A (Dangerously Close) Attempt To Kill Brezhnev

The only photograph of the moment of the assassination attempt of Brezhnev. Unknown author (22 January 1969).

On 22 January 1969, the Soviet Union celebrated a victory in the ongoing space race. The Soviet cosmonauts of Soyuz-4 and Soyuz-5 had completed the world’s first manned-to-manned docking of space ships

The mission was successful, and the four cosmonauts were given a hero’s welcome in the Vnukovo airport by Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The entire nation was watching the television coverage of the motorcade of limousines driving towards the Kremlin, where a high-level celebration was about to begin in the Palace of Congresses.

At 2:15 PM the motorcade, comprised of numerous black limousines and motorcycles, approached the Kremlin Borovitskaya Tower gates, when suddenly the broadcast was cut off…


The four cosmonauts at the Vnukovo Airport welcome ceremony
The motorcade from Vnukovo Airport
The motorcade from Vnukovo Airport



Viktor Ilyin

As history would reveal, Viktor Ilyin – a 21 year-old deserted soldier – was waiting at the gates for the motorcade to pass by so that he could assassinate Brezhnev.

He had grown extremely distrustful of the Soviet authorities, disappointed in the military intervention in Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet rule in general.

Viktor Ilyin


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Viktor Ilyin
Viktor Ilyin

After having stolen two Makarov handguns from his military base in Leningrad, Ilyin boarded a plane for Moscow. To fit within the crowd watching the motorcade, he first changed into a genuine militia’s uniform that belonged to one of his relatives. His intention was clear and was even outlined in his diary:

“Learn when the Moscow flight is. If there is one, then book. Go on a duty. Destroy everything”
-Viktor Ilyin

Assassination attempt

At the Borovitskaya Tower, Ilyin’s militia uniform made it easy for him to pass through the cheering crowd and stand right next to the gates, biding his time. The first vehicle of the motorcade was an open limousine, carrying the cosmonauts who waved at the crowd. After that came a procession of black cars and motorcycles.

On this day, Brezhnev departed with tradition. Instead of sitting in the second vehicle, he had taken a separate entrance into the Kremlin.

Unaware of this, as the second car approached, Ilyin opened a stream of fire from both of his pistols, shooting between 8 and 16 shots. The driver, Ilya Zharkov, was killed instantly. Cosmonauts Tereshkova, Nikolayev, Leonov, and Beregovoy were, miraculously, spared.

In the overall panic, one motorcyclist managed to drive the gunman down, and the guards took him away.


Inside the main security agency for the Soviet Union – the KGB headquarters – Ilyin was interrogated by Yuri Andropov. After extensive interrogation and analysis, Viktor Ilyin was declared insane, and sentenced to solitary confinement in a mental institution.

An excerpt from his hearing by Yuri Andropov follows:
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.

Viktor Ilyin in Saint Petersburg in 2009.

In the 1990s, Viktor Ilyin was released from prison. He now lives quietly in Saint Petersburg, Russia in a small apartment. He claims that he only regrets killing the innocent driver in his attempt to assassinate Brezhnev.



All screenshots from the TV-Serial “Тайные Знаки” (“Secret Signs”) (2009)


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