Dmitry Shostakovich – a summary

A child prodigy, Dmitry Shostakovich, born 25 September 1906, completed the first of his fifteen symphonies at the age of nineteen. During the early years of Stalin’s rule, he and fellow artists enjoyed a period of creative freedom but Stalin brought this period to an abrupt end in 1932 when all forms of avant-garde creativity were banned.

Muddle Not Music

Dmitry ShostakovichIt was in 1932 that Shostakovich’s second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District, was first performed to gushing reviews. It survived for four years enjoying unqualified success until, approaching the height of the Great Terror, in 1936, Stalin decided to attend a performance. (1936 was a difficult year for Shostakovich’s family – both his brother-in-law and mother-in-law were arrested that year). Shostakovich was in the audience and from the corner of his eye, watched in horror at the expressions of distaste on the dictator’s face. Obliged to take a bow at the end of the performance, Shostakovich looked ‘as white as a sheet’.

Within days, a review appeared in Pravda entitled ‘Muddle Not Music’, widely believed to have been penned by Stalin himself: ‘Snatches of melody, the beginnings of a musical phrase, are drowned, emerge again, and disappear in a grinding and squealing roar. To follow this “music” is most difficult; to remember it, impossible.’ (Click for the full text of the Muddle Not Music review).

The opera was immediately withdrawn and reassessed. The authors of rave reviews now rushed to publish revised reviews condemning the work and apologising for failing to see its inadequacies first time round. Shostakovich’s fall from grace was spectacular. With his works banned and labelled as an enemy of the people, he fully expected to be arrested at any moment and reportedly slept fully clothed with a packed suitcase at hand.

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900 Days: the Myth and Reality of the Leningrad Blockade

Four years in the making, Jessica Gorter’s film, 900 Days: the Myth and Reality of the Leningrad Blockade, considers how the Siege of Leningrad was acknowledged in the Soviet Union during the post-war years and how, seventy years on, it’s remembered by those who lived through it.

Over twenty-nine months, between 1941 and 1944, German forces encircled the city of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and subjected it to a devastating siege. The number of deaths in Leningrad during the war exceeds those who died from the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and constitutes the largest death toll ever recorded in a single city.

Hero City

For almost nine hundred days, the city resisted the Germans pounding at its gates. Its survival contributed to the defeat of Nazism. But the price was heavy – over one million died in Leningrad from German bombs and artillery, or from disease, the cold or starvation.

In its suffering Leningrad became a source of symbolic national pride, of good conquering evil. The story of the siege is one of heroic resistance and stoical survival but it also one of unimaginable suffering and extreme deprivation.

In the immediate aftermath of the siege, Leningrad, awarded the Order of Lenin, was held up as the pinnacle of Soviet endurance, spirit and heroic suffering. It was given the accolade, ‘Hero City’, which not even Moscow had achieved. The one million that died, did so nobly – ‘on the altar of the Motherland’. Those who had survived were awarded the Defence of Leningrad Medal.

Yes, the city had suffered but that it survived was a testament to the political strength of its people and their belief in Communism which had triumphed over Hitler’s fascist hoards. At least that’s the version perpetuated by Joseph Stalin. Leningrad’s torment became a banner for propaganda.

But there is nothing noble about death in such circumstances, nothing ideological about the city’s survival. The real stories that emerged from the siege had to be repressed. No one dared write or mention aloud the darkest aspects of the siege. Any mention of cannibalism was taboo. Diaries too explicit in the truth were confiscated, their authors labelled enemies of the people. A museum dedicated to the siege, opened in 1946, was deemed too bleak in its honest portrayal of what happened and was closed within three years, its director arrested. Stalin required suffering on a heroic scale, not the sordid, pitying suffering endured by so many for so long.

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Vera Inber – Leningrad Siege

Born 10 July 1890, Vera Inber was a Soviet poet and writer whose greatest legacy, Leningrad Diary, described daily the sufferings and deprivations suffered by the city during the 900-day siege of 1941 – 1944.

Vera Inber’s father, owner of a publishing house, was an older cousin to the future Bolshevik revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. As a nine-year-old, Trotsky lived in the Inber’s Odessa household at the time Vera was still a baby.

Inber worked as a journalist and lived in Paris and Switzerland before returning to the Soviet Union, first to Odessa and eventually settling in Moscow.

In 1941, with the outbreak of the Second World War in the Soviet Union, Inber joined the Communist Party. Together with her husband, Inber lived in Leningrad and recorded what she witnessed in a diary, published in 1946. In it, she wrote of the daily suffering of herself and people she saw around her. She described the hunger, the cold, and the struggle to survive. Inber, herself, came close to dying from starvation.

