Forty years ago, an army deserter fired at a motorcade he thought was carrying Leonid Brezhnev into the Kremlin. One man died in the attack and another was severely injured. Neither was the leader of the USSR.
For centuries the imposing red-bricked walls of the Kremlin have been Russia's stronghold, a symbol of its power. But four decades ago the life of one of the most important people in the world at the time – Brezhnev – almost ended within their shadows.
On January 22, 1969 the crews of the Soyuz-4 and Soyuz-5 spaceships were due in Moscow to receive state awards. They were met by Brezhnev at the city’s Vnukovo Airport and then headed for the Kremlin in a motorcade.
Meanwhile, at another Moscow airport, Sheremetevo, an uninvited participant, who would play a central role in the day’s events, was arriving too. Army officer Victor Ilyin had fled his military base near St Petersburg with two fully-loaded pistols in his coat.
Ilyin was born in 1947 in Leningrad, where he lived with his stepmother and step grandmother.
His disagreements with the Soviet lifestyle first became evident in the army, to which he was drafted after graduating topographic college in 1968. He bombarded local ideology officials with questions on the Prague Spring, the Communist Party’s political monopoly in Russia and the degradation of the Young Communist League.
Short-tempered Ilyin showed a clear tendency of overreacting; he kept on lamenting that revolutions were frequent in African countries and less so in Russia, but people around failed to register.
When he learned about John F. Kennedy’s killing, he reportedly admired Lee Harvey Osvald, for becoming world famous with a single shot.
For hearing his arguments and not turning Ilyin in, two of his comrades-in-arms received five-year jail sentences.
When Ilyin learned that he lived his whole life with foster parents, as his biological parents were alcoholics, he made the most dramatic decision of his life.
“Learn when the Moscow flight is. If there is one, then book. Go on a duty. Destroy everything,” this was the last entry he left in his diary.
While on duty Ilyin took advantage of the absence of higher rank colleagues and stole two Makarov guns and four clips from his army unit’s safe and took off to Moscow.
A KGB investigator says by then Ilyin had everything perfectly planned for an assassination.
“The man was obsessed with killing the head of the USSR – Brezhnev. He was ready to do anything. And he picked the best time possible,” Aleksandr Zagvozdin, KGB investigator, said.
Some say the KGB had already tracked him down and were using the assassination attempt to prove themselves.
Airport security was not what it is today and Ilyin, wearing a stolen military uniform, sailed through the airport, even though a hunt had already begun for the missing soldier.
In Moscow Ilyin spent a day at his uncle’s, who was a militia – Soviet police worker. Then, stealing his uniform he left for Red Square.
“We were already looking for the man but nobody expected that he would be wearing a militia uniform. Everyone was looking for a man dressed as a military officer or a civilian,” Oleg Matveev, a FSB historian, says.
Ilyin’s approach was straightforward. He simply walked into the Kremlin through a tourist entrance, pretending to be part of the cordon.
It was a freezing cold January day and Ilyin was wearing a summer militia uniform. But Soviet people had always had an unshakable faith in their militia, and Ilyin's unusual apparence didn’t arouse any suspicions.
He spent the next two hours, undisturbed, looking for the best firing position, choosing a place just a few metres from the entrance gate.
As soon as the VIP motorcade entered the Kremlin’s Borovitskaya Tower’s gates, Ilyin took out his pistols and fired them together at the second vehicle, occupied by the cosmonauts: Georgy Beregovoy, Aleksey Leonov, Andrian Nikolaev and Valentina Tereshkova.
From here, the information differs, due to KGB efforts to hush up the whole event. Despite the fact that the motorcade’s arrival was broadcasted live and interrupted for an hour when the shooting erupted; nobody heard of the assassination attempt till the 1990s.
Two entrances into Kremlin: while shooting took place near Borovitskaya gate, its target was as far as Spasskaya
Some sources say that Brezhnev – who usually occupied the second car on similar occasions – for some reason moved into the third or forth this time. Others believe his car didn’t even follow the first ones, entering the Kremlin through the Spasskaya tower.
There is also no strict information on how many shots were fired. Ilyin managed to unleash between 8 to 16 bullets before being stopped.
A bullet hit the second car, killing the limousine driver Ilya Zharkov. Tragically he was driving as a substitute in his last day before retirement.
It was a miracle the others in the car survived. Beregovoy was hit in the face, a bullet scratched Nikolaev’s back. However the latter managed to grab the wheel and stop the car.
Another bullet hit Vasiliy Zatsipilin, part of the motorcycle escort that day.
“As our car was on the way in I heard these banging sounds. I though it was fireworks or something. But then I realised my arm was no longer listening to me,” Vasiliy Zatsipilin said.
Despite being shot, Zatsipilin managed to aim his motorcycle at Ilyin, and bring him down. The guards took control from this point, as Ilyin had a seizure.
Innocent death the only regret
Three hours later, the head of the KBG and the future head of the USSR, Yury Andropov, was personally questioning the man:
Andropov: Why did you decide that you are a judge and can decide with a gun in your hands?
Ilyin: Because a person should live not exist.
Andropov: What does that mean?
Ilyin: Now people try to survive by any possible means. Something is very wrong in our society.
Ilyin confessed that he was planning to take Brezhnev’s place, forming a non-communist party. At this point he was facing the death penalty, but after a long investigation, he was considered insane and placed in a mental hospital in solitary confinement for twenty years.
He was set free in the 1990s following a Supreme Court ruling, made in his bed chamber.
RT found him in St. Petersburg, single, living off a modest pension in a government-provided apartment due to disabilities. He refused to be interviewed on camera, but told us that most of all he regrets that an innocent man had died.
This was the first of three alleged attempts to assassinate Brezhnev, and apparently the only real one. The other two – expected to take place in France and Germany – were believe to exist only in overprotective KGB minds.