied powers. Also in 1952, Kirov initiated what would prove his most important legacy: the glasnost political reform movement that would do away with most of the restrictive laws and practices that had become part of Russian daily life under Lenin and Stalin. While the concept had been cautiously tested on a local scale in the late 1940s, it was after 1952 that the movement would  become a national phenomenon and gradually redraw the Russian political and social landscape.

In 1955, when long-simmering tensions between the Syngman Rhee and Kim Il Sung factions of the Korean government threatened to escalate into civil war, Kirov hosted a four-party summit with Rhee, Kim, and US president Dwight D. Eisenhower to negotiate a political compromise aimed at preserving the fragile unity that had existed in Korea since the countryís re-establishment as a sovereign state in 1947. The agreement which emerged from this summit came just in the nick of time for the Kirov government; by the time Rhee and Kim signed the pact, the once-cordial relationship between Kirov and his fellow Marxist head of state Mao Zedong of China had deteriorated into a very chilly estrangement and would soon become open enmity as Mao labeled Kirov a "corrupt deviationist" for his glasnost program and his abandonment of Leninís old belief that a winner-take-all showdown between the capitalist and Communist blocs was inevitable. Kirov in turn condemned Mao as a "maniac" and a possible threat to Russiaís Siberian frontier. In late 1955 and early 1956, there were several skirmishes between Chinese and Russian soldiers along this border, and only luck kept these skirmishes from mushrooming into a larger armed conflict.

The last vestiges of Stalinism in the Russian government were abolished in August of 1956 when Kirov formally ended the decades-old ban on opposition political parties that had been enacted by Lenin in the wake of the 1918-21 Russian civil war. The ban had in practice been largely ignored since 1953, but Kirovís official rescinding of it was the clearest sign yet that a permanent corner had been turned in Russian political life. Nationwide elections were held in 1957 to choose Russiaís first post-Communist premier; to the surprise of many observers both within and outside Russia Kirov opted not to be a candidate in those elections, choosing instead to support the candidacy of his chief political ally in the Kremlin, Nikita S. Khrushchev.

Yet even in retirement, Kirov continued to exert substantial influence on Russian political and social life. He was an unofficial consultant to Khrushchev on domestic policy matters until 1961 and also lectured extensively on political science at many of Russiaís most prestigious universities; his three-volume history of the Stalinist era, the final volume of which was just published last October, shed a sobering new light on the Stalin regimeís most brutal practices. When the last Russian troops were withdrawn from Hokkaido in August of 1957, Kirov worked with many of them to facilitate their re-integration into civilian life. In one of the Duma parliamentís first sessions following its revival in 1958, Kirov testified before a parliamentary subcommittee on the need to take a more proactive approach to dealing with alcoholism, long known to be one of Russiaís most serious chronic health problems.

In one of his final visits overseas before contracting the illness that eventually led to his death, Kirov met informally with President Kennedy at an industrial trade fair in Missouri in June of 1961; that meeting, better known as the "kitchen summit" because it took place in an exhibit dedicated to kitchen appliances, helped pave the way for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) approved by the UN General Assembly last May. The START pact, narrowly ratified by the US Congress last September, calls for a 60 percent reduction of the worldís combined total nuclear weapons inventory over the next decade and the elimination of such weapons by the year 2000.

Kirov is survived by his wife Natalya, four children, and two grandchildren. Former  Russian defense minister Mikhail Tukachevsky has been chosen to deliver the eulogy atKirovís memorial service. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson will represent the United  States among the foreign dignitaries attending the funeral.


The End


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