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Georgy Zhukov – a summary

Georgy Zhukov achieved fame as perhaps the most successful Soviet military commander of the Second World War. In the post-war Victory Parade in Moscow’s Red Square, Zhukov stole the show, inspecting the troops mounted on a white stallion. Adored by the public and respected by international opinion, Zhukov’s position was always going to be vulnerable given Stalin’s innate jealousy. Sure enough, in 1946, Zhukov, heavily criticised for being ‘politically unreliable’, was dismissed and dispatched to a position of diminished responsibility in Odessa. On arrival, he suffered a heart attack, probably brought on by the stress of his ordeal.

Known for his uncompromising discipline, Georgy Zhukov placed strategic objective far above the safety of the men he put into battle. Yet, despite his toughness, he could be rendered a wreck by a single harsh word from Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. During the early days of the war, he was once reduced to tears by an angry Stalin and had to take the handkerchief offered by Vyacheslav Molotov.

Zhukov first saw action during the First World War, where, renowned for his bravery, he was twice decorated. He then fought with the Red Army against the Whites during the Russian Civil War of 1917-23 and quickly rose through the ranks. He survived Stalin’s great 1930s purge of the military to command an army during the Soviet-Japanese Border Wars of 1938-39.

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Karl Eliasberg – a summary

In August 1942, Karl Eliasberg conducted a symphony, Shostakovich’s Seventh, in what must rate as the most gruelling concert ever given – for it took place in the city of Leningrad, a city surrounded by Germans and in the midst of a devastating siege which was to last almost 900 days.

Throughout his life, Karl Eliasberg had to be content with second place. From 1937 to 1950 he was the musical director and conductor for the Leningrad Radio Orchestra (LRO), the city’s second orchestra behind the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Yevgeny Mravinsky, one of the top conductors of the Soviet era. Mravinsky, considered by Dmitry Shostakovich as his favourite conductor, staged the première of the composer’s fifth symphony. At the start of the Leningrad Siege, Mravinsky and the LPO were evacuated to Siberia where they were to play over 500 concerts and 200 radio broadcasts. Eliasberg and the LRO however were left in the city playing only the occasional concert until the performances ceased altogether.

The Leningrad Symphony

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Andrei Zhdanov

Born 26 February 1896, Andrei Zhdanov was typical of Joseph Stalin’s inner circle – mendacious, ruthless, indifferent to the fortunes of the ordinary citizen, but, answerable only to Stalin, utterly fearful lest he should ever fall out of favour. For this, in common with all members of the sycophant Politburo, Zhdanov put the interests of Stalin ahead of all else.

The Yugoslav writer, Milovan Djilas, described Zhdanov as ‘rather short, with a brownish clipped moustache, a high forehead, pointed noise and a sickly, red face’.

The ‘Zhdanov Doctrine’

Andrei ZhdanovSpeaking at the inaugural Union of Writers Congress in 1934, Zhdanov emphasised the need for Soviet writing to adhere to the strict guidelines of socialist realism, a form of realist art that depicted Stalin’s Soviet Union in a positive, utopian manner. From this, and under Stalin’s guidance, Zhdanov formulated a policy for the straitjacketing of the arts within the Soviet Union. The ‘Zhdanov Doctrine’ dictated that all forms of cultural expression, from science and philosophy to music and cinema, had to strictly adhere to state control and reject all forms of Western influence or ‘cosmopolitanism’.

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Kliment Voroshilov – Defender of Leningrad

During the 900-day siege of Leningrad, the man initially charged with the city’s defence was one of Stalin’s old favourites, Kliment Voroshilov, born 4 February 1881. Rupert Colley summarises his efforts.

During the Second World War, the city Leningrad (modern-day St Petersburg) was in the midst of a devastating 900-day blockade that lasted from September 1941 until January 1944. The German army had laid siege to the city, bombarded it and cut off all supplies in its attempt to ‘wipe it off the map’, as Hitler had ordered.

The men in charge of the defence of Leningrad were Andrey Zhdanov and 60-year-old Kliment Voroshilov, one of Stalin’s old favourites. During the Russian Civil War, Voroshilov, working closely with Stalin, had gained a reputation for his fierce defence of Tsaritsyn (renamed Stalingrad in 1925).

Utterly reliable 

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The Leningrad Symphony – a summary

The Leningrad Symphony. Poised with his baton, the conductor pauses a moment. His orchestra, instruments at the ready, watch him. Somewhere in the audience, someone coughs. The conductor waits for absolute silence knowing that this is the biggest occasion of his life. Finally, he brings the baton down with a whoosh and starts the performance.

But this is no ordinary conductor, no ordinary orchestra and no ordinary audience. They were all on the verge of death, suffering from the advanced stages of starvation. To hold, let alone play, an instrument for over an hour took every ounce of their strength. But the music they played that night was proof of their spirit and that ultimately their city would survive.

The city was Leningrad; the music was Dmitry Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, nicknamed the Leningrad, and on 9 August 1942, it saw its Leningrad premier at the height of the most devastating siege of modern times.

