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Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria in 1939

HISTORY's Forgotten People: Lavrentiy Beria

Image: Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria in 1939 (Public Domain)

Lavrentiy Beria: Evil Reformer?

Lenin. Trotsky. Stalin. Khrushchev. These are the four names, towering and notorious, most of us think of when we consider the Soviet Union. Lenin, the controversial revolutionary who forged a Communist superpower. Trotsky, the intellectual lynchpin of the revolution, who was murdered and became a martyr to the cause. Stalin, the paranoid tyrant who terrorised his own people but helped defeat Hitler. Khrushchev, the brash Cold Warrior who almost helped usher in the end of the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But, lurking in the shadows of Soviet history, there was another man. Someone who was almost as terrifying as Stalin himself, and yet might just have made the world a better, safer place if he’d come to power instead of Khrushchev. He was Lavrentiy Beria, and his parallel-universe leadership of the USSR is one of the great “what-ifs” of the 20th Century.

"Our Himmler"

Who was Lavrentiy Beria? Putting it very simply, he was a bad person, in almost every conceivable way. One of Stalin’s top enforcers, he helped orchestrate some of the bloodiest excesses of those dark times. And he was utterly unashamed about his mission. “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,” he once vowed.

"The Gulags existed before Beria, but he was the one who built them on a mass scale. He industrialised the Gulag system. Human life had no value for him."

Former prisoner Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko

Beria served for many years as chief of the NKVD, Stalin's much-feared secret police force, which carried out the terrifying purges of the 1930s, sending countless politicians, writers, scientists, peasants and ordinary citizens to jail cells, torture rooms and early graves. As Nikita Khrushchev reflected in his memoirs, “Everyone lived in fear in those days. Everyone expected that at any moment there would be a knock on the door in the middle of the night and that knock on the door would prove fatal.” In June 1937 Beria delivered a speech which certainly supports Khrushchev’s analysis of the time, "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.” To say Beria lived by these words would be an understatement.

Even before this time in the early 1920s, Beria had led the repression of a Georgian nationalist uprising, after which up to 10,000 people were executed, displaying what would later be credited as "Bolshevik ruthlessness." He was the driving force behind the expansion of the vast network of more than 500 forced labour camps known as the infamous “Gulags”. It is said they once contained as many as five million prisoners. In the words of historian and former prisoner Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, “The Gulags existed before Beria, but he was the one who built them on a mass scale. He industrialised the Gulag system. Human life had no value for him.”

Stalin himself had an amused understanding of Beria’s cold and amoral nature – during one of the major World War Two conferences with the rest of the Allies, the dictator even introduced Beria to President Roosevelt as “our Himmler”. Which, given Beria’s blood-splattered CV and talent for lethal logistics, wasn’t too far from the truth.

Beria with Stalin's daughter Svetlana. Stalin in the background. Source: Public Domain,

During the war, Beria remained an active figure in implementing Stalin’s iron will on the people. It also saw him perpetrate one of the worst atrocities in a conflict filled with them. Today, it’s often forgotten that it wasn’t just Hitler who invaded Poland in September 1939. Stalin, emboldened by his non-aggression pact with Germany, did the same just a few weeks later, sending his forces in from the east. Poland suddenly found itself in the grip of two tyrannies.

The Russian forces proved every bit as brutal and pitiless as the Nazis. Thousands of Polish troops were rounded up and kept in camps, nervously awaiting news of their fate. Few could have seen what would come next: total annihilation by their Russian captors. Known as the Katyn Massacre, because one of the large burial pits was eventually discovered in the Katyn Forest, this mass murder of the Polish POWs was directly orchestrated by Beria in 1940, who sent a memo to Stalin suggesting that the prisoners were a threat to the new Soviet regime in Poland, and should therefore be executed. 22,000 soldiers, doctors, priests and others were killed.

The USSR claimed the Nazis had committed and continued to deny responsibility for the event up until as recent as 1990, when it finally officially acknowledged and condemned the perpetration of the killings by the NKVD, as well as the subsequent cover-up by the Soviet government.

As historian Benjamin B. Fischer has put it, “The Katyn Forest massacre was a criminal act of historic proportions and enduring political implications.” And Beria was the man who made it happen. Their Himmler, indeed.

The devil’s downfall

In 1941, Beria carried out another purge, this time of the Red Army. Over 500 NKVD agents and 30,000 Red Army officers were executed. To put 30,000 in context, that’s three out of five marshals and fourteen out of sixteen army commanders.

Red Army high commanders had a phrase they had for being purged which was "going to have coffee with Beria".

Yet Beria’s wickedness extended beyond his tendencies towards torture and mass murder. According to many accounts, he was also a bona fide sex criminal with a penchant for cruising the streets of Moscow in his car and literally picking out pretty women to rape. According to research by historian and Stalin biographer Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Beria told one victim, “Scream or not, it doesn’t matter. You are in my power now. So think about that and behave accordingly.” Even other Soviet officials regarded his exploits with fear and disgust.

Full details of Beria’s debauchery are still locked away in classified files, and there’s still some disagreement over the extent of his secret life and crimes. Indeed, some have even suggested Beria literally murdered Stalin with poison. What we definitely do know is that Beria was openly elated when the dictator, venerated as a kind of fearsome god by the Soviet Union, succumbed to a cerebral haemorrhage in March 1953.

