Lavrentiy Beria: Stalin's 'Right Hand Man', Serial Murderer, Prolific Rapist, Absolute Monster.
When it comes to Russian history the first names that usually come to mind would be Lenin, Trotsky. Stalin and Khrushchev. Lenin, the controversial revolutionary who forged a Communist superpower. Trotsky, the intellectual lynchpin of the revolution, who was murdered and became a martyr to the cause. Stalin, the paranoid tyrant who terrorised his own people but helped defeat Hitler. Khrushchev, the brash Cold Warrior who almost helped usher in the end of the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria was a Georgian, like Stalin, who called him ‘my Himmler’. Involved in revolutionary activities from his teens and head of the secret police in Georgia in his twenties, he supervised the ruthless 1930s purges in the region and arrived in Moscow in 1938 as deputy to Nikolai Yezhov, ‘the blood-thirsty dwarf’, head of the Soviet secret police. He soon succeeded Yezhov, who was shot on Stalin’s orders, apparently at Beria’s prompting. Beria, who went on to run the Soviet network of slave-labour camps, was notorious for his sadistic enjoyment of torture and his taste for beating and raping women and violating young girls. Bald and bespectacled, by the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 he was one of the most hated men in the country.
Who was Lavrentiy Beria? Putting it very simply, he was a bad person, in almost every conceivable way. One of Stalin’s top enforcers, he helped orchestrate some of the bloodiest excesses of those dark times. And he was utterly unashamed about his mission. “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 once vowed.
"THE GULAGS EXISTED BEFORE BERIA, BUT HE WAS THE ONE WHO BUILT THEM ON A MASS SCALE. HE INDUSTRIALISED THE GULAG SYSTEM. HUMAN LIFE HAD NO VALUE FOR HIM." Former prisoner Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko
Beria served for many years as chief of the NKVD, Stalin's much-feared secret police force, which carried out the terrifying purges of the 1930s, sending countless politicians, writers, scientists, peasants and ordinary citizens to jail cells, torture rooms and early graves. As Nikita Khrushchev reflected in his memoirs, “Everyone lived in fear in those days. Everyone expected that at any moment there would be a knock on the door in the middle of the night and that knock on the door would prove fatal.” In June 1937 Beria delivered a speech which certainly supports Khrushchev’s analysis of the time, "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.” To say Beria lived by these words would be an understatement.
Even before this time in the early 1920s, Beria had led the repression of a Georgian nationalist uprising, after which up to 10,000 people were executed, displaying what would later be credited as "Bolshevik ruthlessness." He was the driving force behind the expansion of the vast network of more than 500 forced labour camps known as the infamous “Gulags”. It is said they once contained as many as five million prisoners. In the words of historian and former prisoner Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, “The Gulags existed before Beria, but he was the one who built them on a mass scale. He industrialised the Gulag system. Human life had no value for him.”
Stalin himself had an amused understanding of Beria’s cold and amoral nature – during one of the major World War Two conferences with the rest of the Allies, the dictator even introduced Beria to President Roosevelt as “our Himmler”. Which, given Beria’s blood-splattered CV and talent for lethal logistics, wasn’t too far from the truth.
During the war, Beria remained an active figure in implementing Stalin’s iron will on the people. It also saw him perpetrate one of the worst atrocities in a conflict filled with them. Today, it’s often forgotten that it wasn’t just Hitler who invaded Poland in September 1939. Stalin, emboldened by his non-aggression pact with Germany, did the same just a few weeks later, sending his forces in from the east. Poland suddenly found itself in the grip of two tyrannies.
The Russian forces proved every bit as brutal and pitiless as the Nazis. Thousands of Polish troops were rounded up and kept in camps, nervously awaiting news of their fate. Few could have seen what would come next: total annihilation by their Russian captors. Known as the Katyn Massacre, because one of the large burial pits was eventually discovered in the Katyn Forest, this mass murder of the Polish POWs was directly orchestrated by Beria in 1940, who sent a memo to Stalin suggesting that the prisoners were a threat to the new Soviet regime in Poland, and should therefore be executed. 22,000 soldiers, doctors, priests and others were killed.
The USSR claimed the Nazis had committed and continued to deny responsibility for the event up until as recent as 1990, when it finally officially acknowledged and condemned the perpetration of the killings by the NKVD, as well as the subsequent cover-up by the Soviet government. As historian Benjamin B. Fischer has put it, “The Katyn Forest massacre was a criminal act of historic proportions and enduring political implications.” And Beria was the man who made it happen. Their Himmler, indeed.
The Devils Downfall
In 1941, Beria carried out another purge, this time of the Red Army. Over 500 NKVD agents and 30,000 Red Army officers were executed. To put 30,000 in context, that’s three out of five marshals and fourteen out of sixteen army commanders.