A year earlier, Dmitry Shostakovich (pictured), made a radio announcement in which he said, ‘An hour ago, I completed the score of two movements of my new, large symphonic work.’ This new work was his Seventh Symphony, later to be called the Leningrad.

The siege of Leningrad had just started; it was to last 872 days, or twenty-nine months. Hitler had declared his intention to ‘wipe the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth’. Over a million civilians and soldiers would die – the number of deaths in Leningrad exceeds those who died from the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and constitutes the largest death toll ever recorded in a single city.

‘Now I am ready to take up arms’

The city authorities had tried to make Shostakovich leave but, loyal to the city, he stayed, working on his composition and volunteering for the People’s Army, stating, ‘Until now I have known only peaceful work. But now I am ready to take up arms.’ But his good intentions were dashed by the military – rejected because of his poor eyesight. But he was allowed instead to take his turn on fire warden duty. The American magazine, Time featured the composer on its cover, wearing a golden helmet and holding a fireman’s nozzle, with the caption, ‘Fireman Shostakovich’. Eventually, he was ordered to leave. On 1 October, with his wife and children and the manuscript of his score stuffed in his suitcase, he bid farewell to the city of his birth. While he was gone, his dog was eaten.

Evacuated to the town of Kuibyshev (modern-day Samara), 900 miles south-east of Leningrad, Shostakovich worked feverishly on the symphony while producing short works to entertain the troops on the frontline, tunes with catchy titles, such as The Fearless Guards Regiment is on the Move. By the end of the year, the symphony was done. Dedicated to ‘our struggle against fascism, to our coming victory and to my native city of Leningrad’, it received its world première, broadcast to the nation, in Kuibyshev on 5 March 1942, followed by a performance in Moscow three weeks later.

A microfilm of the score was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and flown to Teheran and from there to Europe, where conductors fought for the privilege of conducting the work. It was performed first in London, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, then in New York on 19 July, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The symphony was an immediate hit and Shostakovich’s face appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world.

The Symphony Comes to Leningrad

Then came the decision to play the Leningrad Symphony in Leningrad itself. It would be, according to Andrey Zhdanov (pictured), Stalin’s man in Leningrad, good for the city’s morale. A Soviet plane, dodging the German guns, delivered the score to Zhdanov. The city’s principle orchestra, the Philharmonic, had already been evacuated out of the city but the reserve orchestra, the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, was still available. Its conductor, 42-year-old Karl Eliasberg, was charged with reassembling his musicians. But of its 100 members, only 14 remained. The others had all died or been killed. Replacements had to be found. The call went out urging soldiers who could play an instrument to report for duty.

The score, complex and mammoth, was 75 minutes long and involved a 90-piece orchestra. Given the weakness of the musicians who had gathered for the first rehearsal in March 1942, Eliasberg knew the difficulty of the task that lay ahead. ‘Dear friends,’ he began, ‘we are weak but we must force ourselves to start work.’

And it was hard work – despite extra rations, many, especially the brass players, passed out with the effort of playing their instruments. Eliasberg was tough on his players – those who played badly or, worse, failed to turn up for the three-hour long rehearsals, were docked a bread ration. Through discipline and coaxing, Eliasberg got his skeletal orchestra to perform Shostakovich’s huge work. But only once during rehearsals did the orchestra have enough strength to play the whole work throughout – three days before the big day.

The date for the performance was fixed – 9 August 1942, the date set by the Nazis for a huge party in Leningrad’s Astoria hotel to celebrate their anticipated capture of the city. The invitations had already been printed. They were never sent out.

The Leningrad Première

The Philharmonic Hall was packed – people came in their finest clothes; city leaders and generals took their places. The musicians, despite the warm August temperature, wore coats and mittens – when the body is starving, it is continually cold. Outside, throughout the city, people gathered to listen at loudspeakers. Hours earlier, Leonid Govorov, Leningrad’s military commander since April 1942, ordered a barrage of artillery onto the German lines to ensure their silence for long enough time for the work to be performed without interruption. Loudspeakers, on full volume, pointed in the direction of the Germans – the city wanted the enemy to hear.

‘This performance,’ announced Eliasberg in a pre-recorded introduction, ‘is witness to our spirit, our courage and readiness to fight. Listen, Comrades!’ And the city listened, as did the Germans nearby. They listened as the city of Leningrad reasserted its moral self.

At the end – silence. Then came the applause, a thunderous applause that lasted over an hour. People cheered and cried. They knew they had witnessed a momentous occasion. It was, as Eliasberg described later, the moment ‘we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine.’ Later, Eliasberg and his orchestra were invited to a reception hosted by Zhdanov where, laid out before them, was a huge banquet. They gorged themselves, only to be sick soon afterwards.

