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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin's Greatest Murder

Books with titles ending in question marks nearly always beg a second question: Who cares? In the case of Amy Knight's captivating "Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery," the second question doesn't linger beyond the first few dozen pages.

Knight has a keen eye for the telling detail, an unobtrusive prose style and, above all, access to long-closed Soviet archives. Assuming little on the reader's part, she takes pains to flesh out the character of Sergei Mironovich Kirov, who, at the time of his death from a shot at close range on Dec. 1, 1934, was the Leningrad Communist Party boss and Stalin's frequent companion. Just 48 when he died, Kirov was also an exceptionally popular politician, graced with warmth and charisma. Unlike Stalin, Kirov spoke Russian skillfully and as a native.

Leonid Nikolayev, a disaffected, hapless young Communist, was charged with Kirov's murder. Caught at the scene of the crime, the hallway outside Kirov's office in Leningrad's Smolny Institute, he quickly confessed and was subsequently executed. Almost immediately afterward, the Party catapulted Kirov into martyrdom. It was a status that had less to do with the stature of the man than with Stalin's need for a device to launch the first wave of political arrests, trials and repressions. The crime was significant not so much for the life it ended as for the Great Terror it began.

With an infectious enthusiasm that sustains the reader through her meticulous examination of the conflicting accounts of the murder, Knight slowly, deliberately points her finger at Stalin. Most significantly, the methods used by Stalin and his henchmen in the Kirov murder (Nikolayev was caught at the scene with the weapon and a written plan of his intentions) formed the template for countless other political killings to come, and Knight is quick to point out their brazen absurdities.

Knight's evidence against Stalin, however, is still circumstantial. The motive ascribed to Stalin is still the traditional one: Kirov was a rival who had to be eliminated.

Much of the value of this book is to be found in its more mundane aspects. Knight traces Kirov's rise from a waffling provincial Bolshevik with a weakness for Mensheviks to an iron-willed defender of the faith who could be counted on to toe Stalin's line in Russia's second city. Knight's affection for her subject peeks through as she describes Kirov's long hours and loneliness in Leningrad, where Stalin sent him to crush support for his opponent, Grigory Zinoviev. Arriving in sophisticated Leningrad in 1926 from grimy Baku, Kirov was set upon by the Zinovievites, who "sneered at him, referring to him as 'pockmarked, with bad teeth,' as 'one who smokes cheap tobacco and wears a coat made of coarse cloth.'" Kirov counterattacked with a ruthlessness that won the day but cost him his health, and he rapidly rose to national prominence.

Kirov's life and death is a good story in itself and Knight, who has written extensively about the KGB, tells it well. But perhaps the most significant dimension to this whole episode of Soviet history is the clear moral line that was crossed with the killing: the total cynicism of the act, the Party's willingness to devour a favorite son and the absolute perversion of the truth. Kirov's murder and the widespread suspicion that Stalin was behind it laid bare the profound divergence between the Soviet state's words and deeds.

Toward the end of the book Knight offers her most eloquent answer to the unasked "Who cares?" by reminding us of the price to the world of the silence of Stalin's opponents among the Party leadership, men who themselves would later perish in the Great Terror. "What is so significant about the Kirov case," she writes, "is not just the compelling evidence pointing to Stalin's complicity in the murder but the fact that this evidence was ignored."

"Who Killed Kirov? The Kremlin's Greatest Mystery," by Amy Knight. 331 pages. Hill & Wang. $26.

Frank Brown is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.