According to Khrushchev’s own writings, Beria was “spewing hatred” and “mocking” Stalin as the tyrant lay slowly dying from his sudden illness. And when Stalin eventually died, Beria’s relish was chillingly clear for all to see. The starting pistol for the race to power had been fired, with Stalin’s ex-subordinates now in a deadly tussle for the top job.

"Beria was more treacherous, more practiced in perfidy and cunning, more insolent and single-minded than my father. In a word, he was a stronger character."

Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva

Beria seemed to be in a perfect position – his ally, a now-forgotten figure called Georgy Malenkov, took over as the supreme leader, and Beria’s own dossier of dirt on his rivals, gathered during his years as chief of the secret police, meant he could surely keep others under his thumb. But it was not to be. Malenkov was a weak ruler, who was swiftly sidelined by Khrushchev – the improbable underdog who somehow managed to scupper Beria’s plans in dramatic fashion.

As the most generally accepted story goes, it was during a seemingly ordinary meeting in June 1953 that Khrushchev abruptly began accusing Beria of being a traitor to the Soviet Union and even a British spy. Soon, the other officials – Beria’s own colleagues – chimed in, and the surreal revolt was complete when soldiers burst in to arrest him. As one account tells us, Beria was shocked and terrified by this ambush, with good reason.

The end for Beria was near. He was imprisoned and eventually put on trial in December of that year for a number of heinous crimes, including treason and terrorism, with his role in the purges being highlighted. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, and – if the recollections of his executioner are to be believed – he did not meet his fate bravely.

His executioner’s wife later told the media that, just before being shot dead, Beria had “implored him for mercy, grovelling on his knees”. The executioner had bluntly responded by saying, “In all that you have done, so loathsome, mean and nasty, can you not find enough courage in yourself to accept your punishment in silence?”

What If Beria Had Succeeded Stalin?

The evidence tells us that Beria was a monster. But this was a time of monsters, and most of Beria’s peers were also implicated in all kinds of vicious violence. What’s most intriguing about Beria was the strange, paradoxical push he was poised to make for a more liberal Russia. Stalin’s most notorious minion could – if he’d been able to take power – have been a peacemaker and reformer like Gorbachev would be in the 1980s.

It’s a fact that almost as soon as Stalin died, Beria called for a vast amnesty for inmates of the Gulag system, freeing well over a million people from the hellish network of work camps. In a memo that you’d barely believe could have been written by Beria, he stated that “a review of criminal legislation is necessary”, and that most of the people in the Gulag “do not represent a serious danger to society”.

"Beria’s pragmatic, analytical mind could well have steered the Cold War to an early end had he come to power."

Had he suddenly become a bleeding heart liberal? Unlikely. Beria hadn’t suddenly been visited by angels, but he was above all a pragmatist. As he saw it, the prison system as impractical, expensive and counter-productive. And now that the paranoid, irrational Stalin was safely dead, he was able to enact the reforms he saw as necessary.

Stalin’s own daughter was in no doubt about Beria’s unique place in the Soviet power structure, and how he stood apart from the other suited thugs who sat at the highest tables in the land. “Beria was more treacherous, more practiced in perfidy and cunning, more insolent and single-minded than my father,” she said. “In a word, he was a stronger character.”

This meant he could be brazenly brutal, but it also meant he could look at the facts coldly and make the right moves, without worrying about the abstract ideology of the state. It’s been said that, had Beria been born in the United States, he would have been a brilliant businessman. This, after all, was the man who’d won the respect of Russia’s greatest scientists during the Soviet project to build a nuclear bomb. Russian physicist Yuly Khariton, who played a major part in the nuclear research, highly appreciated Beria’s organisational skills and capabilities. Many years later he wrote, "Beria quickly heartened all work on the project with necessary scope and dynamism. This man, who personified evil in the country's modern history, possessed at the same time tremendous vigor and efficiency... It was impossible not to admit his intellect, willpower, and purposefulness. He was a first class manager, able to bring every job to its conclusion”.

Beria was also fed up with East Germany, saying “it’s not even a real state but one kept in being only by Soviet troops.” As his peer Molotov later recalled, “a stable Germany was good enough for him… I was in favour of not forcing a socialist policy, while Beria favoured not supporting socialism at all.”

This means that, if Beria had become leader, there would have been no Berlin Wall. He also expressed an interest in granting greater political freedom to Soviet satellite republics like Lithuania and Latvia, which would potentially have softened the divide between western Europe and the Eastern Bloc.

Beria also appreciated the great financial gains that could come from a sustained relationship with the United States. It’s likely then, being the pragmatist that he was, he would have eased tensions with the West in a bid to boost the Soviet economy. Far from the escalation of tension which occurred under Khrushchev – an escalation which would have the whole world holding its breath during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. And, if Beria had succeeded in initiating a “thaw” in the Cold War, the quagmire of Vietnam – which was essentially a “proxy war” between the US and the Soviet Union – may have been averted.

Beria’s pragmatic, analytical mind could well have steered the Cold War to an early end had he come to power. Instead, he got his just desserts while begging for mercy before an executioner’s gun, and he is remembered now only for his odious crimes.

HISTORY’s Forgotten People shines a light on those men and women who’ve made an impact on this world, for both good and bad, but whose stories now sit in the shadows of history. Some achieved great things which time forgot, whilst others came close to making their mark on this world but ultimately came up short. All of these people though have a reason to be remembered.