Years after the war, Eliasberg met some Germans who had been sitting encamped in their trenches outside the city. On hearing the music, they told the conductor, they had burst into tears, ‘Who are we bombing?’ they asked themselves, ‘We will never be able to take Leningrad because the people here are selfless.’

Rupert ColleyMBtE - NG

Read more about the siege in The Siege of Leningrad: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats only 99p / $1.99, and audio.

Join our mailing list and claim a FREE copy of Rupert’s novel, My Brother the Enemy.

Leningrad – the novel: Prologue

Prologue: 1 December 1934

As a bodyguard, Dmitry Borisov spent much of his life afraid. But right now, he was terrified.

Volovich, the interrogator, loomed above him, his bald plate and small round glasses reflecting the naked light bulb. Volovich leant on the wooden table; his fingers arched, and had the look of a man about to spit. Borisov could smell the man’s hate, and taste his own fear-induced sweat that glued him to his chair. He gripped his thighs, his palms hot with sweat, his legs twitching. His white shirt, freshly ironed that morning by his wife, clung to his fleshly contours, congealed with his own blood. Within this tiny room, without windows, dark beyond the immediate glare of the light bulb, he had survived the first round of punches but still his ears buzzed, his lips throbbed, and his eye sockets ached; his whole head was a mass of pain.

‘You’ll die for this,’ said Volovich, his mouth barely moving. ‘How old are you anyway?’

‘Fifty-four.’

‘Fifty-four? What sort of age is that for a bodyguard? Wouldn’t matter so much if you were fit but look at you – overweight, podgy and sweaty. God, you stink. My ten-year-old would make a better bodyguard than you, you fat oaf.’ The last word spat at him.

‘Yes, comrade.’ Borisov didn’t need telling; he’d long wanted to take a backseat role, but Kirov, the Boss, had insisted. The Boss didn’t like all the protection and would have done away with it entirely but as he had no choice he stuck to his old faithfuls, and Borisov was one of them.

‘Comrade Stalin’s on his way to Leningrad.’

‘Is he?’ The slap, with the outside of the fist, struck Borisov across the jaw.

‘Think I’m making it up?’ yelled Volovich.

‘No, sorry, comrade, I didn’t mean –’

‘Shut up, you pig.’ His screaming voice bounced off the walls. ‘Now chances are Stalin will want to interview you himself. What an honour, eh? And thank your lucky stars because it’s about the only thing from stopping me putting a bullet right through your neck this minute. Understand?’

Borisov felt the loosening of his bowels. It wasn’t so much Volovich’s threat but the thought of being face-to-face with the great Stalin that reduced him to such a base level of fear.

‘Now listen, Borisov,’ said Volovich, adopting almost a civil tone, ‘he’s going to ask you the same questions as me, so tell me again, why did you let Kirov get out of your sight?’

‘I told you – it was Aleksandrov.’

‘Tell me again.’

‘Aleksandrov was at the gate. He detained me with questions about the Boss’s whereabouts that night. But I’ve told you, comrade, he should have known already.’

‘So, you’re saying that Kirov, the second most important man in the whole damn country, who answers only to Stalin, whose protection was your responsibility, had to play second fiddle to an idiot like Aleksandrov.’

‘It was only a matter of a few seconds.’

‘Long enough.’ Volovich sat down and looked at his watch. Borisov dearly wanted to know the time but it was pointless asking. Part of the process, he knew, was to disorientate you to the point of confusion. Night, day, it all lost meaning in a place like this.

‘Right,’ said Volovich, ‘let’s start again. From the beginning, you understand?’

‘Yes, comrade.’

‘The truth. Don’t bloody mess with me; you’re as good as dead anyway so lying’s not going to save your skin. But your grandchildren, eh?, for their sake be careful what you say.’

The thought of Maria and the boys being dragged into this quagmire twisted his gut. It was too much too bear. He’d die easily if he could ensure their safety but in this country of barbarians nothing could be certain. And so he started again, telling Volovich the sequence of events that had occurred only a few hours earlier but already seemed like a distant historical act. He’d been there, at the centre of it, the event that dragged Stalin out of the Kremlin, and would drag the country to its knees in an orgy of medieval-like bloodletting. They were to call it the Crime of the Century. Everyone knew where they were when they heard that Sergei Kirov, Stalin’s number two, had been shot. And for that one life, a million others would be taken in reprisal. Each one of them complicit in some way for Kirov’s death. At least, that’s how their Leader saw it. And all because Borisov had allowed Kirov to wander off by himself for a few seconds.

We’d had a couple of death threats recently but Kirov, the Boss, takes it in his stride, says it comes with the job. I love him dearly, as a brother, but for one so clever he never considers that these threats concern my well-being too. Every time we step outside, my heartbeat speeds up, my senses are on full alert. Inside my jacket, the holster with my revolver, a Makarov 4.3, pressing heavily against my chest. Twice recently we’ve caught some lunatic lurking round with a gun in his pocket, but both times they let him off. I think they’re mad and told them so, but they don’t listen to me, they think I should be pensioned off. It’s true; I’m too old for this malarkey. Bodyguarding is a young man’s profession, not for an old bod like me. But it’s the prestige, you know. After all, Kirov answers to no one. But Stalin.

