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Vladimir L.

Bobrov

The Mystery of Ordzhonikidze’s Death

In the summer of 2008 I participated in the filming of a television documentary titled


“Kremlin Funerals” (see NTV Saturdays at 2:05 p.m.). I don’t know how much, if indeed
any, of my interview will remain in the final version or what may be edited out of it. For
that reason I am publishing a slightly rewritten version of the remarks I made at the
television studio.

The Mystery of the Death of Sergo Ordzhonikidze

It is not easy to find an historian who has any doubts how G.K. “Sergo” Ordzhonikidze
died. I confess that like all the rest I also thought it had been established that G.K. had
committed suicide. All the same something did not add up; some sort of mystery still
remained.

Judge for yourself. In cases such as, for example, the suicide of the poet Vladimir
Mayakovski we have his suicide note; we have the pistol he was shot with. The bullet and
cartridge have also been found. We have Mayakovski’s bloody shirt with the bullet hole,
etc. Of course we also have the result of the autopsy and the files of the criminal
investigation into his suicide (about which there has in fact been some disagreement
among a few historians and scholars of literature during the past 20 years). But at least
there’s no doubt that Mayakovski’s death was not by natural causes but was due to a
pistol shot, whoever may have done the shooting.

In the case of Ordzhonikidze’s “suicide” matters are quite different. No one saw any
suicide note (and it is possible that there never was one). The presence of a firearm at the
scene has never been established. Nor is there any evidence concerning the type of
firearm (hunting rifle? pistol?) from which the shot was fired. We have no information
about bullet or cartridge, nor any bloody shirt or bullet-riddled jacket. There is no
evidence at all and, without evidence, it is impossible to say whether Ordzhonikidze did
in fact die of a gunshot wound.

Exhumation cannot help us here, for Ordzhonikidze’s body was cremated and entombed
with ceremony in the Kremlin wall.

The first official version of his death is the autopsy in the February 19, 1937 issue of
Izvestiia.1

No one today believes the official medical conclusion: “death from heart failure
(paralich serdtsa)”. All historians today speak of a violent death, mostly of suicide.
Bobrov, The Mystery of Ordzhonikidze’s Death, p. 2 of 9

Let us try to get to the bottom of this mystery.

A second “official version” was publicized at the 20th Party Congress of the CPSU in
Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech.”

Beria also handled cruelly the family of Comrade Ordzhonikidze. Why?


Because Ordzhonikidze had tried to prevent Beria from realizing his
shameful plans. Beria had cleared from his way all persons who could
possibly interfere with him. Ordzhonikidze was always an opponent of
Beria, which he told to Stalin. Instead of examining this affair and taking
appropriate steps, Stalin allowed the liquidation of Ordzhonikidze's
brother and brought Ordzhonikidze himself to such a state that he was
forced to shoot himself.2

We will set Beria aside here; pausing only to note that during the years of the “Thaw”
Khrushchev never missed a chance to blacken the name of his former Party comrade.

We are interested in a different question: From where did Khrushchev get his information
about the mystery of Sergo’s death?

It is well known that the basis for Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” was the report of a
special commission of the Central Committee of the CPSU for the establishment of the
causes of the massive repressions against members and candidate members of the CC
AUCB(b) who had been elected at the 17th Party Congress in 1934. But there is nothing
about Ordzhonikidze’s death in the commission’s report3 or in the draft of Khrushchev’s
“Secret Speech” that the report’s authors prepared.4

The first mention of the suicide comes in the so-called “dictations” of Khrushchev which
he made in preparation for his speech at the closed session in the final day of the 20th
Party Congress.5 In other words this second “official version” is traceable to Khrushchev
himself. There remains only to explain where he himself learned it.

Khrushchev’s speech is only called “secret” (in Russian: “closed”) by historical irony. In
1956, the same year Khrushchev delivered it; it was leaked to the West and thereafter
published in many of the world’s languages, Russian included.

Its first official publication took place during the years of the Gorbachev “perestroika.”
But even in Khrushchev’s day readings of the speech were arranged at Party meetings.
Therefore the speech was “secret” only in the imagination, for in a very short time
millions of people had become familiar with it.

