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Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria (Russian: Лавре́нтий Па́влович Бе́рия) (29 March, 1899 - 23 December, 1953), Soviet politician and police chief, is remembered chiefly as the executor of Joseph Stalin's Great Purge of the 1930s, although in fact he presided only over the closing stages of the Purge. His period of greatest power was during and after World War II. After Stalin's death he was removed from office and executed by Stalin's successors.
Rise to power
Beria was born, the son of a peasant, in Merkheuli, near Sukhumi in the Abkhazian region of Georgia. He was educated at a technical school in Sukhumi, and is recorded as having joined the Bolshevik Party in March 1917 while an engineering student in Baku. (Some sources say that the Baku Party records are forgeries and that Beria actually joined the Party in 1919. It is also alleged that Beria joined and then deserted from the Red Army at this time, but this has not been established.)
In 1920 or 1921 (accounts vary) Beria joined the Vecheka (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-Revolution and Sabotage), the original Bolshevik political police. At that time, a Bolshevik revolt, supported by the Red Army, occurred in the Menshevik Democratic Republic of Georgia, and the Vecheka was heavily involved in this conflict. By 1922 Beria was deputy head of the Vecheka's successor, the OGPU (Combined State Political Directorate), in Georgia. Some sources allege that Beria was at this time an agent of the British and/or Turkish intelligence services, but this has never been proved.
Beria, as a fellow Georgian, was an early ally of Joseph Stalin in his rise to power within the Communist Party and the Soviet regime. In 1924 he led the repression of nationalist disturbances in Tbilisi, after which it is said that up to 5,000 people were executed. For this display of "Bolshevik ruthlessness" Beria was appointed head of the "secret-political division" of the Transcaucasian OGPU and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. In 1926 he became head of the Georgian OGPU. He was appointed Party Secretary in Georgia in 1931, and for the whole Transcaucasian region in 1932. He became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1934. Even after moving on from Georgia, he continued to effectively control the republic's Communist Party until it was purged in July 1953.
By 1935 Beria was one of Stalin's most trusted subordinates. He cemented his place in Stalin's entourage with a lengthy oration "On the History of the Bolshevik Organisations in Transcaucasia" (later published as a book), which rewrote the history of Transcaucasian Bolshevism to show that Stalin had been its sole leader from the beginning. When Stalin's purge of the Communist Party and government began in 1934 after the assassination of Sergei Kirov, Beria ran the purges in Transcaucasia, using the opportunity to settle many old scores in the politically turbulent Transcaucasian republics. In June 1937 he said in a speech: "Let our enemies know that anyone who attempts to raise a hand against the will of our people, against the will of the party of Lenin and Stalin, will be mercilessly crushed and destroyed."
Beria at the NKVD
In August 1938 Stalin brought Beria to Moscow as deputy head of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), the ministry which oversaw the state security and police forces. Under Nikolai Yezhov, the NKVD carried out prosecution of the perceived enemies of the state known as the Great Purge, that affected millions of people. By 1938, however, the purge had become so extensive that it was damaging the infrastructure of the Soviet state, its economy and armed forces, and Stalin had decided to wind the purge down. In September Beria was appointed head of the Main Administration of State Security (GUGB) of the NKVD, and in November he succeeded Yezhov as head of NKVD (Yezhov was executed in 1940). The NKVD itself was then purged, with half its personnel being removed, and was restaffed with Beria loyalists, many of them from the Caucasus.
Beria's name has become closely identified with the Great Purge as well, but in fact he presided over the NKVD during an easing of the repression. Over 100,000 people were released from the labour camps, and it was officially admitted that there had been some injustices and "excesses" during the purges, which were blamed on Yezhov. Nevertheless this liberalisation was only relative: arrests and executions continued, and in 1940, as war approached, the pace of the purges again accelerated. During this period Beria supervised the deportations of population from Poland and the Baltic states following their occupation by Soviet forces. In March 1940 he prepared the order for the execution of 25,700 Polish intellectuals, including 14,700 Polish prisoners of war at Katyn Wood near Smolensk and two other mass execution sites.
In March 1939 Beria became a candidate member of the Communist Party's Politburo. Although he did not become a full member until 1946, he was already one of the senior leaders of the Soviet state. In February 1941 he became a Deputy Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom), and in June, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, be became a member of the State Defence Committee (GKO). During World War II he took on major domestic responsibilities, using the millions of people imprisoned in NKVD labour camps for wartime production. He took control of armaments production, and also (together with Georgy Malenkov), the production of aircraft and aircraft engines. This was the beginning of Beria's alliance with Malenkov, which later became of central importance.