We’re in his car now, just gone four o’clock, December 1st, winding through the snowbound streets of Leningrad, from his apartment to his office at the Smolny Institute, an old girlschool, a lovely eighteenth century building. The car is American, a Cadillac, walnut dashboard, leather seats, a twelve-cylinder engine that positively purrs. Ershov is driving, his black gloves gliding over the steering wheel. People outside in their drab clothes, trudging through the snow, stop and stare as we sail by. I sit in the back with Kirov, dressed in my black suit and starched white shirt. We do not speak, we rarely do, there is much that preys on his mind. The business of state is a heavy burden. Tonight, he’s delivering a speech to the Leningrad Party, and he’s expecting a hard time of it.

Things haven’t been going well for Kirov of late. I feel his tension; the atmosphere in the car is heavy. Ershov glides the car into the grounds of the Smolny and slows to a halt in front of the main entrance. I dive out, keen to open Kirov’s door for him, as is my duty, but as always he’s out before I can circle round the car and reach it. Kirov is tall, dark-haired, forty-eight and good-looking. But recently the worries of office have carved lines into his face and his eyes have lost much of their sparkle. Today he does not thank me but strides ahead towards the entrance, briefcase in hand. I walk directly behind him, scanning left and right, a glance behind, aware of where my revolver lies.

At the entrance, four NKVD guards in long overcoats emerge from their cabin. Among them is Aleksandrov, who I know of old but only professionally. Thin man, long nose, unpleasant manner. Kirov flashes his card though they know full well who he is. Lifting the barrier, they salute as he passes. I follow. But as Kirov starts up the stairs, Aleksandrov tugs at my sleeve and with a flick of his head beckons me aside. From within the cabin drifts the smell of coffee. When I try to say I should be sticking with the Boss, he cuts me short, ‘He’ll be all right in here.’ Of course, we’re within a building guarded by the likes of Aleksandrov. ‘What’s happening tonight?’ he asks, ‘we haven’t been told.’

‘Hasn’t the office rung?’

‘No. That’s why I’m asking.’

Kirov was out of sight now, his footsteps heavy on the stairway. ‘He’s delivering a speech to the Party at the Tavride at eight.’

‘Eight? So he’s heading off from here at…?’ He’s writing this down in a pad.

‘Seven-fifteen.’

‘Great,’ he says, snapping shut the pad, ‘as long as we know where we are.’

He’s detained me no more than thirty seconds. At the most. But on such things the wheels of history turn. I quickly climb the stairs, but the Boss is still out of sight, heading for his office on the third floor. I’d run but I’m not so fit these days. The stairway is dark and dank. The thought crosses my mind, why didn’t the office phone through with Kirov’s itinerary? Unusually slack of them. Must remember to complain next time I’m there.

Top of the stairs and I’m out of breath, for sure. Turn right into the third-floor corridor. Kirov’s ahead of me about to turn left, round the corner, heading towards his office. But who’s that man? From what office did he emerge? I can only see his back, probably one of the cleaners. Kirov turns the corner, the man follows. But cleaners don’t come at this time. With a stab my heart lunges. I start to jog, wishing I could go faster. A bang; I heard a bang. Was it a gunshot? My brain can’t accommodate the prospect. I’ve never run so fast, my mind devoid of all thought. A second shot echoes through the corridors. Now I know for sure. I reach inside my jacket.

Turning the corner, gun at the ready, I brace myself. A fleeting plea to God flits through my mind. Too late. Two bodies on the floor. Kirov lies face down, his hand still clutching his briefcase. The other man not two feet away, a revolver in his hand. An office door opens and out piles numerous men in suits. On seeing Kirov prostate at their feet, they squeal, they shout. Behind me, I hear footsteps running – it’s Aleksandrov, his panicked voice adding to the melee.

Someone unclenches the man’s fist and removes the gun. It’s then I look at his face and a cold certainty runs down my back – I know this man, with his little weasely face and pointy features. This is the one who twice tried before, recently, twice caught with a gun in his possession, and twice inexplicably released without charge. Everyone’s yelling but making no sense. I feel faint. Something’s not right. Why had they released him? Another of the office workers takes Kirov’s wrist. Abruptly, everyone falls silent. Is there a pulse? There has to be a pulse, some sign of possibility. A shake of the head. No, there is no pulse – Kirov is dead. But still they call for an ambulance, for a doctor, a team of doctors, the best in the city. My knees tremble; they actually tremble.