But nothing was written about Ordzhonikidze’s “suicide” in the public Soviet media until
1961, when Khrushchev once again touched on this theme in his “Concluding remarks”
to the 22nd Party Congress on October 27, 1961.
Bobrov, The Mystery of Ordzhonikidze’s Death, p. 3 of 9

We remember Sergo Ordzhonikidze. I took part in Ordzhonikidze’s


funeral. I believed what was said at that time, that he had died suddenly,
because we all knew that he had heart problems. Much later, after the war,
I learned quite by chance that he had committed suicide... Comrade
Ordzhonikidze saw that he could not work with Stalin any longer,
although earlier he had been one of his closest friends. Ordzhonikidze
occupied a high Party post. Lenin had known and valued him, but the
situation had become such that Ordzhonikidze could no longer work
normally and, in order not to clash with Stalin and to avoid sharing the
responsibility for his abuse of power, he decided to commit suicide.6

As we can see, even Beria is absent here. All the blame is laid upon Stalin, upon the
situation that had been created around Ordzhonikidze under Stalin’s influence.

However, we do learn something here, for it turns out that in 1937 Khrushchev did not
know, and had not heard, anything at all about any suicide of Ordzhonikidze’s. This is
even more astonishing since Khrushchev himself had been a member of the commission
to arrange the funeral (under the chairmanship of Akulov).

Khrushchev did not identify the source of his information. He only said that he had heard
of what had happened only after the war, that is, almost 10 years after Sergo’s mysterious
demise.

Finally Khrushchev touched for a third time on the theme of this death in his memoirs.
Their first draft was published at first in the West, and a quarter century later their fuller
Russian-language version appeared. In it we learn more – but Khrushchev’s story here
does not so much clarify the situation as it does confuse it even more.

Anastas Ivanovich Mikoian informed me in detail about Ordzhonikidze’s


death, but that was much later, after Stalin’s death. He said that before his
death (he committed suicide not on Sunday, but on Saturday or earlier) he
had taken a long walk with Sergo around the Kremlin. Sergo had told him
that he could not go on living this way any longer, Stalin did not believe
him, and the cadres whom he had chosen had almost all been destroyed,
but that he could not fight with Stalin and yet he could not live like this
any longer.

And I learned the truth completely by chance, during the war. I had come
from the front. At dinner at Stalin’s house, which lasted all night, I fell
into an abnormal situation. I suddenly remembered about Sergo and began
to say kind words about him: we had been deprived of such a wonderful
man, intelligent, good, how early he had died, when he could have still
lived and worked longer. I looked up and saw that at once there was
around the table a reaction, as though I had said something indecent. It is
true that no one said anything to me, but such the silence prevailed. I saw
that and then when I went out with Malenkov I said to him: “What is the
Bobrov, The Mystery of Ordzhonikidze’s Death, p. 4 of 9

matter?” “What, can it be that you really do not know?” “What are you
talking about?” “That Sergo did not die, but shot himself, Stalin condemns
him for that, and you were speaking well of him. That’s why the pause
arose that you noticed.” “That’s the first I have heard of this. So that’s
it...”7

Setting aside for a moment the essence of his story we note that Khrushchev did not have,
and never had, any concrete evidence aside from oral statements – in other words, aside
from rumors told, if he can be believed, first by Malenkov and Mikoian, then by the
author of the second version himself.

In the face of such shaky evidence and the lack of any evidence from any of the forensic
investigators we should put an end to our inquiry here. This is the time to recall the lack
of any suicide note, evidence of any firearm of any type, of any bullet or cartridge,
bloody shirt, bullet-ridden jacket – no evidence at all that Ordzhonikidze died of gunshot.

Nor can historians interrogate Khrushchev or Malenkov, for example, to find out what
“first-hand” evidence they had. We have to make do with the crumbs of evidence that
have survived to our own day. But the questions about Khrushchev’s version will not go
away.

Let’s say that Khrushchev noticed during the war years that Stalin had reconsidered his
relationship with Sergo and no longer spoke kindly about him. But in 1941, the year the
war began, appeared the film “Valerii Chkalov” (directed by M. Kalatozov). It’s well
known that Stalin was a very critical judge of films. The parts of this film in which
Mikhail Gelovani plays the role of Stalin are no longer shown today, but the episodes
concerning Sergo Ordzhonikidze (played by Semion Mezhinskii) may still be seen even
though it wouldn’t have been as much trouble to get rid of them in 1941 as it might have
been to do so later.

