Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria (Georgian: ლავრენტი ბერია; Russian: Лаврентий Павлович Берия; March 29, 1899 – December 23, 1953) was a Soviet politician and chief of the Soviet security and police apparatus.
Beria is now remembered chiefly as the executor of the final stages of Joseph Stalin's Great Purge of the 1930s. He was in charge of Soviet NKVD at its peak, concluding the era of the Purge by liquidating the very officials who had carried it out, and administering the vast network of labor camps known to history as the Gulag Archipelago.
He rose to prominence in the Cheka (secret police) in Georgia and the Transcaucasus, becoming Communist Party secretary in these areas, and in 1938 became head of the natonal secret police. As commissar (later minister) of internal affairs, Beria wielded great power, and he was the first in this post to become (1946) a member of the Politburo.
He was also influential during and after World War II and immediately after Stalin's death in March 1953, when he apparently attempted to use his position as chief of the secret police to succeed Stalin as dictator. Ironically, during this time Beria recast himself as a liberalizing reformer and was even suspected of making a deal with the West. His bid for power thus ended with his execution on the orders of Nikita S. Khrushchev.
Rise to power
Beria was born the son of Pavel Khukhaevich Beria, a peasant, in Merkheuli, near Sukhumi in the Abkhazian region of Georgia, then part of Imperial Russia. He was a member of the Mingrelian subgroup. 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.
In 1920 or 1921 (accounts vary) Beria joined the Cheka (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 Cheka was heavily involved in this conflict. By 1922 Beria was deputy head of the Cheka's successor, the OGPU (Combined State Political Directorate), in Georgia. In 1924 he led the repression of nationalist disturbances in Georgia, after which it is said that up to ten thousand 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 Beria became head of the Georgian OGPU and was an ally of fellow Georgian Joseph Stalin in his rise to power within the Communist Party. 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.
During this time Beria also started to attack fellow members of the Georgian Bolshevik party, particularly Gaioz Devdariani, who was then Minister of Education of the Georgian SSR. Both brothers of Devdariani, George and Shalva—holding important positions in Cheka and the Communist party of Georgia—were killed on the orders of Beria. Eventually, Gaioz himself was charged with counter-revolutionary activities and was executed in 1938 on the orders of the NKVD troika. Even after moving on from Georgia, Beria continued to effectively control the republic's Communist Party through the early 1950s.
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 Organizations in Transcaucasia," later published as a book, which portrayed the history of Transcaucasian Bolshevism emphasizing Stalin's role in it. 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 republics.
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 its chief, 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. He concluded the era of the Great Purge by liquidating NKVD officials, including his erstwhile superior, Yezhov who was executed in 1940. After assuming control of the NKVD, Beria replaced half its personnel with people he believed to be loyal, many of them from the Caucasus.
Though he ended the purge, Beria initiated other widespread repressive activities, administering the vast network of labor camps set up throughout the country and supervising deportations of populations from Poland and the Baltic states following their occupation by Soviet forces.
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 1941 Beria was made a Commissar General of State Security, a highest military-like rank within the Soviet police ranking system of that time.
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, he became a member of the State Defense Committee (GKO). During World War II he took on major domestic responsibilities, using the millions of people imprisoned in NKVD labor camps for wartime production. He took control of production of armaments, aircraft, and aircraft engines. This also marked the beginning of Beria's alliance with Georgy 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 Tatars and the Volga Germans. Large populations of these minorities were deported to Soviet Central Asia.
In December 1944 Beria was also charged with the the supervision of the Soviet atomic bomb project. In this connection he ran the successful Soviet espionage campaign against United States atomic weapons program which resulted in the Soviets obtaining a nuclear bomb technology, and building and testing a bomb in 1949. However his most important contribution was providing a necessary workforce. The Gulag system provided tens of thousands of workers for mining uranium, construction and running of uranium processing plants, and construction of test facilities. Beria's NKVD also ensured the necessary security and secrecy of the project. In July 1945, as Soviet police ranks were converted to a uniform military system, Beria's rank was converted to that of a Marshal of the Soviet Union.
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, then 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. In January 1946 Beria left the post of the head of the NKVD, while retaining general control over national security matters from his position of Deputy Prime Minister, under Stalin.
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 reportedly 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.
Stalin died on March 5 1953, 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. The story about the murder of Stalin by Beria associates was elaborated by Russian writer and historian Edvard Radzinsky in his book Stalin: The First In-Depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents From Russia's Secret Archives, based on interviews of a former Stalin's bodyguard, published memories, and other data.
After Stalin's death, Beria was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister and reappointed head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs MVD, which he merged with the Ministry of State Security MGB, laying the groundwork for the emergence of the KGB a year later. 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 was in a position to become the power behind the throne and ultimately leader himself. Khrushchev became Party Secretary, which was seen as a less important post than the Prime Ministership.
Beria was at the forefront of a pragmatic program of liberalization after Stalin's death. In April he signed a decree banning the use of torture in Soviet prisons. He also signaled a more liberal policy toward the non-Russian nationalities in the Soviet Union, perhaps reflecting his own non-Russian roots. He persuaded the Presidium (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.
