An unprecedented reign of terror raged across the Soviet Union between the fall of 1936 and the end of summer, 1938. However small or obscure, no corner of Soviet life went unnoticed and few remained untouched by arrests and executions. At one point, the NKVD chief in out-of-the-way Frunze, capital of Kirghizia, received orders to exterminate 10,000 "enemies of the people." In a small town near Novosibirsk, the NKVD had to kill a host of petty offenders to make up its quota of 500 executions. From Moscow and Leningrad to Vladivostok, and in all the cities and hamlets from Poland's eastern frontier to Siberia's Pacific Coast, Stalin's police took victims by the millions, killed an average of one in 10, and swept the rest into the vast archipelago of forced labor camps that stretched across the frozen wastes of northern Eurasia. All who had served in Lenin's Politburo except Stalin and Trotsky (who would be assassinated in 1940) perished, and so did most of the Old Bolsheviks who had endured so many hardships to bring their party to power in October, 1917, and carry it through the upheavals of civil war.
The Great Purge's arrests decimated the Soviet Union's senior officer corps including two-thirds of its marshals and 85% of its army commanders. Hundreds of thousands of party faithful, including all but 29 of the 139 of the Central Committee members and candidate members elected at the 17th Party Congress in 1934, disappeared into graves or labor camps before the end of 1938. A list of the purge's most prominent victims reads like an honor roll of Lenin's confidants and Bolshevik civil war heroes. Marshals Bliukher and Tukhachevskii both were there. So were Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin, all of them among Lenin's closest confidants at one time or another. As the Great Purge neared its end, it destroyed some of its own leading architects, most notably the NKVD chiefs Genrikh Iagoda and Nikolai Ezhov.
By the end of 1938, the Great Purge had eradicated every trace of opposition, dissent, criticism, or debate about Stalin's leadership, and Stalin, whose grip on the party and the Soviet Union had seemed less than certain at the time of the 17th Party Congress, stood as the undisputed dictator of the Soviet Union with greater power than any Russian czar since the time of Ivan the Terrible. So confident in his absolute power had Stalin become, according to some accounts, that he even warned Lenin's widow Krupskaia that the party would nominate another widow for Lenin if she continued to complain about the execution of her old comrades.
As Evgenia Ginzburg, who returned to tell the story of her life in the death camps on the Kolyma River, wrote in the first sentence of her memoirs, "the year 1937 (when the Great Purge took its greatest toll) began, to all intents and purposes, at the end of 1934--to be exact, on the first of December." On that date, at 4:30 p.m,. Sergei Mironovich Kirov, age 48, secretary of the Leningrad and Central committees of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik), an ardent disciple of Lenin since age 18 and the model of a hard-line, hard-headed Bolshevik, had been murdered as he walked toward his office on the third floor of the headquarters of the Leningrad Soviet.
For some reason, Kirov's bodyguard had remained on the street below, and the hard-eyed NKVD guards who usually patrolled each floor of the building had been strangely absent that afternoon. It therefore had been a simple matter for Leonid Nikolaev, a darkly embittered man, unbalanced and dissatisfied with life, to limp from the men's washroom (he had a deformed leg) and fire a single shot from a Nagant army service revolver into the back of his victim's neck. Within weeks, the investigation into Kirov's murder escalated into the Great Purge that, with unprecedented fury, swept more than 8 million men, women and children into its net before it reached its end.
The story of Kirov's murder and its aftermath thus is easily and simply told. It is certain (and has been since the day of the crime) that Nikolaev was Kirov's killer. And it has been nearly as certain that he acted out of purely personal motives. What are infinitely more complex, and what have always been shrouded in the darkest mystery, are the sinister motivations that lay behind the strange combination of circumstances that allowed Nikolaev to do his deed. Or, as Conquest puts it, "who gave him his chance, and why?"