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.

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 report 3 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.

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 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:

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.

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

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 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. 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