I live in a society that never forgives. The fingers will point at me. Why was I not at his side? An understandable question. The Boss is dead; his life snubbed out, and now my own hangs by a thread.

A tiny cell. A light bulb, incredibly bright. Borisov sat on the wooden slab. No pillow, no covers, no blanket. No window either. A place without time. In the corner a bucket. He’d already pissed in it and been sick in it. How he wanted to phone his wife; tell her he was all right, however much a lie, but Volovich told him not a chance. She would have heard about Kirov by now, the whole world would have, and she’d be shitting herself with panic. She’d know too that if he went down, she’d soon follow as the wife of an enemy of the people.

It was so cold in the cell. The bastards had taken his coat and jacket and much else besides – his belt, shoelaces, shirt buttons, the lot. They’d stripped searched him too, grubby fingers pulling up his eyelids, poking in his ears, under his tongue and of course, the anus, his dignity vanishing with the bile he threw up.

He screwed his eyes shut, clamped his hands over his eyes but still the light penetrated. What sort of state was this to meet Stalin, having to hold his trousers up, no tie, dirty, stinking of puke. He’d demand a change of clothes and the chance to have a wash. This was Stalin, after all, a conversation with the Greatest Living Person. He’d tell Stalin the truth; one couldn’t lie to Stalin, and Stalin would listen, Stalin would understand, Stalin would hear the truth. Not like these idiots like Volovich who wouldn’t recognise the truth if it bit him. He’d tell Stalin that Aleksandrov held him up, that his men had let the assassin slip through. Borisov would say too, most importantly, that he’d seen the assassin before – twice the NKVD had caught him, twice they had let him go, despite his objections. Stalin would sympathise – how can a man do his job properly when hindered by incompetents. Stalin knew that – Stalin too was surrounded by imbeciles. Kirov had been the only one Stalin could properly rely on. Only Kirov could match Stalin’s eye for the truth. But for the rest of the Politburo, well, it was no state secret… And now Stalin stood alone.

But in Borisov, Stalin had a link, for they’d both loved Kirov, and no one else had that. Not Volovich and his questions and innuendo, nor any of the faceless Smolny staff standing over Kirov’s body, each thinking of his own skin and pointing at Borisov, pouncing on their scapegoat. A Great Man, a true Genius, has no use for scapegoats, because unlike others, Stalin can see straight through to the truth. And Stalin would thank him, would shake Borisov’s hand, and apologise for the indignities heaped upon him. This gnawing cold, this hunger and filth would soon be a thing of the past. And with Stalin’s blessing, Borisov and his good wife would retire to a small dacha in the country, where the grandchildren could visit, where they would forever remember Kirov and thank Stalin.

But how long would it take, how long to wait? He fixed his eyes on the door, willing it to open, to have a guard appear, beckoning him out, to announce that his date with destiny had arrived. But in the meantime he shivered. Running his fingers across the wooden bench, he longed to fall into a warm bed in a darkened room and be allowed to sleep, to fall into a long, delicious sleep.

The time had come. Time to meet Stalin. Two guards were escorting Borisov down corridors, dark and grey, up flights of stairs, one after another. He felt like a deep-sea swimmer coming up for air. Finally, in Volovich’s office, Borisov had to sign numerous forms without any necessity to read them. How airy and spacious the office seemed, so full of natural light and pleasant furniture and grand portraits. And all so clean and orderly. Volovich too appeared different: a bureaucrat now, freshly shaven, aftershave, clean fingernails. Not the interrogating brute of the night before.

‘Right,’ said Volovich, pushing all the papers together, ‘you’re going to be taken back to the Smolny, where you will be interviewed by Comrade Stalin.’

‘And after?’ Normally, he’d not dare ask such a question but already, from here, Borisov could feel Stalin’s embrace reaching out to protect him.

Volovich eyed him for a few moments and when he spoke, it was also in a different tone, one laced with a degree of respect, ‘That I don’t know, comrade.’ Note the use of the greeting ‘comrade’. ‘I have been given no further instructions.’

‘Could I make a request, comrade?’

‘What is it?’

‘As I am about to meet our Great Leader, may I be permitted a wash and a shave. Even a change of clothes.’

Again, it took Volovich a while to answer. ‘No,’ he said eventually, ‘that won’t be necessary.’ Then he turned his attention to the papers, placing them carefully into a folder, tying a string.

‘Come on, Volovich, I can’t see him in this state, surely you can see that.’

Volovich looked at him now, his eyes narrowing. Borisov knew then that something was wrong. ‘I’m sorry, Dmitry, there’s nothing I can do.’ If the use of ‘comrade’ had given Borisov confidence the familiar and unexpected use of his first name did nothing but induce a rising sense of panic.

Volovich’s features hardened as he picked up his phone, muttered the word ‘finished’ into it, and leant back in his chair. His duty, however unpleasant, was done. Straight away, the office door opened and in returned the two guards.