When I read Khrushchev’s memoirs for the first time I was immediately struck by his
story about how he found out about Ordzhonikidze’s suicide. I thought: “What an
amazing person Nikita Sergeevich was – he worked on his own without listening to any
rumors around him.” Especially since neither Mikoian nor Malenkov had played any part
in organizing Sergo’s funeral, but Khrushchev had. If any rumors or whispers had
reached anyone’s ears they must have reached Khrushchev. But apparently they did not.

Of course in the last analysis one can always say that he heard such-and-such so many
years ago. There is no way to verify statements like this, and therefore we are only
interested, if at all, in rumors that were in circulation as close as possible in time to the
event and which we can date with some certainty.

A clear example of a collection of these kinds of rumors is Trotsky’s Bulletin of the


Opposition, which published anti-Stalin stories uncomplimentary to the Soviet regime.
And indeed there we do find something about Ordzhonikidze. For example, in June 1938
we find a note by “Br”, one of Trotsky’s correspondents, which states:
Bobrov, The Mystery of Ordzhonikidze’s Death, p. 5 of 9

This excellent Kremlin doctor (Lev Grigor’evich Levin – V.B.) also knew
too much, and he might say a great deal at some time. He knew how
Ordzhonikidze had died. (In Moscow it was said that Ordzhonikidze had
died at a meeting after a stormy discussion with Stalin, but in the GPU
even this version was not believed and they said that Ordzhonikidze had
been poisoned).8

Trotsky himself in his book Stalin noted precisely that “there had been rumors of
poisoning in connection with Ordzhonikidze’s death). So the idea that Ordzhonikidze had
committed suicide had not occurred to Trotsky.

The first such thought alit in the mind of the Soviet defector Victor Kravchenko. In his
book published in New York after the war this memoirist collected all the information he
had about Ordzhonikidze’s death with rumors and even retells one of the best-known
(thanks to Trotsky) of them:

There are those who believe that he [Ordzhonikidze – VB] took poison in
a moment of despair. Others suggest he may have been poisoned by Dr.
Levin, the same doctor who later confessed to poisoning Maxim Gorky.
That he died a violent death, that his end had not been “by natural causes”,
none of my sources doubt in the least.”9

In other words even the rumors do not support Khrushchev’s version.

How about Malenkov? In 1937, on the day after Ordzhonikidze’s funeral, the Plenum of
the Central Committee of the AUCP(b) began.

As it turned out the Plenum became the longest, or one of the longest, in history, but the
transcript was published in an uncut version in the 1990s. And in it not a single one of
those who spoke made even the slightest suggestion that Ordzhonikidze’s death had been
the result of anything unnatural.

Of course it might well have done so. The Plenum began with the consideration of the
cases of Bukharin and Rykov. A possible ploy to save their lives might have been to
accuse, or merely to hint to the Stalinist group in the CDC, that the “rights” had deadly
“evidence” against them. But nothing like that occurred. No one said anything, Bukharin
and Rykov were arrested and sent off to the Lubianka’s investigative unit, and Stalin
proposed to the Plenum to limit their punishment to administrative exile without giving
over their cases to the courts or the NKVD. But his proposal for exile was rejected.

In 1953 after Stalin’s death Malenkov spoke at the Plenum dedicated to Beria and his
(supposed) plots. But he said nothing at all about the mystery of Ordzhonikidze’s death.
And Andreev, a long-time CC members, only remarked that “Sergo’s kindly heart did not
hold out”10, a remark that confirms the first official version.
Bobrov, The Mystery of Ordzhonikidze’s Death, p. 6 of 9

The same version was not disproven, but rather confirmed, by Mikoian’s address to the
Plenum.

