Lavrentiy Beria, a prominent Soviet leader of the Stalin era, became an icon of the power and cruelty of USSR law enforcement. His life path of serving both the regime and the country was a reflection of a difficult and tragic, yet great time, when a new socialist state emerged, developed and rose on the ruins of the collapsed empire.
Childhood and Adolescence
Lavrentiy Beria was born on March 17 (29), 1899, in the Georgian village of Merkheuli to the family of Megrelian peasants Pavel Beria (1872–1922) and Marta Jaqeli (1868–1955). Lavrentiy Beria spent his childhood and adolescence in Georgia and Azerbaijan. At the age of 16, after receiving primary education in Sukhumi, he moved to Baku to pursue his studies at the Mechanical and Technical School of Construction. In parallel, Beria was working for the Nobel Oil Company to provide for his family.
Lavrentiy's studies in Baku (1916–1919) coincided with the period of revolutions and wars. The 18-year-old got actively engaged in politics. In March 1917, he became a member of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party of Bolsheviks (RSDLPB). That summer and autumn, he joined the Romanian military forces as a hydraulic engineer. Upon his return to Baku, Beria witnessed the fall of the Baku Commune, but stayed in the city to continue his studies and fulfil the important mission of the Bolsheviks.
In the Caucasus
After the Soviet rule was established in Azerbaijan in April 1920, Beria went to Georgia to become a part of a discrediting action against the Mensheviks' government in Tiflis, but was soon arrested. After his release, which was made possible through the effort by the Russian envoy Sergei Kirov, the young man returned to Baku to begin his political career. He started as the chief administrator of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Bolsheviks (CC CP (B)) of Azerbaijan, and in October 1920 joined the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission (the Cheka). Since that time, political service became his lifelong project.
A strong administrator, tireless executor and deft bureaucrat, Lavrentiy Beria, patronized by Grigoriy Ordzhonikidze, successfully climbed the career ladder and the party hierarchy. In 1922–1924, as the head of the Secret Political Section of the Azerbaijani and then the Georgian Cheka, Beria was part of the defeat of the Azerbaijani Islamists, Georgian Mensheviks, and right-wing socialist revolutionaries (SRs). For his contribution to the defeat, Beria was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of the USSR and the Georgian SSR.
1924–1927 In 1927–1931, Lavrentiy Beria, head of the Secret Political Section of the Transcaucasian Joint State Political Directorate (JSPD), chaired the Georgian SPD. Since 1931, in his capacity as CC CP (B) First Secretary, and since 1932, in his concurrent capacity as First Secretary of the Transcaucasian Regional Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks (AUCPB), Beria became one of the prominent party workers in the southern USSR. At some point, he was noticed by Joseph Stalin. With his proven personal devotion to Stalin and extensive operations and managerial experience, Beria was a suitable candidate to replace Nikolai Yezhov, the "Iron Commissar" of NKVD (the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs).
Heading the NKVD
In the summer of 1938, Beria was promoted to work in Moscow. On August 22, Beria was appointed First Deputy People's Commissar for Internal Affairs. Seven days later, he became the head of the Main Directorate of State Security. On November 25, he replaced Yezhov in his position as the People's Commissar as a result of compromising evidence collected by Stalin's order. In his new capacity, he replaced more than half of NKVD's key positions with his trusted people.
Lavrentiy Beria's appointment to the post of People's Commissar ended the era of the Great Terror, but not the practice of special meetings, illegal arrests, extortion of confessions under torture, fabricated cases, etc. Nevertheless, compared to the Yezhov's time, the fight against the "enemies of the people" led by Beria was almost a thaw. Mass purges of the party and bureaucratic staff became more targeted. Many of those previously detained were released. Despite this, cruel crimes continued.
Prior to the separation of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) and the People's Commissariat for State Security (NKGB) in February of 1941, Beria's duties also included foreign intelligence. He led the establishment of a wide network of agents throughout Europe and America, famous for some high-profile operations, including the murder of Lev Trotsky in Mexico on August 20, 1940. Since February 3, 1941, while still holding the post of the People's Commissar, Beria became Deputy Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars in charge of several industries (Forests, Oil, Non-Ferrous Metals).
When the war began, Lavrentiy Beria was a member of the State Defence Committee, the highest military and political body established on June 30, 1941. Together with Georgiy Malenkov, he controlled the production of weapons and ammunition, aircraft and aircraft engines, while being in charge of economic development as part of his service within the Committee. In 1941–1944, NKVD and the subordinate Main Directorate of Corrective Labour Camps (GULAG) accounted for up to 15% of permanent construction, hundreds of equipped field airfields, and tremendous amounts of extracted minerals.
NKVD divisions consisted of security personnel, who not only enforced order in the rear but were also active participants in hostilities, including in the German rear. However, the most prominent operation led by Beria during the war was the deportation of some peoples, mainly from the Caucasus and Crimea, accused of mass cooperation with the enemy. In the winter and spring of 1944, up to a million Chechens, Ingush, Kalmyks, Crimean Tatars, and others were moved to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Siberia; many of them died on the way. By the end of the war, Beria gained enormous power, became Stalin's closest associate, and was promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union.
In December 1945, after the war, Beria, while remaining Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, resigned from the position of People's Commissar of Internal Affairs, but continued to supervise the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (in March 1946, People's Commissariats were transformed into ministries). Beria's most notable achievement in the post-war years was the atomic bomb project. Relying on Beria's managerial and administrative experience, Stalin assigned this important project to him.
