By Ruwan M Jayatunge –
Let me have him for one night, I will interrogate him properly, then he would confess that he is the King of England (Beria during Nikolai Buharin‘s show trial)
In 1953 when the Soviet authorities denounced the former Secret Police Chief Lavrenthi Beria, the Time magazine published an article titled “Russia: Policeman on Trial”. Suddenly the term Beria became a household name in the West. The Sri Lankan politician Wijayananda Dahanayaka said ” we do not need to worry about Russian Beria but we have to be cautious of Sri Lankan Boria (Boria is a derogatory term in Sinhala which is used to call a dog) Dahanayaka was referring to a famous politician who was extremely ambitious and aiming for power. Ironically many countries had their own Berias. For instance J. Edgar Hoover -the FBI chief was misusing his powers and harassing people.Hooverused the term “Communists” to hunt down the people that he disliked. Beria used the term “enemies of the people” to denounce his opponents. In every regime we see certain type of figures doing the dirty work for their Heads of State. These people have immense power and they operate behind the scene manipulating the leader. They are the unofficial decision makers. The country’s fate often depends on these unofficial Figureheads. Lavrenthi Beria was such a person who had immense power during Joseph Stalin’s regime. He decided the fate of the millions of people in theSoviet Union.
Beria’s Rise to Power
Lavrenthi Beria played an important part in the Soviet history and he was regarded as the Dictator Joseph Stalin’s personal instrument of terror. Beria bore a ruthless character but he was extremely intelligent and manipulative. Born to a poor peasant family in Georgia Lavrenthi Beria was ambitious since his young days. In 1918 he joined the Bolsheviks and emerged as a regional leader in the Central AsianrepublicofGeorgia. (According to the American historian Kurt Singer in 1917 Beria went Albania, where he met with Joseph Broz Tito)
He met Stalin in a party conference in 1926 and was able to read the inner mind of the potential dictator who was eager to power and obsessed with revenge. Beria wrote a book on the October Revaluation titled “On the history of the Bolshevik Organization in Transcaucasia” depicting Joseph Stalin as an outstanding revolutionist who performed hand in hand with Lenin. (But the fact remains that rather than political activities Jo Stalin did bank robberies and several murders before the October revolution) Hence he was able to impress Stalin immensely. Although Beria did not take any active part in the 1917 October Revaluation like Stalin (on the the day of the Russian Revaluation -7th of November 1917 Stalin was at Sergei Alliluyev’s house, drinking tea and telling anecdotes to his daughter Nadia ) Beria’s power grew rapidly.
When Lenin was sick Stalin gradually took over the office with the help of the senior politburo members- especially with Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. In the final stage Lenin was able to realize the inhuman nature of Stalin and suggested that Stalin mast be replaced by more intelligent, amenable and a popular person. Soon after the death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in 1924 his testament was discussed by the politburo members. Despite Lenin’s wishes moderate leaders like Sergey Kirov and Nikolai Buharin supported Stalin. In this meeting Stalin’s leadership was greatly opposed by Leon Trotsky and Lenin’s widow Krupskaya. But they were helpless.
After he rose to power, Stalin’s suspicion and paranoia started to grow. In 1938 he appointed Beria as the head of the secret police NKVD. (By this time Stalin had purged Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov the former NKVD Heads ) Beria could see through his master and fulfilled his deadly wishes. Unlike Yagoda and Yezhov he served his master until his death. This demonstrates the outstanding survival skills of Beria. Stalin did not like to keep his secret police chiefs for long periods. His theory was simple , generally when the dirty work is over they should perish. However Beria survived.
By this period Sergey Kirov was murdered by Stalin’s initiative and many senior politburo members including Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and even the popular leader Nikolai Buharin were arrested on false charges. Under these fake charges Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were personally executed by Beria. Before the execution Grigory Zinoviev broke in to tears and cried “ohIsrael, the Lord Our God, the Lord is one”. Later Beria imitated the last minutes of Zinoviev in front of Stalin and Stalin laughed until the tears came. Several times Baria was asked to perform it at the dinner table by Stalin. But Lev Kamenev faced the death bravely. At his execution Nikolai Buharin gave a small letter to Beria asking deliver it to Stalin. Beria did exactly what Buharin requested. The letter stated with a few words- Koba (its Stalin’s nick name) why you need my death?.
The evidence show that Beria had tortured most of the Politburo elites who were personal friends of Lenin. Beria used callous methods to obtain a false confession from Buharin. Eventually he was broken and Buharin accepted all the charges against him – espionage , sabotaging the Soviet Economy , plotting to kill Stalin , collaboration with the Imperialists etc. Over the years Stalin with the help of Beria executed many senior politburo members and active participants of the October Revaluation and the veterans of the Civil War under the decisions of a Kangaroo Court. Anna Larina,- Nikolai Buharin’s wife secretly fought for decades seeking justice for her husband. Many years after Buharin’s execution he was officially rehabilitated by the Soviet Government in 1988 during the process of Perestroika that was initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Georgian Nationalist Uprising and Beria
In 1920, Beria became a member of the Bolshevik secret police, Cheka. Beria had a special interest inGeorgia. In 1924 members of the Georgian Social Democratic Party launched an uprising against the Soviet rule. It was called the August Uprising. Beria brutally crushed the Georgian nationalist uprising eliminating over 10,000 Georgians. The Georgians never forgave Beria for crushing their freedom fight. Even today the Georgians regard Beria as a traitor.
The Georgian journalist Zurab Makharashvili writes……..
Beria in the Caucasus eliminated every individual who challenged the myth of Stalin………. Before the Stalin-Beria purges, Tbilisi was famed for ‘the high level of culture of the leading section of society–an active intellectual life which, by then, was rarely to be found elsewhere. The events of 1937 resulted in the elimination or demoralization of the elite among the Georgian intelligentsia. The next fifteen years or more were a period of utter stagnation in Georgian literature……….
(Georgiaunder Soviet Occupation- Zurab Makharashvili)
Beria’s role during the Collectivization and the Artificial Famine
When Stalin launched his gigantic plan of Collectivization many peasants opposed it and they did not want to surrender their products to the government for lower prizes. Some peasants destroyed their harvest and eliminated the livestock. Stalin used his brutal methods to seize the harvest and the lands. He created food blockades and confiscated the grain creating a famine situation especially in the fertile regions of Ukraine. The people called it Holodomor and millions of men women and children died of hunger. Beria gave his fullest support to Stalin to fulfill this ruthless task. Even Stalin’s wife Nadya Alliluyeva was
horrified when she saw how children were starving in Ukraine. Although she implored Stalin to stop the pre planned starvation his response was extremely negative. These disagreements led to her death in 1932.
Trotsky’s Assassination and Beria’s involvement
When Trotsky was deported from the Soviet Union in 1929 and he finally settled down in Mexico City. He was becoming more popular internationally and Trotsky daringly criticized Stalin’s actions. He was becoming a threat to Stalin’s ideological war. Stalin gave direct orders to Beria to eliminate Trotsky. On the 20th of August 1940 Ramon Mercader an undercover agent of the NKVD attacked Trotsky with an ice axe. Trotsky was fatally wounded and he succumbed to the injuries. Beria and the NKVD spent nearly $ 5 million (in today’s exchange rate) to kill Trotsky- the founder of the Red Army.
Beria and the Gulags
To achieve the maximum results from his industrialization plan Stalin needed man power and wanted to exploit resources from the uncharted areas inSiberia. This necessity and his paranoia fixed absolutely well. Stalin ordered to arrest masses of people and deported them to forced labour camps which were known as Gulags. The prisoners received derogatory treatment in these camps and they had to work extremely hard to earn their daily bread. Many died of malnutrition, dysentery and other infectious diseases. Beria gave his utmost support to Stalin. Sometimes Beria gave personal orders to deport thousands of people to gulags in the Kolymaregion.
It was a time of madness , confusion and paranoia. To denounce a person the task was very easy. First to label the person as a traitor or a spy who was conspiring against the state- enemy of the people , and then conduct a fake inquiry followed by torture to obtain a false confession. The matter could be finished within 24 hours and the person was sent to a Gulag. The state media gave fullest publicity and publicly denounced so called the dangerous elements – Enemies of the People. Beria was a shrewd propagandist and knew how to twist the media to tune people. The public gathered in masses and thanked Stalin and Beria for protecting theSoviet Unionfrom these enemies. Many of the innocent victims who went to Gulags never returned.
The Gulag victim and the famous author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn revealed the horrific nature of these labour camps. According to the historians over 14 million people passed through the Gulag from 1929 to 1953. Soon after Stalin’s death Beria released millions of Gulag prisoners including some criminals. This action may have prompted by winning the popularity of the general public, demonizing Stalin and making him accountable for the Gulags and to destabilize pro Nikita Khrushchev group. Beria had an intention to become Stalin’s successor. But his ambition short lived.
Beria and the Great Patriotic War
The Soviet people were forced to enter the war with Hitler when Hitlerite forces invaded theUSSRin 1942 violating the Brest-Litovsk treaty. Stalin trusted Hitler and he could not believe that the German army invaded theSoviet Union. Stalin disregarded the intelligence reports and often said that he could trust Adolf Hitler. When the invasion took place the Red army could not organize the counter attack for a number of weeks. Hitler’s attack was a shock to Stalin and for over 10 days he did not show up at the office. In the early days of the war the German Army had the upper hand. The Enemy was advancing towardsMoscow.
Stalin decided to flee fromMoscowbut in the last moment he changed his mind and stayed. The Military genius and the tactician General Georgy Zhukov organized the counter attack and defeated the German invading troops nearMoscow. It was a turning point in the WW2. After the WW2 Beria took numerous efforts to purge the great General Georgy Zhukov who defeated Hitler in the Eastern Front. But Stalin was afraid of Gen. Zhukov’s immense popularity among the public and within the Red Army. Instead of arresting him on false charges General Georgy Zhukov was given less administrative power and transferred to Odessa. at the end of the War.
Beria’s role during the war was not recorded with heroic efforts. But he (the order was initially given by Stalin) ordered to shoot retreating soldiers and sent Shtrafnoy Battalions (Penal Battalions that consisted of forcibly recruited prisoners and condemned men) to the battle front. These men had to advance without a retreat otherwise they were shot by the NKVD men. The German 6th Army faced the Shtrafnoy Battalions at the Stalingrad war front. Many of these Shtrafnoy Battalions perished in the war. Those who fought in the battle with exceptional bravery were never recognized and often sent to jail or executed after the war.
During the Great Patriotic War Beria launched a project titled Shemerth Shpionam (Death to Spies) that was approved by Stalin. The NKVD squads eliminated a large number of retreating soldiers and POWs. Public executions became common. Beria organized mass deportations of Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans and many other ethnic groups. It was a cultural genocide indeed.
After the German troops were driven out of the Soviet Union Beria was in charge of punishing the collaborators who supported the enemy in the occupied territory. He arrested the collaborates as well as a large number of innocent people who were trapped in the war and who had no alternatives. Many Russian POWs those who escaped from the German camps heroically were treated as traitors and executed. Aleksandr Proshkin’s 1987 movie Cold Summer of 1953 narrates heroic efforts of a Red army soldier who escaped from a German POW camp and how he was treated as a traitor when he returned home. His military record and brave actions were disregarded. The soldier was arrested and after a brief trial he was sent to a Gulag. According to Aleksandr Proshkin there were thousands of such cases.
The Great Russian Novelist and the Nobel prize laureate Mikhail Sholokhov challenged Stalin’s narrow view on the POWs and wrote his famous short story SUDBA CHILAVIEKA – The Plight of a Man. Joseph Stalin created cult personality during his reign in the Soviet Union. Stalin wanted to use the literary skills of the great novelist Mikhail Sholokhov to glorify his image. Mikhail Sholokhov knew the slaughter that Stalin did in Gulags and the repercussions of the artificial famine in Ukraine, which caused millions of innocent lives. Sholokhov had a true conscience and self-dignity to deny the offer. He did not write the biography of Great Stalin or put Stalin’s image in his novels as a heroic figure. Sholokhov refused to worship Stalin blindly like many others. On the contrary, he challenged Stalin’s prejudices of Russian POW s. According to Stalin POW s were traitors who did not fulfill the military task. Many POW s were executed or deported by Stalin when they retuned to their motherland. Sholokhov disagreed with Stalin on this point. In his outstanding short story Sudba Cheloveka Mikhail Sholokhov, discloses a character named Andray Sakalove – a Red Army POW who escaped with a heroic efforts.
Several times Beria tried to denounce Mikhail Sholokhov on Stalin’s orders. But Sholokhov’s popularity as a novelist and his International recognition suppressed these attacks. When Maxim Gorky died in 1936 many suspected Stalin’s involvement. Denouncing Maxim Gorky Stalin said “Gorky is an artist, a person of moods and emotions, and these emotions can lead him astray. He can cause great damage to the Party.”‘ (The Murder of Maxim Gorky: A Secret Execution – 2006 by Arkadi Vaksberg ) But Beria and Stalin accused Bukharin for murdering Maxim ‘Gorky in 1938 Show trial.
Beria’s Involvement in the Katyn Massacre
On the 5th of March 1940 Beria sent a letter to Stalin regarding the fate of the Polish officers who were captured in 1939. Beria suggested eliminating the captured Polish officers. Stalin agreed and over 22,000 Polish officers were murdered in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Belarus. Nazi Germany announced the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest in 1943. Stalin refused the charges and stated that the murders were done by the SS Guards. In 1989 Soviet authorities declassified secret files and admitted that Katyn massacre was done by the NKVD men with the orders given by Stalin and Beria.
Beria and Great Purges
Beria was responsible for political purges for Stalin. Beria played a key role in the Great Purges of the 1930s, dispatching hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens to the gulags or execution.Some estimate that over 20 million people were purged during the period of Stalin.There was a popular but secret phrase among the politburo members and Red Army Officers to describe purges. They often called it “going to have coffee with Beria”
In his book the Gularg Archipelago Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes…..
“Any adult inhabitant of this country, from a collective farmer up to a member of the Politburo, always knew that it would take only one careless word or gesture and he would fly off irrevocably into the abyss.”
Beria’s Psychological Deviations
Beria was an atheist but he believed in psychics. The only person, other than Stalin, Beria feared and respected, was a man named Budiani. Budiani was his personal astrologer.
According to Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva’s book Only One Year portrays Beria as a person who was obsessed with weapons. Beria had a large collection of pistols and automatic weapons. On Sundays Beria used to do target practicing. The former NKVD agents affirm that Beria took the pleasure of shooting his former comrades Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Nikolai Buharin. When his predecessor Nikolai Yezhov fell from grace Beria humiliated and tortured him before sending him to death.
Beria publicly mentioned his mode of terror. In 1934 at the Tenth Congress of Communist Party Beria stated: “Let it be known enemies, that anyone who tries to raise his hand against the will of our people, against the wishes of the party of Lenin and Stalin, will be mercilessly crushed and destroyed.”
Stalin constantly admired Beria’s torturous methods. Introducing Beria to Winston Churchill during the Second World War, Stalin playfully described him as “our Himmler”. (Heinrich Himmler was Hitler’s personal instrument of terror)
With so much power in hand naturally Beria was attracted to many women. Numerous secret reports of Beria’s personal life indicate that he was a sex addict and suffered from a sexually transmitted disease. When Beria met the beautiful girl Nina Teymurazovna in Sukhumi the capital of Abkhazia he arrested her under false charges and raped her. Then he kept her under custody until she agreed to marry him. Hence Nina Teymurazovna became his wife.
When Baria lost power he was interrogated in 1953. During the interrogation Beria admitted that he had physical relations with 62 women and suffered from Syphilis in 1943. He once raped a school girl who studied in year 7 and she was pregnant with his illegitimate child. According to the journalist Thaddeus Uittlin’s reports Beria used to stop his vehicle near Moscow girl schools and kidnapped attractive girls. When Beria notices a beautiful girl his assistant Colonel Sarkisov approaches the girl and shows his NKVD ID card then orders her to follow him. Often these girls ended up in Beria’s sound proof interrogation office in Lubyanka or in his basement at the Kachalova Street. Sometimes before raping the girls Beria used to whip them. Among the high ranking government officers Beria was famous for sexual predatory. He kept a list of his sexual victims (investigator had information on 221 mistress of Beria and other sources reveal that the number exceeds 760 women) and in 2003 the the Russian Government acknowledged the list’s existence.
Did Beria kill Stalin?
Being a smart individual Beria knew Stalin trusted no one and he kept no permanent associates. Two of his NKVD chiefs Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov were sent to death by Starlin after getting them to do the dirty work. Beria knew that his days were numbered. On 1st of March 1953 Stalin’s inner circle were invited to dine with him as usual. During the dinner Stalin got drunk and chased all the guests including Lavrenthi Beria, Nikita Khrushchev, Vyacheslav and Molotov. Expelling the visitors from the dinner table Stalin said “Its over for all of you”. Then Beria knew that they were doomed. Stalin was planning another purge. But this time party elites including his closest henchman Beria were to be purged.
After this incident less then 72 hours Stalin suffered a stroke and became unconscious. He was lying on the floor helplessly. Beria did not call the medics. In the last stage the Doctors wear called but it was too late. Stalin died. Stalin’s son General Vasily Dzhugashvili who was present at the Dictator’s death bed accused the top ranking officers (Beria?) for assassinating his father. Later Beria said to Nikita Khrushchev that I saved all of you from Stalin’s final blow. Considering these accounts some experts view certain foul play was associated with Stalin’s death. Some suspect that Beria had poisoned Stalin.
Downfall of Beria
After becoming the Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev was constantly afraid of Beria’s actions. Khrushchev wanted to remove Beria as soon as possible. Nikita Khrushchev ordered Beria’s arrest on the 26th of June 1953. He was arrested by the Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov. Georgy Zhukov pointed his service pistol at Beria and asked him to surrender. Without any confrontation Beria gave up. Then he was taken to a military base near Moscow and kept him for about 6 months under arrest. Beria was not taken to Lubianka by Khrushchev’s orders. Nikita Khrushchev feared possible escape attempt by Beria at Lubianka. Beria was found guilty of treason, terrorism, and counter-revolutionary activities. He was executed by General P.F. Batitskim on the 21st of December 1953. Beria’s remains were secretly taken to a crematorium and cremated.
So much speculation emerged after Beria’s death. His son Sergo Gegechkori Beria denied the official version of Beria’s death. According to Sergo – Beria’s son when Nikita Khrushchev’s men tried to arrest his father in his house Beria resisted and there were exchange of fire. As a result of the confrontation Beria died. WhenBeria’s son arrived he could see the bullet holes in his feather’s study room. Sergo Gegechkori Beria believes that Beria died during the arrest.
The Horror of Beria
Beria’s horrors still live in Russia. In 1993 the journalist Helan Womack reported that building workers digging a ditch in Moscow’s Kachalova Streetnear Beria’s mansion found some human bones. Beria was notorious for carrying out interrogation and torture in his own home and Helan Womack assumes that these bones could be the remains of his personal victims. The investigators found no traces of clothes, shoes, jewelery or pieces of coffins. The corpses had been buried naked.
Beria and his Managerial Skills
Although Beria has been portrayed as evil incarnate some former Soviet officials highlight the managerial skills of Baria. He was an excellent administrator and had the reputation of getting things done, no matter what it cost. Stalin placed him in charge of many of his most important plans including the Soviet atomic bomb project. In 1934, he became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Beria was awarded numerous awards such as Hero of Socialist Labor (1943), Marshal of theSoviet Union(1945). Beria was awarded five Orders of Lenin, two Orders of Red Banner, Order of Suvorov and he was twice (in 1949 and 1951) awarded the Stalin Prize.
Following story reveals the capabilities of Beria even many years after his death.
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he wanted to promote his Perestroika and Glasnost to renovate the Soviet society. The economy was collapsing and Gorbachev was fed up with the sabotages conducted by anti Perestroika elements. He spoke to a group of experts and asked for their advice. “What is to be done to uplift the economy”Gorbachev asked from the panel. All the members unanimously said “we need Beria”.
Undeniably Baria was an evil genius. Stalin used Beria to create a totalitarian state which became a superpower. The Great Russian Author and the a master of realistic fiction Leo Tolstoy writes in his great epic War and Peace : The nature creates a large number of rabbits and a small number of wolves to keep the the natural balance. Beria is not dead. In many regimes today we see people similar to Beria. Do we need people like Beria to keep the societies in control to achieve material development ? Is there any psycho- political explanation ? Who knows sometimes the societies demand Berias.
1) Alexander Solzhenitsyn – The Gulag Archipelago
2) Amy Knight – Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant
3) SergoGegechkori Beria- My Father: Lavrenti Beria
4) Svetlana Alliluyeva- Only One Year
5) Zaleski K.A- Stalin’s empire
6) Georgy Zhukov -The autobiography of General Georgy Zhukov- Воспоминания и размышления –Published inMoscow
7) Arkadi Vaksberg – The Murder of Maxim Gorky: A Secret Execution
1) Interview with Stepanove Victor Yakovlevich – Professor of Political Economy
2) Interview with Piveshenko V.I – Professor of Soviet History
3) Interview with Ivan Guminuk – Member of the Ukrainian Resistance during WW2 (1986)
4) Interview with Mrs. Medovar .M.S – a student at the King Campus Seneca College King City Toronto (2010)