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 on Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria

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).