Whether or not he was sincere in these policies, Beria's past made it difficult for him to lead a liberalizing regime in the Soviet Union, a role which later fell to Khrushchev. The essential task of Soviet reformers was to bring the secret police, which Beria himself had used as his primary power base, under party control.
Given his record, it is not surprising that the other party leaders were suspicious of Beria's motives in all this. Khrushchev opposed the alliance between Beria and Malenkov, but he was initially unable to challenge the Beria-Malenkov axis. Khrushchev's opportunity came in June 1953 when demonstrations against the East German Communist regime broke out in East Berlin. Party insiders were suspicious that Beria had grown soft toward the West and, the East German demonstrations convinced Molotov, Malenkov and Nikolai Bulganin that Beria's liberalizing policies were dangerous and destabilizing to Soviet interests. Within days of the events in Germany, Khrushchev persuaded the other leaders to support a party coup against Beria; even Beria's principal ally Malenkov abandoned him.
Accounts of Beria's demise are contradictory. He was reportedly taken first to the Lefortovo prison and then to the headquarters of General Kirill Moskalenko, commander of Moscow District Air defense 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 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" with no defense counsel and no right of appeal. He and his subordinates were immediately executed on December 23, 1953.  His burial location remains a mystery to this day.
However, according to other accounts, the trial was conducted post-mortem, and Beria's house was assaulted by military units on June 26, 1953. According to this version of events, Beria was killed on the spot.
In any case, Beria's wife and son were sent to a labor camp. His wife, Nino, died in 1991 in exile in Ukraine; his son Sergo died in October 2000 still defending his father's reputation.
In May 2000 the Supreme Court of Russia refused an application by members of Beria's family to overturn his 1953 conviction. The application was based on a Russian law that provided for rehabilitation of victims of false political accusations. The court ruled, that "Beria was the organizer of repression against his own people, and therefore could not be considered a victim."
Allegations against Beria
There are numerous allegations that Beria raped women, and that he personally tortured and killed many of his political victims. Charges of sexual assault and sexual deviance against Beria were first made in the speech by a Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Nikolay Shatalin, at the Plenary Meeting of the committee on July 10, 1953, two weeks after Beria's arrest. Shatalin said that Beria had had sexual relations with numerous women and that he had contracted syphilis as a result of his sex with prostitutes. Shatalin referred to a list, supposedly kept by Beria's bodyguard, of over 25 women with whom Beria had sex. Over time, however, the charges became more dramatic. Khrushchev in his posthumously published memoirs wrote: "We were given a list of more than a 100 names of women. They were dragged to Beria by his people. And he had the same trick for them all: all who got to his house for the first time, Beria would invite for a dinner and would propose to drink for the health of Stalin. And in wine, he would mix in some sleeping pills…"
By the 1980s, the sexual assault stories about Beria included the rape of teenage girls. Numerous stories have also circulated over the years involving Beria personally beating, torturing and killing his victims. Since the 1970s, Muscovites have been retelling stories of bones found in either the back yard, cellars, or hidden inside the walls of Beria's former residence, currently the Tunisian Embassy. Such stories continue to re-appear in the news media. The London Daily Telegraph reported: "The latest grisly find—a large thigh bone and some smaller leg bones—was only two years ago when a kitchen was re-tiled  Such reports are denied by Beria's defenders.
Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, more than any other figure besides Stalin himself, was responsible for the institutionalization of the Soviet police state, its chief instrument, the NKVD, and its eventual successor, the KGB. The vast, pervasive security apparatus that institutionalized terror, epitomized by the late night knock on the door, became Beria’s lasting legacy, not only in the Soviet Union, but in other communist states as well.
Beria also came to personify the Great Purge trials of the 1930s, although he was not the primary architect. He was also the driving force behind the creation of the vast network of labor camps, which would later be called, by Soviet dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the “Gulag Archipelago.”
- Beria, Sergo. Beria: My Father, Inside Stalin's Kremlin. London, 2001. Duckworth Publishers, 2003. ISBN 9780715632055
- Beria, L. P. On the history of the Bolshevik organizations in Transcaucasia: Speech delivered at a meeting of party functionaries, July 21-22, 1935. Translated from the 4th Russian edition of 1939. ASIN B0006DFA56
- Khruschev, Nikita. Khruschev Remembers: Last Testament. Random House, 1977. ISBN 0517175479
- Knight, Amy. Beria: Stalin's First Lieutenant. Princeton University Press, 1993. ISBN 0691032572
- Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. Simon and Schuster, 1996. ISBN 0684824140
- Stove, R. J. The Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and Their Victims. Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2003. ISBN 189355466X
- Sudoplatov, Pavel. Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness - A Soviet Spymaster. Little Brown & Co, 1994. ISBN 0316773522
- Yakovlev, A. N., V. Naumov, and Y. Sigachev, eds. Lavrenty Beria, 1953. Stenographic Report of July's Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Other Documents. Moscow: International Democracy Foundation, Moscow, 1999 (in Russian). ISBN 5895110061
All links retrieved October 25, 2022.
- An outline of the Russian Supreme Court decision of 29 May 2000. www.globalsecurity.org.
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