Red Army high commanders had a phrase they had for being purged which was "going to have coffee with Beria".
Beria was openly elated when Stalin, venerated as a kind of fearsome god by the Soviet Union, succumbed to a cerebral haemorrhage in March 1953.
According to Khrushchev’s own writings, Beria was “spewing hatred” and “mocking” Stalin as the tyrant lay slowly dying from his sudden illness. And when Stalin eventually died, Beria’s relish was chillingly clear for all to see. The starting pistol for the race to power had been fired, with Stalin’s ex-subordinates now in a deadly tussle for the top job.
"BERIA WAS MORE TREACHEROUS, MORE PRACTICED IN PERFIDY AND CUNNING, MORE INSOLENT AND SINGLE-MINDED THAN MY FATHER. IN A WORD, HE WAS A STRONGER CHARACTER." Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva
Beria seemed to be in a perfect position – his ally, a now-forgotten figure called Georgy Malenkov, took over as the supreme leader, and Beria’s own dossier of dirt on his rivals, gathered during his years as chief of the secret police, meant he could surely keep others under his thumb. But it was not to be. Malenkov was a weak ruler, who was swiftly sidelined by Khrushchev – the improbable underdog who somehow managed to scupper Beria’s plans in dramatic fashion.
As the most generally accepted story goes, it was during a seemingly ordinary meeting in June 1953 that Khrushchev abruptly began accusing Beria of being a traitor to the Soviet Union and even a British spy. Soon, the other officials – Beria’s own colleagues – chimed in, and the surreal revolt was complete when soldiers burst in to arrest him. As one account tells us, Beria was shocked and terrified by this ambush, with good reason.
At Beria's trial in 1953, it became known that he had committed numerous rapes during the years he was NKVD chief. Simon Montefiore concludes that the information "reveals a sexual predator who used his power to indulge himself in obsessive depravity". After his death, charges of rape and sexual abuse were disputed by people close to Beria, including his wife Nina and his son Sergo.
According to the testimony of Colonel Rafael Semyonovich Sarkisov and Colonel Sardion Nikolaevich Nadaraia – two of Beria's bodyguards – on warm nights during the war, Beria was often driven around Moscow in his limousine. He would point out young women that he wanted to be taken to his dacha, where wine and a feast awaited them. After dining, Beria would take the women into his soundproofed office and rape them.
His bodyguards reported that their duties included handing each victim a flower bouquet as she left the house. Accepting it implied that the sex had been consensual; refusal would mean arrest. Sarkisov reported that after one woman rejected Beria's advances and ran out of his office, Sarkisov mistakenly handed her the flowers anyway. The enraged Beria declared, "Now, it is not a bouquet, it is a wreath! May it rot on your grave!" The NKVD arrested the woman the next day.
The testimony of Sarkisov and Nadaraia has been partially corroborated by Edward Ellis Smith, an American who served in the US embassy in Moscow after the war. According to historian Amy Knight, "Smith noted that Beria's escapades were common knowledge among embassy personnel because his house was on the same street as a residence for Americans, and those who lived there saw girls brought to Beria's house late at night in a limousine."
Women also submitted to Beria's sexual advances in exchange for the promise of freedom for imprisoned relatives. In one case, Beria picked up Tatiana Okunevskaya, a well-known Soviet actress, under the pretence of bringing her to perform for the Politburo. Instead he took her to his dacha, where he offered to free her father and grandmother from prison if she submitted. He then raped her, telling her, "Scream or not, it doesn't matter". In fact, Beria knew that Okunevskaya's relatives had been executed months earlier. Okunevskaya was arrested shortly afterwards and sentenced to solitary confinement in the Gulag, which she survived.
Stalin and other high-ranking officials came to distrust Beria. In one instance, when Stalin learned that his then-teenage daughter, Svetlana, was alone with Beria at his house, he telephoned her and told her to leave immediately. When Beria complimented Alexander Poskrebyshev's daughter on her beauty, Poskrebyshev quickly pulled her aside and instructed her, "Don't ever accept a lift from Beria". After taking an interest in Voroshilov's daughter-in-law during a party at their summer dacha, Beria shadowed their car closely all the way back to the Kremlin, terrifying Voroshilov's wife.
Before and during the war, Beria directed Sarkisov to keep a list of the names and phone numbers of the women that he had sex with. Eventually, he ordered Sarkisov to destroy the list as a security risk, but Sarkisov retained a secret copy. When Beria's fall from power began, Sarkisov passed the list to Viktor Abakumov, the former wartime head of SMERSH and now chief of the MGB – the successor to the NKVD. A