Beria coped brilliantly with the task. A Special Committee was created for this purpose, which coordinated an extensive network of departments, laboratories, institutes, design bureaus, mines, factories, and test sites. Over 200,000 people were involved in the project, including subcontractors. On August 29, 1949, the USSR for the first time tested an atomic bomb at the Semipalatinsk test site, which radically changed the geopolitical alignment and confirmed the USSR's status as a great power.
Since the summer of 1949, Beria gained even more authority and influence on Stalin. Given that Stalin was often ill, Beria began to play a leading role in many areas. Behind the scenes, Beria was considered a heavy hitter, often feared by his closest party associates. Perhaps feeling threatened, in 1951, Stalin initiated the "Mingrelian affair" against Beria. But on March 5, 1953, the almighty dictator died, and the triumvirate of Nikita Khrushchev, Georgiy Malenkov and Lavrentiy Beria began to rule the country.
Immediately after the death of the “master”, a wave of reforms undertaken by his successors swept the country. Everyone realized the long overdue need for changes, and the current state of affairs did not suit anyone, including Beria. While remaining First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, on March 5, 1953, Beria returned to the post of Minister of Internal Affairs, merged the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) and the Ministry of State Security (MSS) back together and immediately proceeded with transformations. To reinstate "socialist legality", Beria initiated the review of many high-profile cases: the "doctors' case", the "aviation case", and others. The offenders were rehabilitated, and the investigators were arrested.
Announced on March 27, 1953, the Beria amnesty covering over a million people sentenced to up to five years under criminal and economic articles created a great stir. However, the effect turned out to be the opposite of what was expected: cities were flooded with hooligans, and inmates outraged by the arbitrary release of prisoners were rioting.
Liberalization also affected national politics. Beria was not a supporter of the russification of the outskirts and initiated the indigenization of the Union's republics. Without consulting the political bureau (Politburo), he replaced Moscow-appointed leaders in the western regions (primarily in the Baltic States) with representatives of indigenous peoples. In the long term, this policy led to federalization and weakening of the centre, so many viewed it negatively.
As for economy and industry, Beria objected to the plans of the "great constructions of communism", considering them too costly and economically unjustified. This put an end to such ambitious projects as the Transpolar Highway, the Main Turkmen Canal and the tunnel under the Tatar Strait to Sakhalin.
By the end of Stalin's era, the international situation was so heated that the need to defuse the tension was natural, especially taking into account the general course towards the "thaw" taken by the successors. In foreign policy, Beria was also a supporter of the pragmatic concept of the peaceful coexistence of two systems — capitalism and socialism. Despite heading MIA, he actively intervened in foreign affairs.
Beria initiated negotiations on a truce in Korea, advocated the rebuilding of relations with Yugoslavia, delved into internal Hungarian processes, reflected on possible German unification subject to its neutral position, and talked about the bourgeois prospects of the GDR. At the same time, he immediately suppressed anti-government demonstrations in Berlin on June 16–24, 1953. This was his last successful endeavour.
Arrest, Trial and Execution
Whereas in March-April 1953 Beria, given his capabilities, was perceived as the unspoken leader of the ruling triumvirate, in May, after his active interference in international relations, and even more so in June, after changes in the human resource policy of the Union's republics, he faced open discontent on the part of his colleagues. His actions and decisions, as well as his sole control of the hydrogen bomb project, put competitive pressure on Malenkov as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Molotov as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Bulganin as Minister of Defence.
In fact, Beria's standing was not as strong as expected. He had little support from the party and was extremely unpopular in the army. According to available evidence, a conspiracy against Beria was formed at the end of May. Three main conspirators — Malenkov, Khrushchev and Bulganin — enlisted the support of the generals, first of all, the Deputy Minister of Defence Zhukov and Commander of the Moscow Military District Moskalenko. Almighty Beria was arrested on June 26, 1953, at a meeting of the Presidium of the Central Committee and escorted to the bunker at MIA headquarters.
Beria's trial was reminiscent of Stalin's trials, in which the defendant was once directly involved. He was accused of anti-state and anti-party activities, branded as a spy, provocateur, and agent of imperialism, and was dismissed from all positions and deprived of all titles and awards. On December 23, 1953, under Articles 58-1b, 58-8, 58-11, 58-13 of the RSFSR Criminal Code, Beria was sentenced to the supreme penalty and shot the same day. According to some researchers, the trial was a mere formality, and Beria had actually died six months before the verdict, immediately after his arrest.
Family and Personal Life
In 1922, 23-year-old Lavrentiy Beria got married to 17-year-old Nino Gegechkori (1905–1991) in Tiflis. The girl came from a Megrelian noble family, many of whose members were involved in the revolutionary movement. In the early 1920s, Lavrentiy and Nino had two sons. The firstborn died in infancy. The second son Sergo (1924–2000) became a rocket system and radar design engineer. In the early 1990s, he published a book of memoirs about his father. There were many rumours and tales about Beria's personal life. It is known for a fact that he had a daughter Eteri (Marta) with some Valentina (Lyalya) Drozdova after the war.
Lavrentiy Beria was a passionate football fan, supporting Dynamo Moscow and Tbilisi, and often went to games. According to the memoirs of academician Pyotr Kapitsa, in the autumn of 1945, the meeting of the Soviet Atomic Bomb Special Committee was interrupted to listen to the radio broadcast of the game of British and Soviet teams.
Lavrentiy Beria's biography is a classic reflection of all the virtues and vices of the system to which he devoted himself. His service in penitentiary bodies, organization of repressions, deportations and labour camps were intertwined with his organizational talent and the unbending will of the champion of the ambitious nuclear project. During the proceedings in 1953, the name of Beria became generic and sinister, but all the negative epithets going with it were, perhaps, equally deserved by his executioners. Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria is an essential character of his era and national history.