The Murder of Kirov Stalin immediately claimed that the murder of Kirov was part of a plot to overthrow him and the rule of the Communist Party. The plot was apparently organised by a ‘Leningrad Opposition Centre’, with links to Trotsky’s Left Opposition and the United Opposition. The NKVD (secret police) headed by Genrihk Yagoda was given the power to arrest, trial and execute anyone considered a ‘terrorist’.
After the murder Stalin used Kirov’s murder on 1 st December 1934 as a pretext and justification for the Great Terror which took place over the next four years. The murder was seen as evidence of a widespread conspiracy and needed to be rooted out. Within a few weeks, there was a extensive purge of the Leningrad party, Kirov’s power base. A ‘Leningrad centre’ plotting terrorist acts against the state was ‘uncovered’. Thousand more were shot and arrested, accused of being Trotskyites involved in the murder plot. Kamenev and Zinoviev were arrested and put on trial in January 1935. They were imprisoned despite the fact there was no direct evidence.
After the murder At this point Stalin is said to have found out about communications between Trotsky and members of opposition groups in the party. He retaliated by sending out a Central Committee circular in June 1936 on the ‘terrorist activities of the Trotskyist counter-revolutionary bloc’. In it Stalin called for any ‘enemy of the people’ to be unmasked. This was a vague term which could be applied to anybody. Being identified as an enemy of the people meant arrest and imprisonment.
The First Show Trial – August 1936 Often called ‘trial of the sixteen’. The NKVD claimed to have uncovered a Trotskyist- Zinovievist counter-revolutionary conspiracy. Zinoviev and Kamenev were pulled out of prison and put on trial in the full glare of the public, along with 14 others. Show trials were elaborately staged events in which the state prosecutor, Vyshinsky, proved the accused guilty of spying for foreign powers as well as being involved in Kirov’s murder.
The First Show Trial – August 1936 The NKVD used sleep deprivation, continued questioning and beatings to force the victims to ‘confess’ to any crime they had been accused of. Their families were often threatened so victims had to tell the truth. The accused confessed and were executed the next day. Zinoviev apparently became so hysterical that his executioner panicked and shot him in a cell. The trial of the sixteen was the first time people of the Central Committee had been executed. A line had now been crossed.
The Second Show Trial – January 1937 In Jan 1937, 17 communist leaders including Karl Radek (Trotskyite) and Pyatakov (deputy of heavy industry) were accused of plotting with Trotsky to carry out assassinations, sabotage of industry and spying. All confessed, were found guilty and 13 were sentenced to death. Immediately after the trial, Nikolai Ezhov, the new head of the NKVD, accused Bukharin of having known of Trotsky’s ‘plans’. He was arrested.
The Third Show Trial – March 1938 The trial of the 21 was biggest and last of the show trials. It was the most dramatic because it involved Bukharin and he was able to make a more spirited defence. Bukharin and 20 others including old Bolsheviks like Rykov and the old head of the NKVD – Yagoda – were accused of membership of a ‘Trotskyist-Rightist Bloc’. In the end, they all confessed their crimes and were sentenced to execution.
Why did they confess? The show trials were clearly a grotesque sham although many inside and some outside the USSR believed them. Evidence was clearly faked. One of the hotels the conspirators were supposed to have met at did not even exist! So why did tough old Bolsheviks confess? Worn down by torture and interrogation? Confessed as part of a deal for their families to be spared?