On January 22, 1969, Viktor Ilyin, a 21-year-old serviceman, disguised as a police officer and armed with two guns, fired eight gunshots at a government cortege carrying the renowned Soviet cosmonauts Georgy Beregovoy, Valentina Tereshkova, Andrian Nikolaev, and Aleksey Leonov to the Kremlin. As it had been revealed later, the shots, first said to have been targeted at the cosmonauts, were in reality meant for the then-leader of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev, also riding in the same cortege.
On January 22, 1969, Moscow was celebrating the triumphant return of the crews of the Soyuz-4 and Soyuz-5 spacecraft. After the traditional festivities at the airport, the cortege with the cosmonauts and Leonid Brezhnev headed to the Kremlin. Suddenly, as the cortege was approaching the entrance to the Kremlin, the live broadcast of the event by central television was interrupted for about an hour. It was only picked up when the ceremony was already in progress; however, attentive viewers couldn’t help but notice the obvious tension, if not terror, that had gripped all the participants. There was no explanation provided for such a sudden halt in the broadcast. Only three days later did Pravda, the Soviet sounding-board, publish a small article informing that, on the way to the Kremlin, the car with Beregovoy, Leonov, Nikolaev, and Tereshkova, was gunned down by an unidentified shooter, who was immediately detained. However, even the special press conference held on January 24 and broadcast on television did not reveal the implications of the incident, nor who the real target of the attempt was.
Many of the details are still undisclosed, while the ones that were seem so controversial that they have nourished a great number of speculations and theories.
The assassin, Victor Ilyin, a young serviceman from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), was known for his strong anti-Soviet mood, and therefore was very much disliked by army authorities. He was critical of the Soviet foreign policies and openly sympathized with the African countries, who kept overthrowing their governments on a daily basis.
On January 21, Ilyin stole two Makarov guns and four chargers from the armory and, arriving to Moscow sought shelter from his uncle, a policeman. He explained his visit by the utter desire to see the real cosmonauts once in a lifetime. His absence in the unit didn’t raise any suspicions, until the theft of the weapons had been detected. Today, the researchers argue what drove Ilyin to commit such an act. Some claim that the attempt played into the hands of many governmental bodies, including Brezhnev himself. Therefore, the KGB didn’t really go over their heads to look for the criminal. Others state that it was the KGB itself which had organized the entire provocation.
As the cortege approached the Kremlin gates, Ilyin, wearing his uncle’s summer police uniform craftily blended into the group of police officers, managing to raise no suspicions. As soon as the cortege appeared, he let the first car pass by, opening fire on the next one, unloading eight shots. One of the bullets injured the motorcyclist riding in front, who, regardless, headed towards the attacker and knocked him off his feet. He was then quickly seized by the police and KGB agents.
The Brezhnev assassination was unsuccessful. However, two of the cosmonauts were injured while the driver died the next day in the hospital.
Ilyin was charged with five crimes, but a trial never came about. The doctors diagnosed him with a major mental disorder and placed him into an institution where he spent 18 years in a single 4x4 meter cell. He was only rehabilitated back in the 1980s, during the perestroika years, when, during the anti-Brezhnev campaign, he was even presented as a true hero and a victim of the regime. He was released from the institution in 1990. He was allocated a one-room apartment in St. Petersburg and lives on a serviceman pension. He feels happy about what he had done, though he regretted having killed an innocent man and causing so much trouble to his friends.