Beria, Lavrenti Pavlovich

views updated Jun 27 2018


(18991953), Soviet politician and police official, chief of the NKVD 19381946.

Born in Merkheuli, a village in the Georgian Republic, Lavrenti Beria enrolled in the Baku Polytechnic for Mechanical Construction in 1915 and graduated four years later. Meanwhile, after joining the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in March 1917, he participated in the Russian Revolution as an underground soldier and counterintelligence agent in the Caucasus. Beria's career with the Soviet secret police began in early 1921, when the ruling Bolsheviks assigned him to the notorious Cheka (Extraordinary Commission for Fighting Revolution and Sabotage) in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. As a deputy to the ruthless Cheka chief in that republic, Mir Dzhafar Bagirov, Beria engaged in bloody reprisals against the opponents of Bolshevik rule, even drawing criticism from some Caucasian Bolshevik leaders for the violent methods he used. By late 1922, with the anti-Bolshevik rebels in Azerbaijan subdued, Beria was transferred to Georgia, where there were still serious challenges to the Soviet regime. He assumed the post of deputy chairman of the Georgian Cheka, throwing himself into the job of fighting political dissent among his fellow Georgians. Beria's influence grew as the political police played an increasing role in Georgian politics. His career was successful because he helped to engineer the defeat of the national communists, who wanted Georgia to retain some form of independence from Moscow, and the consequent victory of those who favored strong centralized control by the Bolsheviks.

By 1926 Beria had risen to the post of chairman of the Georgian GPU (State Political Administration, the successor organization to the Cheka). Beria was the consumate Soviet politician. His political fortunes were furthered not only by his effectiveness in using the secret police to enforce Soviet rule, but also by his ability to win favor with Soviet party leader Josef Stalin, a Georgian by nationality, by playing on Stalin's suspicions of the native Georgian party leadership. Having extended his influence into the party apparatus, Beria was elected in 1931 to the post of first secretary of the Georgian party apparatus, a remarkable achievement for a man of only thirty-two years. Henceforth Beria would continue to ingratiate himself with Stalin by furthering Stalin's personality cult in Georgia. In 1935 Beria published a lengthy treatise, On the History of Bolshevik Organizations in Transcaucasia, which greatly exaggerated Stalin's role in the revolutionary movement in the Caucasus before 1917. The book was serialized in the major party newspaper, Pravda, and made Beria a figure of national stature.

When Stalin embarked on his policy of terrorizing the party and the country through his bloody purges of the Communist Party apparatus from 1936 through 1938, Beria was a willing accomplice. In Georgia alone, thousands perished at the hands of the secret police, and thousands more were condemned to prisons and labor camps, as part of a nationwide Stalinist vendetta against the Soviet people. Although many party leaders perished in the purges, Beria emerged unscathed, and in 1938 Stalin rewarded him with the post of head of the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, as the secret police was then called) in Moscow. After carrying out a full-scale purge of the NKVD leadership, Beria brought in his associates from the party and police in Georgia to fill the top NKVD posts, thereby creating an extensive power base in the NKVD and increasing his political influence in the Kremlin.

After the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, Beria, as a deputy Soviet premier, over-saw the enormous job of evacuating defense industries from western regions and converting peacetime industry to war production. He drew upon the NKVD's vast forced labor empire, under the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Colonies, or gulag, to produce weapons and ammunition for the Red Army, as well as to mine coal and metals and construct railway lines. The NKVD was also responsible for internal security, foreign intelligence, and counterintelligence, and its thousands of border and internal troops performed rear security functions. Under Beria's direct supervision, NKVD troops deported to Siberia hundreds of thousands of non-Russian nationals within the Soviet Union who were suspected of disloyalty to the regime.

By the war's end, Beria had earned a reputation as a ruthless but highly effective administrator. Stalin made him a full member of the party's ruling Politburo in 1946 and placed him in charge of developing the Soviet atomic bomb in 1945. Although Beria relinquished his post as head of the NKVD in early 1946, his protégés were still in charge, and he continued to oversee the police and intelligence apparatus as a deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers. Beria threw himself into work on the bomb, enlisting top Soviet scientists, ensuring the availability of raw materials like uranium, and using secret intelligence on atomic bomb production in the West. As a result of his efforts, the Soviets surprised the West by successfully producing and testing their first atomic bomb (plutonium) in August 1949.