In 1944, as the Germans were driven from Soviet soil, Beria was in charge of dealing with the various ethnic minorities accused of collaboration with the invaders, including the Chechens, the Ingush, the Crimean Tartars and the Volga Germans. All these were deported to Soviet Central Asia, with significant loss of life. See "Population transfer in the Soviet Union".
In December 1944 Beria was also charged with supervision of the Soviet atomic bomb project. In this connection he ran the successful Soviet espionage campaign against United States atomic weapons programme which resulted in Soviets obtaining a nuclear bomb technology, building and testing a bomb in 1949.
In December 1945 Beria left the post of Minister for Internal Affairs (MVD, the new name for the NKVD), while retaining general control over national security matters from his post of Deputy Prime Minister, under Stalin. With Stalin nearing 70, the postwar years were dominated by a concealed struggle for the succession among his lieutenants. At the end of the war the most likely successor seemed to be Andrei Zhdanov, party leader in Leningrad during the war and placed in charge of all cultural matters in 1946. Even during the war Beria and Zhdanov had been rivals, but after 1946 Beria formed an alliance with Malenkov to block Zhdanov's rise. Prominent Leningrad intellectuals such as Anna Akhmatova were persecuted. The repression of this period is usually blamed on Zhdanov, but in fact Beria was largely responsible.
Zhdanov died suddenly in August 1948, and Beria and Malenkov then moved to consolidate their power with a purge of Zhdanov's associates known as the "Leningrad Affair". Among the more than 2,000 people executed were Zhdanov's deputy Aleksei Kuznetsov , the economic chief Nikolai Voznesensky , the Leningrad Party head Pyotr Popkov and the Prime Minister of the Russian Republic, Mikhail Rodionov . It was only after Zhdanov's death that Nikita Khrushchev began to be considered as a possible alternative to the Beria-Malenkov axis.
During the postwar years Beria supervised the establishment of Soviet-style systems of secret police in the countries of the Warsaw Pact, and after the Soviet Union's break with Tito he organised show trials of Communist leaders such as László Rajk in Hungary and Rudolf Slánský in Czechoslovakia. He handed over direct control of the secret police apparatus to subordinates such as Viktor Abakumov and Vsevolod Merkulov, while retaining general responsibility for security matters. In July 1945 he was made a Marshal of the Soviet Union, although he had never held a military command. It is true, however, that through his organisation of war production, he made a significant contribution to the Soviet Union's victory in World War II.
On March 5 1953 Stalin died four days after collapsing during the night following a dinner with Beria and other Soviet leaders. The political memoirs of Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, published in 1993, claim that Beria boasted to Molotov that he had poisoned Stalin, although no hard evidence has ever been produced to support this assertion. There is evidence, however, that for many hours after Stalin was found unconscious, Beria denied him medical help, claiming that Stalin was "sleeping." It is possible that all the Soviet leaders agreed to allow Stalin, whom they all feared, to die.
After Stalin's death Beria was reappointed head of the MVD. His close ally Malenkov was the new Prime Minister and initially the most powerful man in the post-Stalin leadership. Beria was the second most powerful leader and, given Malenkov's lack of real leadership qualities, was in a position to become the power behind the throne and ultimately leader himself. Khrushchev became Party General-Secretary, which was seen as a less important post than the Prime Ministership.
Despite Beria's history as one of Stalin's most ruthless henchmen, he was at the forefront of liberalisation after Stalin's death, presumably as a means of winning support for his campaign to become leader. Beria publicly denounced the Doctors' plot as a "fraud," and released large numbers of political prisoners. In April he signed a decree banning the use of torture in Soviet prisons, despite his own history of personally torturing many people. He also signalled a more liberal policy towards the non-Russian nationalities in the Soviet Union. He persuaded the Praesidium (as the Politburo had been renamed) and the Council of Ministers to urge the Communist regime in East Germany to allow liberal economic and political reforms.
Most writers have held that Beria's liberal policies after Stalin's death were a tactic to manoeuvre himself into power. Even if he was sincere, they argue, Beria's past made it impossible for him to lead a liberalising regime in the Soviet Union, a role which later fell to Khrushchev. The essential task of Soviet reformers was to bring the secret police under party control, and Beria could not do this since the police were the basis of his own power.