‘Volovich – please.’

‘Take him.’

Instantly, two pairs of solid hands had Borisov’s arms gripped. ‘Please, if you could just –’

‘Now.’

Pushed through the door, Borisov managed a final yell of Volovich’s name but a painful twist of his arm took his breath away. Volovich’s door closed. His time would come.

As they approached the exit, Borisov could smell the cold air, fresh and invigorating after his incarceration. It was morning. The light and the feel of the air told him so. What a relief to know the time, to even have a sense of it. With an almost mechanical clunk his body clock fell back into place. A warm sun reflected off the snow. He breathed in the freshness, trying unsuccessfully to push away the doubts that now clouded his heart. He had to forget Volovich and his conspiratorial expression, and these guards and their over-zealousness, and to believe only in Stalin. For Stalin would see him right.

‘Right, get in,’ said one of the guards, tightening his grip on Borisov’s now numb arm. Borisov hadn’t given any thought to what sort of transportation would take him to see Stalin but he would have thought a semi-decent car of some sort, not what stood in front of him now. A lorry?

‘In the back. Go on.’

The engine was already running. From within, a hand pushed the tarpaulin to one side, allowing Borisov to step up from the tailgate and into the back of the lorry. It was like another cell – dark and claustrophobic but with walls of canvas not dank stone. It stunk of rotting vegetables. ‘Sit down,’ said a gruff unseen voice. Sitting on a metal bench, the inside of the lorry slowly came into focus. Either side of him, two different NKVD guards, their faces undistinguishable in the dark. In the corner, a few rags, a blanket, and a crate.

From outside he could hear voices, a sharp exchange of angry words, then the shuffle of feet on compacted snow, the lorry doors opening on either side and slamming shut. With a slight jerk, the lorry moved, slowly making its way out of the NKVD courtyard and turning right into the street. The noise of the engine intensified as it picked up speed. Outside, the sound of traffic, people going about their business, momentarily re-assuring. A continual gust of cold air whistled through the back.

Borisov felt vulnerable, deep down he knew something was wrong. Why was he in a lorry, why was he being transported in such darkness. He wanted to ask but these faceless thugs cowed him into a frightened silence. Why would they use a lorry for someone about to be questioned by Stalin? Was there no other vehicle at their disposal? He thought of Stalin. The man was no less than a God, and Borisov knew his life depended on him. He longed now to see Stalin, for if he was in front of Stalin, within his presence, he’d feel safe. He’d tell Stalin the truth and Stalin could not help but be thankful to him. But first he had to get to Stalin. He feared the thugs either side of him more than the prospect of meeting Stalin. Stalin was, after all, a good man.

Borisov looked over at the guard to his left. He was holding a pole, a metallic shaft of some sort. He hadn’t noticed that before and on seeing a similar bar in the hands of the second guard made his stomach lurch. But both sat stock still, motionless in identical poses. What were those bars, what did they mean. Despite the whistling cold, a band of sweat formed on his forehead, his legs began to tremble.

From within the driver’s cab came a shriek, then a shout as the lorry lurched violently to the right, throwing the three men in the back against the tarpaulin sides and then back forward as the lorry seem to glance off an obstacle, perhaps a wall, with a crunch. Borisov lost balance and as the lorry righted itself, more shouts came from within the cab. Suddenly with another veer to the right, Borisov found himself upended on the floor, his hand reaching out for the crate for support. As he tried to regain his balance the first blow struck him on the back, cracking against his backbone. Even as the searing pain shocked him he believed it to be accidental.

The second blow split open a gaping cut across the side of his face. A third blow, a fourth. His eyes blinded by blood, choking violently, Borisov tried to stagger up, his thoughts full of Stalin. Just wait, he thought, to when Stalin hears about this, then they’d get their comeuppance. But even nearby Stalin could not save his from the final blow, as the NKVD guard brought down his bar with such force as to crack open Borisov’s skull.

Sergei Kirov – the assassination of Stalin’s right-hand man

One bullet that killed a million people. As the assassination of John F Kennedy is to the US, so the assassination, 29 years earlier, of Sergei Kirov, Stalin’s number two, was to the Soviet Union. Everyone in the Soviet Union remembered where they were when they heard of the assassination of Kirov. Millions would die as a direct consequence of that single bullet as Stalin sought to unmask the perpetrators.

Sergei Kirov, a dashing forty-seven-year-old and the rising star of the Bolshevik party, was killed on 1 December 1934 in a corridor outside his offices of the Smolny Institute in Leningrad. His assassin, 30-year-old Leonid Nikolaev, had acted alone. Kirov’s death threw the nation into a state of shock. Joseph Stalin, who rarely left the Kremlin, made an exception and caught the overnight train to Leningrad specifically to interview Nikolaev. Upon arriving in the city, Stalin was greeted by local secret police chief and slapped the man across the face.

