In 1919 Beria worked in the security service of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.
In 1920 or 1921 (accounts vary) Beria joined the Cheka - the original Bolshevik secret police. At that time, a Bolshevik revolt took place in the Menshevik-controlled Democratic Republic of Georgia, and the Red Army subsequently invaded. The Cheka was heavily involved in the conflict, which resulted in the defeat of the Mensheviks and the formation of the Georgian SSR. By 1922, Beria was deputy head of the Georgian branch of Cheka's successor, the OGPU.
In 1924, he led the repression of a Georgian nationalist uprising, after which up to 10,000 people were executed. For this display of "Bolshevik ruthlessness", Beria was appointed head of the "secret-political division" of the Transcaucasian OGPU and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.
In 1926, Beria became head of the Georgian OGPU and was introduced to fellow Georgian Joseph Stalin, becoming an ally in Stalin's rise to power in the Communist Party and the Soviet regime. Some historians, however, claim that he was more henchman than ally, working to further his own cause by wooing Stalin in order to gain access to the inner circles of the Soviet regime.
Beria was appointed Secretary of the Communist Party in Georgia in 1931, and for the whole Transcaucasian region in 1932. He became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1934. During this time he began to attack fellow members of the Georgian Communist Party, particularly Gaioz Devdariani, who was Minister of Education of the Georgian SSR. Beria ordered the killing of Devdariani's brothers George and Shalva, who held important positions in the Cheka and the Communist Party respectively. Eventually, Gaioz Devdariani was charged with violating Article 58 for alleged counter-revolutionary activities and was executed in 1938 by the orders of the NKVD troika. Even after moving on from Georgia, Beria effectively controlled the Republic's Communist Party until it was purged in July, 1953.
By 1935, Beria was one of Stalin's most trusted subordinates. He cemented his place in Stalin's entourage with a lengthy oration titled, "On the History of the Bolshevik Organisations in Transcaucasia" (later published as a book), which fully rewrote the history of Transcaucasian Bolshevism, emphasizing Stalin's role in it. When Stalin's purge of the Communist Party and government began in 1934, after the assassination of Sergey Kirov, Beria ran the purges in Transcaucasia, using the opportunity to settle many old scores in the politically turbulent Transcaucasian republics. In June, 1937, he said in a speech, "Let our enemies know that anyone who attempts to raise a hand against the will of our people, against the will of the party of Lenin and Stalin, will be mercilessly crushed and destroyed". He is also credited with the slogan, "When you stop murdering people by the millions, they start to get notions."
In August, 1938, Stalin brought Beria to Moscow as deputy head of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), the ministry which oversaw the state security and police forces. Under Nikolai Yezhov, the NKVD carried out on the Great Purge: the imprisonment or execution of millions of people throughout the Soviet Union as alleged "enemies of the people". By 1938, however, the oppression had become so extensive that it was damaging the infrastructure, economy and even the armed forces of the Soviet state, prompting Stalin to wind the purge down. In September, Beria was appointed head of the Main Administration of State Security (GUGB) of the NKVD, and in November he succeeded Yezhov as NKVD head (Yezhov himself was executed in 1940). The NKVD itself was then purged, with half its personnel replaced by Beria loyalists, many of them from the Caucasus.
Although Beria's name is closely identified with the Great Purge due to his activities while deputy head of the NKVD, his leadership of the organization marked an easing of the repression. Over 100,000 people were released from the labour camps and it was officially admitted that there had been some injustice and "excesses" during the purges, which were blamed on Yezhov. Nevertheless this liberalization was only relative: arrests and executions continued and in 1940, as war approached, the pace of the purges again accelerated. During this period Beria supervised deportations from Poland and the Baltic states after Soviet occupation of those regions.
In March 1939, Beria became a candidate member of the Communist Party's Politburo. Although he did not become a full member until 1946, he was already one of the senior leaders of the Soviet state. In 1941 Beria was made a Commissar General of State Security, the highest quasi-military rank within the Soviet police system of that time.
On March 5, 1940 Beria sent a note (no. 794/B) to Stalin, in which he stated that the Polish prisoners of war (mostly military officers) kept at camps and prisons in western Belarus and Ukraine were declared enemies of the Soviet Union, and recommended their execution (see Katyn massacre).
In February, 1941, he became Deputy Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars, and in June, following Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, he became a member of the State Defence Committee (GKO). During World War II he took on major domestic responsibilities, using the millions of people imprisoned in NKVD labour camps for wartime production. He took control of production of armaments, and (with Georgy Malenkov) aircraft and aircraft engines. This was the beginning of Beria's alliance with Malenkov, which later became of central importance.
