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Lavrenty Beria
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Lavrenty Beria

Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria (Russian: Лавре́нтий Па́влович Бе́рия) (29 March, 1899 - 23 December, 1953) was an important Soviet Communist Party functionary. He presided over the NKVD, the Soviet secret police and predecessor to the KGB, during the latter part of Stalin's rule, and is widely believed to have been directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

Table of contents
1 Early career
2 Stalin's henchman
3 After Stalin
4 See also
5 Further reading

Early career

Like Stalin, Beria was an ethnic Georgian. (Strictly speaking he was a Mingrelian, a people related to the Georgians.) He was born in Merkheuli in the Abkhazian region of Georgia. Beria joined the Bolshevik Party in 1917 and began his career in the Cheka (the Soviet political police) in 1921. He was Party Secretary in Georgia from 1931 to 1938, and for the whole Transcaucasian region from 1932 to 1936.

In 1938, Stalin brought Beria to Moscow as deputy head of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), the Soviet Union's political police force, which under the command of Nikolai Yezhov had organised the mass arrests, executions and deportations to gulags of millions of people in the course of Stalin's Great Purge. Shortly after Beria's arrival Stalin dismissed Yezhov (who was later executed) and replaced him with Beria. Although Beria's name has since become synonymous with the Purge, in fact he presided over its winding down after its peak in 1937-38.

Stalin's henchman

In February 1941 Beria became a Deputy Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom). During World War II he took on major domestic responsibilities, using the millions of people imprisoned in NKVD labour camps for wartime production. He was also responsible for Soviet espionage and counter-espionage during the war. After the war, he presided over the renewed purges in the Party and government in the period between 1947 and 1953. He also supervised the establishment of Soviet-style systems of secret police in the countries of the Warsaw Pact, including show trials of Communist leaders such as László Rajk in Hungary and Rudolf Slánský in Czechoslovakia.

Beria was largely responsible, under Stalin, for the deportations of millions of people from ethnic minorities within the Soviet Union, such as the Chechens, the Crimean Tartars and the Volga Germans. He also supervised the deportations of millions of people 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.

Beria was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party from 1934 and of the Politburo from 1946. After the war 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. During the war he was also in charge of the Soviet atomic bomb project.

After Stalin

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 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 Ministry for Internal Security (MVD). He considered himself to be the natural successor to Stalin and was initially the closest ally of Georgy Malenkov, the new Premier of the Soviet Union and initially the most powerful man in the post-Stalin leadership. Beria was the second most powerful leader in the USSR and, given Malenkov's weakness, was in a position to become the power behind the throne and ultimately may have become the leader of the country.

Despite Beria's history as 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 not only publicly denounced the Doctors' plot as a "fraud" but he released large numbers political prisoners and brought in a liberal policy towards non-Russian nationalities in the Soviet Union. He also persuaded the Presidium and the Council of Ministers to urge the Communist regime in East Germany to allow liberal economic and political reforms.

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 Nikita Khrushchev, the party General Secretary, but he was initially unable to challenge the Beria-Malenkov axis. His opportunity came in June 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. On June 26 the members of the Presidium (the renamed Politburo), at the instigation of Khrushchev, agreed to arrest Beria at a Presidium meeting. Since the police could not be trusted to arrest their own leader, senior army officers did the job. Beria was tried and shot in December 1953, although Khrushchev was later to claim that he shot Beria himself at the June meeting of the Presidium. Beria's trial was a closed affair, but evidence of his involvement in numerous rapes and tortures was produced.

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. After his death the MVD was reduced from the status of a Ministry to a mere Committee (KGB), and no Soviet police chief ever again held the kind of power Beria had wielded.

In March 2000 the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation refused to rehabilitate Beria, who is believed to have personally committed murders and rape. The refusal was based on the grounds of Beria's proved crimes against humanity.

See also

Further reading

Beria: Stalin's First Lieutenant by Amy Knight, Princeton University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-691-01093-5