I remember that I spoke with him [with Ordzhonikidze – VB] a few days
before his death. He was very upset. He was asking me: “I don’t
understand why comrade Stalin does not trust me. I am absolutely faithful
to comrade Stalin and do not want to fight with him, I want to support
him, and he does not trust me. Beria is playing a big role in this. Beria is
sending comrade Stalin incorrect information, and Stalin believes him.11

Compare this with what Khrushchev said and notice the difference:

Anastas Ivanovich Mikoian informed me in detail about Ordzhonikidze’s


death, but that was much later, after Stalin’s death. He said that before his
death (he committed suicide not on Sunday, but on Saturday or earlier) he
had taken a long walk with Sergo around the Kremlin. Sergo had told him
that he could not go on living this way any longer, Stalin did not believe
him, and the cadres whom he had chosen had almost all been destroyed,
but that he could not fight with Stalin and yet he could not live like this
any longer.12

By the way, if we accept the date of Ordzhonikidze’s death according to Khrushchev’s


account – “not Sunday [February 18, 1937 – VB] but Saturday or earlier”, then we have
to reject even those few memories about the events of the days preceding Sergo’s death
that might provide some kind of confirmation of the second official version, the one set
forth by Khrushchev. (When he studied Ordzhonikidze’s archive Oleg Khlevniuk tried to
find a “compromise”: in his opinion Sergo’s death took place during the night between
Saturday and Sunday February 18 1937. But Khlevniuk provided no basis for this
conclusion.)

But this is not the heart of the matter. Either the main and, basically, the only primary
source for the second official version – that of Khrushchev – is correct or he, i.e.
Khrushchev, lied.

For a long time I tried to find at least one eye-witness account that supported the version
that Ordzhonikidze had died of gunshot and, if not the text of a suicide note or the make
of the firearm, then at least an eye-witness account of Sergo’s bloody body. And at last I
succeeded. Here are these precious lines of memoir:

Here on the carpet lay Sergo... with a gunshot in his chest ... An inflamed
bit of skin above his heart itself. ... I snatched up his hand, felt his pulse,
his head, touched them to my lips ... He was dead, in an instant, a
thousandth of an instant, he was gone ... I called the Kremlin doctor... The
doctor appeared immediately and confirmed his death.13
Bobrov, The Mystery of Ordzhonikidze’s Death, p. 7 of 9

The memoir supposedly comes from a woman [since the verbs are feminine – GF]. But
that’s not the case. This quotation is taken from the memoirs of A.I. Mikoian, where the
text itself is preceded by the following words:

Only after the 20th Party Congress in February 1956 did the details of the
last hours of Sergo’s life become known to me. Ordzhonikidze’s widow
Zinaida Gavrilovna told them to the journalist Gershberg, who wrote
down her story and then gave it to me. Gershberg knew Ordzhonikidze
personally, attended the meetings he led, and knew his wife.

That is, the account above was not written by Ordzhonikidze’s widow but by the
journalist Gershberg who was transcribing her account and who, in turn, is cited by
Mikoian. All this is significant since the supposed “Zinaida Gavrilovna” also recollects:

A half-hour or forty minutes later, I don’t know, Stalin arrived with


Voroshilov, Molotov, Mikoian, Kaganovich, Zhdanov, Ezhov. They went
straight into the bedroom. Not a word, not a sound. I sat on the edge of the
carpet.... Stalin looked at me and called me with a slight nod. We went out
of the bedroom into the office. We stood across from each other. He
looked haggard, old, and pitiable. I asked: What should we say to the
people?” “That his heart gave out,” answered Stalin... I understood that
that was what the newspapers would write. And they did...

And that was exactly the version – heart failure – that appeared in the newspapers the
next day. And for greater credibility a photograph was also published: Stalin and the
other comrades of the Vozhd’ of that time at Ordzhonikidze’s body. Among them is
Mikoian, who had gone into Ordzhonikidze’s bedroom together with Stalin. The photo
was published in Izvestiia on February 17, 1937.14

But how could Mikoian have failed to notice the Sergo’s bloody body with the bullet
wound in his breast? How did the hubbub, inevitable in such cases, essential for covering
up the traces of a violent death, take place without his noticing it? Why did Mikoian have
to cover himself with the second-hand story of the notes of some journalist if he himself
had seen everything himself, heard everything, because as an eyewitness he had been at
the center of the events? Instead of an answer to these questions we read in Mikoian’s
account: “Only after the 20th Party Congress in February 1956 did the details of the last
hours of Sergo’s life become known to me”...!