In 1944, as the Germans were driven from Soviet soil, Beria was in charge of dealing with the various ethnic minorities accused of collaboration with the invaders, including the Chechens, the Ingush, the Crimean Tatars and the Volga Germans. All these were deported to Soviet Central Asia. (See "Population transfer in the Soviet Union".)
In December, 1944, Beria's NKVD was assigned to supervise the Soviet atomic bomb project, which built and tested a bomb by 1949. In this capacity he ran the successful Soviet espionage campaign against the atomic weapons program of the United States, which obtained much of the technology required. However his most important contribution was to provide the necessary workforce for this project, which was extremely labor-intensive. The Gulag system provided tens of thousands of people for work in uranium mines and the construction and operation of uranium processing plants, as well as the construction of test facilities such as those at Semipalatinsk and in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. The NKVD also ensured the necessary security of the project.
In July, 1945, as Soviet police ranks were converted to a military uniform system, Beria's rank was converted to that of Marshal of the Soviet Union. Although he had never held a military command, Beria, through his organization of wartime production, made a significant contribution to the Soviet Union's victory in World War II.
With Stalin nearing 70, the postwar years were dominated by a concealed struggle for the succession among his lieutenants. At the end of the war the most likely successor seemed to be Andrei Zhdanov, party leader in Leningrad during the war, then in charge of all cultural matters in 1946. Even during the war Beria and Zhdanov had been rivals, but after 1946 Beria formed an alliance with Malenkov to block Zhdanov's rise.
In January 1946 Beria resigned as chief of the NKVD, while retaining general control over national security matters from his post of Deputy Prime Minister, under Stalin. But the new chief, Sergei Kruglov, was not a Beria man. Also, by the summer of 1946, Beria's man Vsevolod Merkulov was replaced as head of the MGB by Viktor Abakumov. Kruglov and Abakumov then moved expeditiously to replace Beria's men in the security apparatus leadership with new people. Very soon MVD Deputy Minister Stepan Mamulov was the only Beria-ist left outside foreign intelligence, on which Beria kept a grip. In the following months, Abakumov started carrying out important operations without consulting Beria, often working in tandem with Zhdanov, and sometimes on Stalin's direct orders. Some observers argue that these operations were aimed - initially tangentially, but with time more directly - at Beria.
One of the first such moves was the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee affair that commenced in October 1946 and eventually led to the murder of Solomon Mikhoels and the arrest of many other members. This affair damaged Beria because not only had he championed creation of the committee in 1942, but his own entourage included a substantial number of Jews.
Zhdanov died suddenly in August 1948, and Beria and Malenkov then moved to consolidate their power with a purge of Zhdanov's associates known as the "Leningrad Affair". Among the more than 2,000 people executed were Zhdanov's deputy, Aleksei Kuznetsov, the economic chief, Nikolai Voznesensky, the Party head in Leningrad, Pyotr Popkov, and the Prime Minister of the Russian Republic, Mikhail Rodionov. It was only after Zhdanov's death that Nikita Khrushchev began to be considered as a possible alternative to the Beria-Malenkov axis.
Zhdanov's death did not, however, stop the anti-Semitic campaign. During the postwar years Beria supervised the establishment of Communist regimes in the countries of Eastern Europe, and hand-picked the leaders. A substantial number of these leaders were Jews. Starting in 1948, Abakumov initiated several investigations against these leaders, which culminated with the arrest in November 1951 of Rudolf Slánský, Bedřich Geminder, and others in Czechoslovakia. These men were generally accused of Zionism and cosmopolitanism, but, more specifically, of providing weapons to Israel. From Beria's standpoint, this charge was extremely explosive, because large amounts of Czech arms had been sold to Israel on his direct orders. Altogether, 14 Czechoslovakian Communist leaders, 11 of them Jewish, were tried, convicted, and executed (see Prague Trials). (Similar investigations in Poland and other Soviet satellite countries at the same time)
Around that time, Abakumov was replaced by Semyon Ignatyev, who further intensified the anti-Semitic campaign. On January 13, 1953, the biggest anti-semitic affair in the Soviet Union was initiated with an article in Pravda: the Doctors' Plot. A number of the country's prominent Jewish doctors were accused of poisoning top Soviet leaders and arrested. Concurrently, a hysterical anti-semitic propaganda campaign appeared in the Soviet press. Altogether, 37 doctors (17 of them were Jewish) were arrested, and the MGB, on Stalin's orders, started to prepare for the deportation of the entire Jewish population to Russia's Far East, or worse.
Days after Stalin's death (March 5, 13 years to the day of Katyn massacres), Beria freed all the arrested doctors, announced that the entire matter was fabricated, and indeed arrested the MGB functionaries directly involved. The anticipated deportation of Jews never took place.
Early in the 1950s, Stalin's growing mistrust of Beria appeared in the Mingrelian Affair, in which many of Beria's protégés in Georgia were purged, diminishing Beria's power.
Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, in his political memoirs (published posthumously in 1993), claimed that Beria told him that he had poisoned Stalin. "I took him out," Beria supposedly boasted. There is evidence that after Stalin was found unconscious, medical care was not provided for many hours. Other evidence of the murder of Stalin by Beria associates was presented by Edvard Radzinsky in his biography Stalin. It has been suggested that the rat poison warfarin was used; it would have produced the symptoms reported.
After Stalin's death Beria was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister and reappointed head of the MVD, which he merged with the MGB. His close ally Malenkov was the new Prime Minister and initially the most powerful man in the post-Stalin leadership. Beria was second most powerful, and given Malenkov's personal weakness, was poised to become the power behind the throne and ultimately leader himself. Khrushchev became Party Secretary, which was seen as a less important post than the Prime Ministership.
Beria was at the forefront of liberalization after Stalin's death. Beria publicly denounced the "Doctors' Plot" as a "fraud," investigated and solved the murder of Solomon Mikhoels, and effectuated an amnesty that freed over a million non-political prisoners from forced labour camps. In April he signed a decree banning the use of torture in Soviet prisons.
Beria also signalled a more liberal policy towards the non-Russian nationalities in the Soviet Union. He persuaded the Presidium (as the Politburo had been renamed) and the Council of Ministers to urge the Communist regime in East Germany to allow liberal economic and political reforms. Beria maneuvered to marginalize the role of the Party apparatus in the decision-making process in policy and economic matters.
Some writers have held that Beria's liberal policies after Stalin's death were a tactic to maneuver himself into power. Even if he was sincere, they argue, Beria's past made it impossible for him to lead a liberalizing regime in the Soviet Union, a role which later fell to Khrushchev. The essential task of Soviet reformers was to bring the secret police under party control, and Beria could not do this since the police were the basis of his own power.
Others have argued that he represented a truly reformist agenda, and that his eventual removal from power delayed a radical political and economic reform in the Soviet Union by almost forty years.
Given his record, it is not surprising that the other Party leaders were suspicious of Beria's motives in all this. Khrushchev opposed the alliance between Beria and Malenkov, but he was initially unable to challenge the Beria-Malenkov axis. Khrushchev's opportunity came in June 1953 when demonstrations against the East German Communist regime broke out in East Berlin (see Workers Uprising of 1953 in East Germany). There was a suspicion that the practical Beria was willing to trade the reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War for massive aid from the United States such as had been received in World War II. The East German demonstrations convinced Molotov, Malenkov and Nikolai Bulganin that Beria's policies were dangerous and destabilizing to Soviet power. Within days of the events in Germany, Khrushchev persuaded the other leaders to support a Party coup against Beria; even Beria's principal ally Malenkov abandoned him.
In June 1953, Beria was arrested, he was held in undisclosed location near Moscow.
Accounts of Beria's fall vary considerably. According to one account, Khrushchev convened a meeting of the Presidium on June 26, where he launched an attack on Beria, accusing him of being in the pay of British intelligence. Beria was taken completely by surprise. He asked, "What's going on, Nikita Sergeyevich? Why are you picking fleas in my trousers?" Molotov and others then also spoke against Beria, and Khrushchev put a motion for his instant dismissal. Malenkov then pressed a button on his desk as the pre-arranged signal to Marshal Georgy Zhukov and a group of armed officers in a nearby room. They immediately burst in and arrested Beria.
Pravda announced Beria's arrest only on July 10, crediting it to Malenkov and referring to Beria's "criminal activities against the Party and the State." In December it was announced that Beria and the six accomplices mentioned, "in the pay of foreign intelligence agencies," had been "conspiring for many years to seize power in the Soviet Union and restore capitalism."
Beria and his henchmen were tried by a special session ("Spetsialnoye Sudebnoye Prisutstvie") of the Supreme Court of the USSR with no defense counsel and no right of appeal. Marshal Ivan Konev was the chairman of the court.
Beria was found guilty of:
1) Treason. It was alleged, without any proof, that "up to the moment of his arrest Beria maintained and developed his secret connections with foreign intelligence services". In particular, attempts to initiate peace talks with Hitler in 1941 through the ambassador of Bulgaria were classified as treason; it was not mentioned that Beria was acting on the orders of Stalin and Molotov. It was also alleged that Beria, who in 1942 helped organize the defense of the North Caucasus, tried to let the Germans occupy the Caucasus. There were also allegations that "planning to seize power, Beria tried to obtain the support of imperialist states at the price of violation of territorial integrity of the Soviet Union and transfer of parts of USSR's territory to capitalist states." These allegations were due to Beria's suggestion to his assistants that in order to improve foreign relations it was reasonable to transfer the Kaliningrad Oblast to Germany, part of Karelia to Finland, and the Kuril Islands to Japan.
2) Terrorism. Beria's order to execute 25 political prisoners in October 1941 without trial was classified as an act of terrorism.
3) Counterrevolutionary activity during Russian Civil War. In 1919 Beria worked in the security service of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Beria maintained that he was assigned to that work by the Hummet party which subsequently merged with the Adalat Party, the Ahrar Party, and the Baku Bolsheviks to establish the Azerbaijan Communist Party.
Beria and all the other defendants were sentenced to death. When the death sentence was passed, according to Moskalenko's later account, Beria begged on his knees for mercy, but he and the other six defendants were immediately executed by firing squad on 23 December 1953. Apparently his body was cremated.
However, according to other accounts, including his son Sergo's, Beria's house was assaulted on 26 June 1953, by military units and Beria himself was killed on the spot. Nikolay Shvernik, a member of the court which tried Beria, allegedly later told Sergo that he had never seen Beria alive.
Sergo and Beria's wife, Nina Gegechkori (niece of the Old Bolshevik Sasha Gegechkori) were exiled to Sverdlovsk. They were released in 1964. Nina died in 1991 in exile in Ukraine. Sergo died in October 2000 still defending his father's reputation. After Beria's death, the MGB was separated from the MVD and reduced from a Ministry to a Committee (known as the KGB), and no Soviet police chief ever again held the kind of power Beria had wielded.
In May 2000 the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation refused an application by members of Beria's family to overturn his 1953 conviction. The application was based on a Russian law that provided for rehabilitation of victims of false political accusations. The court ruled, however, that "Beria was the organizer of repression against his own people, and therefore could not be considered a victim." However, the Supreme Court found Vladimir Dekanozov, Pavel Meshik and Lev Vlodzimirskiy guilty of abuse of authority, instead of crimes against the state, and the sentence for them was posthumously changed from death to 25 year imprisonment.
Charges of sexual assault and sexual sadism against Beria were first made in the speech by a Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Nikolay Shatalin, at the Plenary Meeting of the committee on July 10, 1953, two weeks after Beria's arrest. Shatalin said that Beria had had sexual relations with numerous women and that he had contracted syphilis as a result of sex with prostitutes. Shatalin referred to a list (supposedly kept by Beria's bodyguard) of over 25 women with whom Beria had sex. Over time, however, the charges became more dramatic. Khrushchev in his posthumously published memoirs wrote: "We were given a list of more than 100 names of women. They were dragged to Beria by his people. And he had the same trick for them all: all who got to his house for the first time, Beria would invite for a dinner and would propose to drink for the health of Stalin. And in wine, he would mix in some sleeping pills..." Afterwards he would drop off his charge and the chauffeur would give them a bouquet of flowers. One pregnant victim, having refused his advances, was accidentally given the flowers. Upon noticing, Beria shouted, "It's not a bouquet, it's a wreath. May they rot on your grave." She was later arrested.
By the 1980s, the sexual assault stories about Beria included the rape of teenage girls. Anton Antonov-Ovseenko, author of a biography of Beria, described in an interview a specific sexual game Beria is said to have forced upon young girls before picking one of them to rape. This alleged practice got the name "Beria's Flower Game". Numerous stories have circulated over the years involving Beria personally beating, torturing and killing his victims. Since the 1970s, Muscovites have been retelling stories of bones found in the back yard, cellars, or hidden inside the walls of Beria's former residence, currently the Tunisian Embassy. Such stories continue to re-appear in the news media. The London Daily Telegraph reported in December 2003: "The latest grisly find—a large thigh bone and some smaller leg bones—was only two years ago when a kitchen was re-tiled. In the basement, Anil, an Indian who has worked at the embassy for 17 years, showed a plastic bag of human bones he had found in the cellars." According to historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, Beria personally tortured Nestor Lakoba's family, driving his widow mad by placing a snake in her cell and beating his teenage children to death.
Such reports have been dismissed by people close to Beria, such as his son Sergo, and former Soviet foreign intelligence chief Pavel Sudoplatov, as politically motivated smears.
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