As the USSR mourned Stalin’s death in April 1953, a funeral procession left the Kremlin. Leading the procession stood the former head of the NKVD and the most feared man in Russia – Lavrentiy Beria. After returning to the Politburo, he proudly proclaimed to his men, “I have done Stalin in and saved us all.” Though this story might be apocryphal – it has never been established for certain who was responsible for Stalin’s death – it speaks to the legend of Beria as ruthless, dangerous and bold. Despite his importance in the Stalinist regime, later USSR leadership tried to erase Beria from history, because he was a symbol of fear and object of hate – supposedly, he was the only man that Stalin himself feared. However, despite Machiavelli’s assertion that “it is better to be feared than loved”, in the end Beria proved too ruthless for his own good and was left with no-one by his side.
A soldier by trade, Beria had begun his career in the Tcheka, the Bolshevik secret police, which he joined aged 22 in 1921, more because of ambition than real dedication to the cause. In fact, it would become apparent later in his career that Beria was not particularly communist, guided only by his thirst for power. Beria rose rapidly through the ranks, playing an important role in putting down nationalist revolts in Georgia in 1924 with characteristic zeal and cruelty, having over 10,000 revolutionaries shot. He carried out the rest of his tasks in the Tcheka remarkably effectively, including the dismantling of anti-USSR intelligence networks in the Soviet Caucusus. This caught Stalin’s eye.
To fuel his meteoric rise to power, Beria relied on an extensive network of spies, who he used to gather information on his superiors. After gaining their trust through zeal and hard work, Beria threatened to reveal their secrets, leading them to step down. For example, he blackmailed Gaoiz Devdariani, the Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, in this way to rise through the Georgian Communist Party ranks. By 1931, he had taken Devadariani’s place.
Around this time, Stalin was in the process of becoming the uncontested leader of the USSR. To do so, however, he needed competent, scruple-less and loyal men on his side. Beria was originally recruited by Stalin because of their common homeland of Georgia, which enabled them to talk together in Georgian on confidential topics, a language which few Russians could understand. Beria had other valuable qualities: he was obedient, efficient and suitably ruthless. He famously bragged that, “In 24 hours, I can make anyone confess that they are the King of England.”
However, even valuable men were not free from Stalin’s paranoia, and he was prone to purge anyone on a whim. To ensure his safety, Beria had an ace up his sleeve: he and his wife regularly visited Ekaterina Dzughashvili, Stalin’s mother, in Tbilisi where they both lived. By gaining her trust, Beria was also able to become one of Stalin’s closest allies. Beria also published a book on the history of the USSR, in which Stalin held the most important position and was essentially deified. The original author of the book had been tortured and killed, and Beria reaped the benefits of his publication in the form of increasingly frequent favours from Stalin.
One of these favours was Stalin’s promotion of Beria to Deputy Head of the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB, in 1938. Ever ambitious, he set his sights on the leader of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov, and brought about his downfall. Thus, he quickly parlayed his position as Deputy Head into that of the sole leader of the NKVD.
Upon taking control of the NKVD, Beria amnestied and freed hundreds of prisoners to bolster his public image, but this was a mere front. He quickly resumed Stalin’s purges: hundreds of thousands were executed, tortured or sent to Siberia on his direct orders. Beria supervised the deportation and methodical killing of political enemies from every corner of the Soviet Union, in some instances signing the death warrant for tens of thousands, such as the April 1940 Katyn massacre, where 22,000 Polish POWs were simultaneously killed. The same brutality was exercised even over trivial matters: Nikolai Starostin was sent to the Gulag because he was the president of Spartak Moscow football club, the bitter rivals of Beria’s beloved Dynamo Moscow.
Due to his position as head of the NKVD and his usefulness to Stalin, Beria became untouchable, and he used this status to carry out heinous offences. He was an infamous sexual predator, assaulting hundreds of girls and young women. He used his subordinates to arrest the victims and their relatives, promising to free their families if they agreed to sleep with him: of course, these promises were never kept. Other Soviet leaders were aware of Beria’s actions – Stalin himself warned his daughter to never find herself alone in a room with Beria – but could do nothing for fear of repression, and because he was far too effective to be removed from Stalin’s government.
Amid the purges, Beria considerably strengthened his ties with Stalin, and they became close family friends. Beria would often go to Stalin’s dacha with his children, watching movies and drinking with Stalin late into the night. He also became an increasingly frequent figure at Stalin’s table, whether for business or informal meals.
During WWII, Beria particularly esteemed himself by leading the Soviet Nuclear program in 1944 – 45, which employed over 330,000 people and paved the way for the first effective launch in 1949. All the while, he continued to lead the NKVD in its purges during the war. For his service, he was made Marshall of the Soviet Union in 1945.
After the war, with Stalin approaching his 70s, several factions within the USSR began to jostle for position so that they could lead the nation after his death. Andrew Zhdanov, the man favoured by Stalin, and his allies were murdered on Beria’s orders. Though Beria resigned from the NKVD in 1945, his successor as Minister as Secretary of State Security, Viktor Abakumov, owed his career to Beria and was loyal to him. Beria continued to methodically purge his political rivals in the post-war years, hoping to be the last man standing on the death of Stalin.
The circumstances of Stalin’s death are notoriously opaque, but Beria was certainly present and is suspected of being heavily involved. Stalin had his last meal on 28 February 1953 with Malenkov, Khrushchev, Molotov, and Beria, who all had much to gain in the event of his untimely death. Beria had begun to lose Stalin’s favours after his resignation to the NKVD, and he was aware of a plot by Stalin to have him executed, which would have been enacted later in 1953 – he had perhaps the most incentive of anyone. After being summoned to the Dacha the next day to find Stalin in agony, the Council of Ministers refused to call doctors for 12 hours, though this could be justified by Stalin’s mistrust of doctors. However, the one doctor Stalin did trust, his personal physician, was being tortured at the time of his death for suggesting Stalin should have some rest.
After Stalin’s death, Beria reportedly spat on the body, before sobbing again when Stalin showed final signs of life. During the funeral, Beria was reportedly jubilant, “radiant and regenerated,” according to Khrushchev’s memoirs, and was open about his ambition to seize power for himself. However, he owed his prominent position in the USSR to Stalin, and once he was gone Beria had few allies remaining. His ambition was not supported by the Council of Ministers, and instead they turned on him, executing him for treason on 26 June 1953.
After his death, the remaining leaders of the Soviet Union began the process of removing him from history. Books and records with his name were modified, and all his medals were stripped posthumously. Beria symbolised a period of the Soviet Union which the new leadership wanted to forget. Thus, one of the most important figures in the early Soviet Union, as cruel and sadistic as he was zealous and effective, was stripped of his place in the history books. In attempting to seize power at all costs, Beria flew too close to the sun, and his end was as ignominious as the crimes he had committed.
Knight, A., 1995. Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant. Princetion University Press.
Sangster, A., 2019. The Times, Life and Moral Dilemma of Beria. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Sebag Monetfiore, S., 2014. The Court of the Red Tsar. Weidenfield and Nicolson.