On 29 December, Leonid Nikolaev was executed, soon followed by his wife (spuriously suspected of having had an affair with Kirov, thereby providing the motive), and his 85-year-old mother.

Stalin’s Purge

Nikolaev may have acted alone but Stalin insisted on the immediate arrest and execution of anyone who ever had the remotest connection to Nikolaev. The day following the assassination, Stalin introduced a new decree which considerably speeded-up the process of dealing with arrestees and further empowered the arresting organs by depriving defendants of either a defence or the right to appeal. It meant that those arrested were automatically deemed guilty and stood no chance against the weight of Soviet justice.

The hunt for conspirators had begun. From Leningrad, the net soon spread wider, across the whole country, and eventually millions were caught in Stalin’s mass purge.

The Unfortunate Elizabeth Lermolo

Let us take, for example, the unfortunate Elizabeth Lermolo. Once part of the crème of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg society, Elizabeth was a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty keenly sought by the young and fashionable men of her ilk. In Tolstoyian drawing rooms the beautiful Elizabeth danced and flirted through her youth; gregarious, giggly, and always the centre of attention. It was to one lucky Georgiv Lermolo to whom her devotion fell, and Georgiv, a dashing Lieutenant in the Tsar’s cavalry, thought himself the luckiest man in all St Petersburg.

They married soon after their first meeting with full pomp and ceremony, as expected of their class, whilst the city workers looked on, seething with resentment and thirsting for proletariat revenge. The Lermolos and their ilk paid no heed to the shifting plates of early twentieth century Russian history, for soon after the blissful consummation of their marriage, the curtain fell on their dandy and frivolous lives. Georgiv was amongst the first to fall; pulled down from his horse whilst trying to restore order, a worker’s spade slicing through his neck.

Within two months, Elizabeth found herself living with many others in a small shack in a peasant village in the far northeast of Russia. Twenty-two years old, exiled and widowed but grateful still to be alive, she eked out an existence of sorts, for which she had much to thank a kindly and helpful neighbour, one Vika Nikolaev, aunt to the now infamous Leonid Vasilevich Nikolaev. Seventeen years later, and not yet forty but with a face of a woman double her age, Elizabeth’s old life seemed no more than a distant dream. Like so many others in late 1934, the net fell over her. Accused of being complicit in the plot to kill Kirov, Elizabeth Lermolo was tortured and brutalised to the point she envied Georgiv’s early exit from this barbarous, unjust world. The fulfilment of her wish was not long in coming.

Did Stalin Order Kirov’s Assassination?

The Seventeenth Party Congress, held in Moscow’s Kremlin between 26 January and 10 February 1934, had been hailed as the Congress of Victors, such was the Stalin’s self-delusional satisfaction at the successes achieved by collectivization and the first Five-Year Plan. Since dubbed the Congress of the Condemned, of its 1,996 delegates, 1,108 (56 per cent) would be arrested within three years and, of those, a third executed. The congress proved to be the highpoint in the career of Sergei Kirov. Kirov spoke gushingly of the party’s achievements: ‘Our successes are truly tremendous. The devil knows – to put it humanly, one wants just to live and live.’

Many within the party viewed Kirov as a potentially more humane and moderate party leader and several of them approached him during the congress urging him to stand against Stalin. Kirov refused to be drawn in and even made the fatal error of reporting the conversation to his boss.

On the last day of the Congress, voting delegates had their say on the composition of the new Central Committee. Delegates had to cross out the names of those they were voting against. Kirov attracted only three negative votes, while Stalin had at least one hundred and, according to some sources, up to 300. The voting slips were anonymous so Stalin had no idea who had voted against him but it amply fed his deep-rooted paranoia that he was surrounded by traitors.

So Stalin had plenty reason to be jealous of his young protege and would have been happy at his removal. He felt threatened by the younger man who was becoming increasingly popular, not just amongst the people but within the party itself. Over the decades the finger of accusation for Kirov’s murder has always pointed to Stalin. Certainly the circumstances surrounding Kirov’s death were suspect: the lack of bodyguards at the fatal moment, and Nikolaev’s ease of access to Kirov. Twice in the previous weeks, Nikolaev had been found hanging around the Smolny and found to be in possession of a revolver. But both times he was released without proper questioning. Kirov’s bodyguard, Borisov, who would have been a key witness, died the following day in a mysterious car accident while in the custody of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police.

What is sure is that the assassination was used by Stalin as the launchpad for the Great Terror and that Stalin’s hold on power became that much tighter following Kirov’s death, and was to remain so until his own death in 1953.

Rupert Colley

Kirov’s ageing bodyguard, Borisov, was immediately questioned following the assassination. Here is a fictionalised account of the interview with Borisov.

Learn more about Joseph Stalin in Stalin: History In An Hour by Rupert Colley, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats.