Beria, Lavrenty (1899–1953)

views updated

BERIA, LAVRENTY (1899–1953)


Soviet political figure under Joseph Stalin and head of the Soviet secret police.

Born to a poor peasant family in 1899, Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria was, like Joseph Stalin, a Georgian by nationality. Joining Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik Party in March 1917, Beria participated in the 1917 Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war (1918–1920) in the Red Army and in various revolutionary administrations.

By the end of the civil war Beria was working in Bolshevik intelligence organizations, and during the 1920s he rose through police ranks to become chief of the secret police in Soviet Georgia and Transcaucasia in 1930. This position probably brought him to Stalin's notice during the dictator's holidays in that region, and in 1931 Stalin put the thirty-two-year-old Beria in charge of the entire Georgian Communist Party in the dictator's home region.

In 1938 Stalin brought Beria to Moscow to take over the Soviet secret police (NKVD) from Nikolai Yezhov, who had administered the Great Purges (1936–1938). Blaming the "excesses" of the terror on Yezhov's former administration, Beria released a few thousand purge victims and instituted policies designed to demonstrate an ostensible return to "legality" after the orgy of arrests in 1937–1938, during which millions had been arrested and about 750,000 summarily executed. Beria's liberalism was more apparent than real. He had been an energetic purger back in his Georgian bailiwick, supervising the execution of thousands and the purge of more than two-thirds of the Georgian party leadership. Although the number of executions did fall sharply under Beria, the remainder of Stalin's rule until his death in 1953 saw a steady increase in the level of arrests. Memoirs from the time, however, remember Beria as a good administrator, who raised salaries for police and rations for prisoners, increased efficiency, and brought systematic and predictable management to what had been a chaotic organization.

Vyacheslav Molotov, another of Stalin's senior lieutenants, noted Beria's "almost inhumanly energetic" capacity for work. Stalin agreed, and at the outbreak of World War II in 1941 he made Beria a member of the all-powerful State Committee of Defense, putting him in charge of evacuating Soviet industry in front of the German advance and organizing forced labor for wartime production as well as heading up state security both at the front and in the rear areas. In 1945, faced with the Cold War challenge of a successful U.S. atomic bomb program, Stalin tapped Beria to head the most important Soviet effort of the day: development of a Soviet atomic bomb, which Beria did with his trademark brutality and energy, combined with a willingness to listen to experts. Igor Kurchatov, the scientist considered the "father of the Soviet atomic bomb," admired Beria's administrative ability, flexibility, and energy.

Stalin trusted Beria. In addition to his talents as a tireless and efficient administrator, Beria was able to read Stalin's moods and to adjust himself instantly to the dictator's shifts. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev described Beria as "chameleon-like," and Beria's obsequious flattery and manipulation of Stalin's vanity led the dictator's wife and daughter to despise him; the wife of another of Stalin's lieutenants called Beria a "rat." In Stalin's last years he too was becoming suspicious of Beria. At that time the dictator authored several political maneuvers against Beria, indicating that Stalin was planning a new purge, with Beria almost certainly on the list of those slated for arrest.

Stalin's death in March 1953 therefore was very convenient for Beria. Although there is no evidence that he procured the dictator's death, Beria later told both Molotov and Khrushchev that he, Beria, had "saved them all." Beria's conduct at Stalin's sickbed, as the dictator lay dying, seemed to demonstrate his cunning and lack of principle. When Stalin was unconscious, Beria made scornful remarks about him, but when Stalin was lucid, Beria hurried to proclaim his loyalty and kiss the dictator's hand.

After Stalin's death Beria initiated policies that seemed to display an un-Stalinist liberalism. He launched an amnesty for prisoners, favored conciliatory policies toward Yugoslavia and Germany, and began to replace Russian administrators in the provinces with indigenous officials. His bold forays into policy making alarmed his comrades and competitors in the "collective leadership" that governed after Stalin. Their discovery that Beria's police were tapping their telephones and bugging their apartments was probably the last straw. In June 1953 Khrushchev organized a secret conspiracy among the other top leaders to remove Beria, who was arrested at a meeting of the Presidium of the Communist Party. Beria was executed hours after he was convicted in a secret trial in December 1953.

See alsoKhrushchev, Nikita; Soviet Union; Stalin, Joseph; Yezhov, Nikolai.


Primary Sources

Beria, Sergo. Beria, My Father: Inside Stalin's Kremlin. Translated by Brian Pearce. London, 2001. Somewhat laudatory but revealing memoir by Beria's son.

Naumov, V. P., and IU. V. Sigachev, eds. Lavrentiy Beria, 1953. Stenogramma iiun'skogo iiulskogo plenuma TsK KPSS i drugie dokumenty. Moscow, 1999. The transcript of the Central Committee meeting that approved Beria's fall, with speeches by the other post-Stalin leaders.

Secondary Sources

Knight, Amy. Beria: Stalin's First Lieutenant. Princeton, N.J., 1993. The authoritative scholarly biography of Beria in English.

J. Arch Getty

About this article

Beria, Lavrenty (1899–1953)

Updated About content Print Article