Killing the Russian, 1934 and 2016

Observers with a historical bent sought a proper framework for the Monday assassination of Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, in Ankara. I thought of the killing of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, which led to World War I:  The parallels were clear: Balkan-ish location, unknowable repercussions, regional conflicts inflamed.

The more I think about what happened, as murky as it is still, the more I cycle back to another December murder of a popular Russian (then Soviet) official who was also a victim of a mysterious collapse of security arrangements.

I’m referring to the December 1, 1934 murder of Leningrad Communist Party boss Sergei Kirov, which took place in Kirov’s office at the Smolny Institute. The usual tight Soviet security had vanished. Petty criminal Leonid Nikolayev had tried to kill Kirov before and didn’t even get his wrist slapped, According to Wikipedia (as succinct a discussion as I could find):

With Stalin’s approval, the NKVD had previously withdrawn all but four police bodyguards assigned to Kirov. These four guards accompanied Kirov each day to his offices at the Smolny Institute, and then left. On 1 December 1934, the usual guard post at the entrance to Kirov’s offices was left unmanned, even though the building served as the chief offices of the Leningrad party apparatus and as the seat of the local government. According to some reports, only a single friend, Commissar Borisov, and unarmed bodyguard of Kirov’s remained. Other sources[who?] state that there may have been as many as nine NKVD guards in the building. Whatever the case, given the circumstances of Kirov’s death, as former Soviet official and author Alexander Barmine noted, “the negligence of the NKVD in protecting such a high party official was without precedent in the Soviet Union.”

On the afternoon of 1 December, Nikolayev arrived at the Smolny Institute offices. Unopposed, he made his way to the third floor, where he waited in a hallway until Kirov and Borisov stepped into the corridor. Borisov appears to have stayed well behind Kirov, some 20 to 40 paces (some sources allege Borisov parted company with Kirov in order to prepare his luncheon). As Kirov turned a corner, passing Nikolayev, the latter drew his revolver and shot Kirov in the back of the neck.

The killing of the popular Kirov led to a wave of arrests and executions in the USSR as Joseph Stalin used it as a pretext for going after enemies. Did Stalin arrange for the murder of Kirov? That’s never been completely settled, despite massive research into the question.

Flash forward to 2016. How could the ambassador in a volatile country like Turkey be killed at an art opening? Where were the guards? A story from the Daily Beast touches on famil1ar themes of martyrdom, conspiracy and a widening circle of suspects:

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova issued a statement: “Terrorism will not pass! We will fight it resolutely. Memory of this outstanding Russian diplomat, a man who did so much to counter terrorism in his diplomatic line of work, Andrei Gennadyevich Karlov, will remain in our hearts forever.”

“We have questions for Turkey, that failed to provide security for a such a high-profile diplomat. I have no doubts that radical islamists moved the murder’s hand and it does not matter if they were from [ISIS] or from Jabhat al-Nusra Front,” Russian senator Franz Klinzewitsch said today, referring to the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria. “The purpose is clear: they wanted to pay a revenge to our country for Syria and at the same time to try and cause a forehead to forehead confrontation between Russia and Turkey.”

Meanwhile, pro-government journalists in Turkey are beginning to suggest that the assassin was affiliated with the Islamist movement of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is widely blamed in the country for orchestrating last July’s abortive coup. (He lives in the Poconos of Pennsylvania and Turkey is seeking his extradition from the United States.)

I have no idea where the Karlov killing will lead — a regrettable lone wolf, a conspiracy, justification for severe repercussions, heads rolling in the security services? A Putin ally, Senator Klinzewitsch mentioned above, is now talking about a NATO squad behind the hit, so another convenient target is emerging, beside the Islamist ones.

But whatever happens, we may get the sense we’ve been down this road before.