The changing face of St Petersburg Part 11

11. Leningrad under Stalin: Kirov and the Terror (1924-1941)

There are so many reasons to visit St Petersburg. Some people come in search of culture, others seek inspiration from its literary associations. For some, it’s the architecture that’s top of their list, while others simply come to experience a different way of life.

One thing that’s certainly not in short supply in St Petersburg is history. The city may only have been founded in 1703, but the last 300 or so years provide a fascinating insight into the changes which have shaped this incredible city.

Here, we look at how the city faired under Stalin: Kirov and the Terror (1924-1941) …

On 21 January 1924, Vladimir Lenin, whose health had degenerated after several unsuccessful assassination attempts and three strokes, died at the age of 53. A week later, the city was renamed Leningrad in honour of the man who had incited the Bolshevik Revolution.

After years of neglect, Leningrad started to rebuild. Soviet Constructivism was the preferred architectural style as the Communists set out to create a new, better society. This style combined modern technology and sleek geometric forms devoid of decoration with a social purpose fostering the Communist way of life.

One of the most ideological structures was the Communal House for the Society of Political Prisoners, built between 1929 and 1933 for the political victims of the Tsarist regime. A stone's throw from Peter the Great's cabin, this Constructivist building was conceived as an egalitarian residential housing commune. All apartments were fitted with central heating and bathrooms – amenities that previously only the wealthy could afford – yet none had kitchens. Instead, there was a communal canteen intended to liberate workers from the drudgery of preparing meals and to foster camaraderie. Also provided were a kindergarten, library, laundry rooms, workshops, theatre and solarium.

This was a far cry from the kommunalki (communal apartments) spread across the city. Kommunalki were large apartments (and even palaces and commercial premises) that had been taken from the wealthier classes after the Revolution and turned into communal living spaces for the proletariat. Between two and seven or even more families were housed in such apartments. Each family had a single room that served as living room, dining room and bedroom. The hallways, kitchen, and bathroom were shared among residents, making privacy a rare commodity, and conflict a common occurrence.

On 1 December 1934, Sergei Kirov - Leningrad's popular party boss - was assassinated by a young party functionary. Shortly after, an official statement proclaimed that Kirov had been murdered by enemies of the Soviet Union, although many believe Stalin ordered Kirov's execution to eliminate a possible popular rival. Whatever the truth, his death was seized on as a pretext to arrest and execute unwanted Party members, as well as the so-called ‘former people’ - the nobility, merchants, industrialists, tsarist civil servants, and so on. Thus began Kirov's Flood.

In 1935 alone, tens of thousands of people from the greater Leningrad area were arrested, tortured, and sentenced to years in labour camps. This was a preview of the Great Terror that decimated the country in 1937-1938, when over half a million people were executed and many more died in camps.

As Kirov's Flood swelled, so did Leningrad's prison population. As a result, another Constructivist building gained notoriety in the city: the ‘Big House’. This was the nickname Leningraders gave the monumental building looming over Liteiny Prospect, built at Kirov's initiative, that’s housed the secret police under its various guises (OGPU, NKVD, KGB, FSB) until the present day. Many of the thousands of people who entered through its massive doors during the Kirov Flood were never heard from again.

Leningrad's central prison, Kresty, was also overflowing: cells built for one person now housed fifteen to twenty inmates. This great flood of terror eventually dwindled, but Leningrad had only a couple of years of respite before another catastrophe befell it – World War II...

Photo: Andrew Shiva