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Who Killed Kirov: The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery by Amy Knight

Review by: W.J. Rayment - The lessons of the past can guide our present and future. "Who Killed Kirov", by Amy Knight, is more than a history book, more than an engaging true crime story; it is an instruction manual describing what inevitably occurs in a totalitarian state driven by Marxist ideology.

Ms. Knight's book investigates the most sensational (and arguably most consequential) murder in Russian History, the merciless assassination of Sergei Kirov. She sets the stage by giving a short sketch of the Russian Revolution and of the life of Kirov. Kirov's story begins with an obscure lower class background. His father left home and his mother died early in his life. He may have been fated to live a hardscrabble existence if not for the assistance of caring patrons and the dint of his own hard labor and keen intellect. He graduated from higher education with an engineering degree. It was at this impressionable stage in his life that he was seduced by the lure of Marxism.

Today, as in those years, Marxism gains a grip on the minds of the young and the naive by imposing an impractical view of man on a practical world. Idealists call out the Marxist slogan, "To each according to his needs; from each according to his means." Yet they do not see that the implementation of a Marxist system can only lead to poverty and a loss of basic human freedoms. Ms. Knight seems to have no illusions about the Marxist system. Though her story reveals Kirov as a man trying to do the best he can for society, she also illustrates how his involvement in the communist system degrades his character and leads him to order the death and destruction of thousands of individuals.

Indeed, Kirov takes his part in the 1917 Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war. He works his way up in the party apparatus until he comes near the pinnacle of power. By the early 1930s he has become the head of the Leningrad (Petersburg or Petrograd) Communist Party. Because of the force of his personality and his pragmatic view of communism and market systems he becomes popular with the people and party members. Popularity can be dangerous in a totalitarian state when the dictator is Josef Stalin.

At this point, Ms. Knight, paints a clear and lucid picture of the political situation in the Soviet Union. Intrigue, in-fighting, and ideological differences are tearing at the seams of the Communist Party. Josef Stalin, a party of one, is out to destroy all political opposition, and in the communist state he has the means to do so. Having control of all the nation's resources, having a stern grip on all modes of communications (right down to censoring the mail), having one political party, puts Stalin in a strong position. Yet he is faced with his own unpopularity within the party and with the rising star of young Kirov.

The Kirov affair in Russia is in many ways like the Kennedy assassination in the U. S. Both incidents involve a "lone gunman". Both are plagued by conflicting testimony and forensic evidence. Both are shrouded in controversy. However, the Kirov assassination has a different dimension in that it was the trigger for the show trials, purges, concentration camps of the GULAG, and ultimately to the demise and degradation of millions of Russians, most of whom were tied in some way, by the secret police (NKVD, KGB or what have you), to the murder.

Ms. Knight, in "Who Killed Kirov", goes on to trace the documentary evidence that surrounds Kirov's death. It is a moment by moment revelation that reads like a suspense novel, but benefits from the fact that it is all documented history. While some of the evidence is contradictory, Ms. Knight expertly leads us through the material.

She does not purport to have definitive evidence of Stalin's involvement in the crime, yet she indicates conclusions supported by preponderance of evidence and circumstance. Did Stalin perpetrate the crime through the KGB because he feared Kirov? Did he intend to sensationalize the murder and use it as a means to destroy his political enemies? Ms. Knight adroitly addresses these questions.

"Who Killed Kirov" is instructive on many levels. It is a clear case study of how a communist state can and will corrupt the leadership of a society, devaluing human life for the cause of "social justice". It also illustrates what that state will do to the society itself, fostering labor camps, fear, and terror coupled with a loss of basic freedom and human compassion. "Who Killed Kirov" is a fascinating biography of a charismatic man. It is a mystery, and it is a thriller. Above all "Who Killed Kirov" is a well-researched, well-written work that shines the light of historical analysis one of the most important periods in world history. *****

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Also by Amy Knight: Beria: Stalin's First Lieutenant.

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