This does not add up. Again we have before us an unsuitable witness – one like
Khrushchev himself. For there is simply no evidence to confirm the “fact” of
Ordzhonikidze’s suicide once we exclude Khrushchev’s two statements at Party
Congresses and the memoirs of those whose accounts reflect them. Khrushchev, as is
well known, proved himself to be a liar, and it is impossible to simply believe anything
he said. Most likely he took advantage of the fact that no one could refute the shocking,
but untruthful, theses of his “Secret Speech” and dreamed up the version of
Bobrov, The Mystery of Ordzhonikidze’s Death, p. 8 of 9

Ordzhonikidze’s suicide (as he did the story about Stalin planning military operations “on
a globe”). Khrushchev’s version of Sergo’s suicide continues to lack any confirmation.

Some may say: All the evidence once existed, but was destroyed or falsified in 1937. But
evidence for this statement is even shakier than the evidence for the “suicide” story: it
does not exist at all!

Like it or not in the present case we are forced to draw the same conclusion that I recently
read in some journal: “The first commandment of the historian: an event that has left no
evidence of itself must be considered not to have occurred.”
1
“Pamiati Tovarishcha Ordzhonikidze” (“To the Memory of Comrade Ordzhonikidze”)
http://www.oldgazette.ru/izvestie/19021937/text1.html
2
Nikita S. Khrushchev, “The Cult of the Individual”, “Great Speeches of the 2oth century”, Guardian April 26, 2007. At
http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2007/apr/26/greatspeeches5 This is the same translation as that in The New Leader
(1962).
3
“Doklad Komissii TsK KPSS dlia ustanovleniia prichin massovykh repressii protiv chlenov i kandidatov v chleny TsK
VKP(b), izbrannykh na XVII s”ezde partii, Prezidiumu TsK KPSS. 9 fevralia 1956 g.” In K. Aimermakher, V.IU. Afiani, et
al., Doklad Khrushcheva o Kul’te Lichnosti Stalina na XX S”ezde KPSS. Dokumenty. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2002, pp. 185-
230.
4
“Proiekt doklada ‘O kul’te lichnosti i ego posledstviakh’, predstavlenniy P.N. Pospelovym i A.B. Aristovym. 18 fevralia
1956 g. In Doklad Khrushcheva, 120-133.
5
“Dopolneniia N.S. Khrushcheva k proiektu doklada ‘O kul’te lichnosi i ego posledstviakh”. 19 fevralia 1956 g.” In Doklad
Khrushcheva, p. 143. The whole text of Khrushchev’s addititions occupies pp. 134-162 of this edition.
6
XXII s”ezd Kommunisticheskoi Partii Sovetskogo Soiuza.17-31 oktiabria 1961 goda. Stenograficheskii otchet. II , 587.
съезд КПСС. Стенографический отчет. Ч.2, c. 587). At http://vkpb2kpss.ru/book_view.jsp?
idn=002422&page=587&format=djvu
7
Khrushchev, N.S. Vremia. Liudi. Vlast’. (Vospominaniia). Kn. 1 (Moscow: Moskovskie Novosti, 1999), pp. 138-9.
8
Br., “Vokrug protsessa 21-go” (“Around the Trial of the 21”), Biulleten’ Oppozitsii No. 66-67, June 1938. At
http://www.1917.com/Marxism/Trotsky/BO/BO_No_66-67/BO-0589.html
9
Victor Kravchenko, I Chose Freedom. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1946, p. 240.
10
Lavrentii Beria.1953. Stenogramma iiul’skogo plenuma TsK KPSS i drugie dokumenty. Moscow: MDF, 1999, 342.
11
Ibid., 167.
12
See at note 7 above.
13
A.I. Mikoian, Tak Bylo. Moscow: Vagrius, 1999, Ch. 24: “Samoubiistvo Ordzhonikidze” (“Ordzhonikidze’s Suicide”)
14
The photograph is reproduced from Izvestiia at http://www.oldgazette.ru/izvestie/19021937/01-2.html