Although Beria was one of Stalin's closest advisors, he nonetheless fell victim to Stalin's intense paranoia in the early 1950s and suffered a series of attacks on his fiefdom in Georgia and in the secret police. Had it not been for Stalin's sudden death in March 1953, Beria might have been removed from power altogether. Instead Beria formed an alliance with Georgy Malenkov, who became party first secretary, and took direct control of the police and intelligence apparatus (known at this time as the MVD). He also embarked on a series of liberal initiatives aimed at reversing many of Stalin's policies. The changes he introduced were so bold and far-reaching that they alarmed his colleagues, in particular Nikita Khrushchev, who aspired to become the Soviet leader. A bitter power struggle ensued,

and Beria was outmaneuvered by Khrushchev, who managed to have Beria arrested in June 1953. Charged with high treason, Beria was executed in December 1953, along with six others. Although Beria was best known for being a ruthless police administrator and a loyal follower of Stalin, archival materials released in 1990s have made it clear that Beria's role went far beyond this and that he was one of the most influential politicians of the Soviet period.

See also: georgia and georgians; gulag; purges, the great; stalin, josef vissarionovich; state security, organs of


Beria, Sergo. (2001). Beria My Father: Inside Stalin's Kremlin. London: Duckworth.

Knight, Amy. (1993). Beria: Stalin's First Lieutenant. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Amy Knight

Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria

views updated May 11 2018

Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria

The Soviet secret-police chief and political leader Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria (1899-1953) was a close associate of Stalin and was responsible for internal security—and terror—during the last 15 years of Stalin's rule.

Lavrenty Beria was the son of a Georgian peasant. In 1917, while a student at a technical school in Baku, he joined the Bolshevik party. He was involved in secutiry affairs for the Bolsheviks in Transcaucasia and quickly became the chief of Soviet security operations there. In the 1930s, under Stalin's patronage, he rose to national prominence and in 1934 was elected to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party. In 1935 he wrote an important book on the history of the Bolsheviks in Transcaucasia, a book that started the myth of a romantic young Stalin leading the revolutionary movement. Its publication firmly established his close relationship with Stalin. At the end of 1938, Beria—who had hitherto not been directly involved in the purge trials of the mid-1930s—became the head of Soviet security, then known as the NKVD. He concluded the era of the "Great Purge" by liquidating police officials, including his erstwhile superior, Yezhov. Though he ended the party purge, Beria initiated terrorist activities of his own, including wholesale deportations from the Baltic areas to forced labor camps.

During World War II Beria enhanced his prestige by assuming a wide variety of party, government, and military posts, even becoming a marshal of the Soviet Union. In 1946 he became a full member of the Politburo, the highest-ranking echelon of the Bolshevik party. However, he devoted most of his attention to secret-police work and was undoubtedly responsible for the lesser purges of 1949 (such as the "Leningrad Case"). According to some accounts, by 1952 Stalin himself was alarmed by the amount of power wielded by Beria and planned to oust him.

When Stalin died in March 1953, Beria, V. M. Molotov, and G. M. Malenkov formed a triumvirate in an apparent effort to rule the Soviet Union. However, other Bolsheviks, fearing that once again power would be concentrated in one man, conspired to purge Beria. Officially, it was announced that Beria had been arrested in the summer of 1953, charged with espionage and various other offenses, and then tried and executed at the end of the year. But there are persistent and well-placed rumors that he was shot to death at a Politburo meeting soon after Stalin's death. In any case, news of his death was received with great relief by all levels of the population. As far as is known, Beria and his top aides were the last Bolsheviks of stature to have been executed. His name has been expunged from Soviet works, and he is generally regarded as one of the most heinous villains of the Stalin era.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Beria in English, but he is discussed at length in works concerning the Stalin era. These include Abdura Khman Avtokharnov, Stalin and the Soviet Communist Party (1959), and John Alexander Armstrong, The Politics of Totalitarianism (1961). Beria emerges as a particularly sinister character in the memoirs of Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967). □

Beria, Lavrenti Pavlovich

views updated May 21 2018

Beria, Lavrenti Pavlovich (1899–1953) Soviet politician, chief (1938–53) of the secret police (NKVD). Beria headed the Cheka, predecessor of the NKVD, in Transcaucasia in the 1920s. He helped Stalin to conduct the purges of the Communist Party and ruthlessly controlled internal security. When Stalin died he was arrested and executed for treason.

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