Given his record, it is not surprising that the other party leaders were suspicious of Beria's motives in all this. The alliance between Beria and Malenkov was opposed by Khrushchev, but he was initially unable to challenge the Beria-Malenkov axis. His opportunity came in June 1953 when demonstrations against the Communist regime in East Germany broke out in East Berlin (see Workers Uprising of 1953 in East Germany). This convinced Molotov, Malenkov and Nikolai Bulganin that Beria's policies were dangerous and destabilising to Soviet power. Days after the events in Germany, Khrushchev persuaded the other leaders to support a party coup against Beria, whose principal ally Malenkov quickly decided to abandon him.
Accounts of Beria's fall vary considerably. According to the most recent accounts Khrushchev convened a meeting of the Praesidium on June 26, where he launched an attack on Beria, accusing him of being in the pay of British intelligence. Beria was taken completely by surprise. He asked, "What's going on, Nikita Sergeyevich?" Molotov and others then also spoke against Beria, and Khrushchev put a motion for his instant dismissal. Malenkov then pressed a button on his desk as the pre-arranged signal to Marshal Georgy Zhukov and a group of armed officers in a nearby room. They immediately burst in and arrested Beria. Some accounts say that Beria was killed on the spot, but this is incorrect.
Beria was taken first to the Lefortovo prison and then to the headquarters of General Kiril Moskalenko , commander of Moscow District Air Defence and a wartime friend of Khrushchev's. His arrest was kept secret until his principal lieutenants could be arrested. The NKVD troops in Moscow which had been under Beria's command were disarmed by regular Army units. Pravda announced Beria's arrest only on July 10, crediting it to Malenkov and referring to Beria's "criminal activities against the Party and the State." In December it was announced that Beria and six accomplices, "in the pay of foreign intelligence agencies," had been "conspiring for many years to seize power in the Soviet Union and restore capitalism."
Beria was tried by a "special tribunal," and was allowed no representation and no appeal. When the death sentence was passed, according to Moskalenko's later account, Beria begged on his knees for mercy, but he and his subordinates were immediately executed. His wife and son were sent to a labour camp, but survived and were later released. His son Sergo Beria is still alive and defending his father's reputation. After Beria's death the MVD was reduced from the status of a Ministry to a Committee (known as the KGB), and no Soviet police chief ever again held the kind of power Beria had wielded.
Following Beria's fall and execution, he made a convenient scapegoat for Khrushchev during his destalinisation campaign between 1956 and 1964. After Khrushchev's fall little more was heard about Beria until the end of the Soviet regime in 1991. Since then the opening of the Soviet archives and interviews with surviving eye-witnesses has allowed historians to uncover the full facts about Beria's career. In 1999 the Russian historian Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko published Beria, the first fully researched biography of Beria. This book confirmed what had long been claimed by anti-Soviet writers, and alluded to in Khrushchev's autobiography, but not generally believed: that in addition to his leading role in repression by the Soviet state, Beria was also a sadist and a sexual predator.
"At night he would cruise the streets of Moscow seeking out teenage girls," Antonov-Ovseyenko has said in an interview. "When he saw one who took his fancy he would have his guards deliver her to his house. Sometimes he would have his henchmen bring five, six or seven girls to him. He would make them strip, except for their shoes, and then force them into a circle on their hands and knees with their heads together. He would walk around in his dressing gown inspecting them. Then he would pull one out by her leg and haul her off to rape her. He called it the flower game."
Beria is also known to have personally tortured and killed many victims of the purges, particularly women. The graves of many of these people were subsequently discovered in the garden and cellars of his Moscow residence, now the Tunisian Embassy. In 2001 human bones were found concealed behind the kitchen walls when the building was renovated. In the cellars the walls are in places scorched black where, it is said, Beria used a blowtorch to torture confessions out of his victims.
One writer later said the happiest day of his life was when a change to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia was sent to his school. An expanded discussion of the Bering Sea was to be glued into the book, one whose length exactly covered the previous article, "Lavrenty Beria."
In March 2000 the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation refused an application by members of Beria's family to overturn his 1953 conviction. Although the court agreed that the charges of treason and espionage against Beria were unfounded, it based its refusal to clear Beria's name on the grounds of his proved personal and political crimes.
- Beria: Stalin's First Lieutenant by Amy Knight, Princeton University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-691-01093-5
- Beria, Anton Antonov-Ovseenko, Moscow, 1999
- Beria, My Father, Sergo Beria, London, 2001
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