In 1980, on this day Soviet Premier and world Communist leader Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria passed away at the age of eight-one. The Soviet Union lost in Beria one of its strongest and most controversial leaders.
Secretary Beria passes awayBeria was born on March 29, 1899 in Merkheuli, in the present-day Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. He joined the Bolsheviks in 1917, gaining fame for leading the repression of Georgian nationalists that was said to have cost the lives of 10,000 people. It is said that he met his predecessor, Josef Stalin, while saving the then-Soviet dictator from a man playing a gunman during a staged assassination attempt. Whether or not the story is accurate, Beria quickly became one of Stalin's top lieutenants. Moving swiftly up the ranks as a proven leader of security forces, Beria replaced Nikolai Yezhov as head of the NKVD during the Great Purge, which Yezhov had administered until even he was swallowed-up in it.
During the Second World War, Beria oversaw a vast expansion of the security forces, as well as of the Gulag Archipelago system for political prisoners. The NKVD took on a life of its own under his tutelage, forming fighting divisions with sophisticated weaponry that was the envy of the regular military. Beria enforced Stalin's strict military disciplinary rules with impunity, ordering army units to fire on troops that retreated during battle. Even troops that fought heroically until their ammunition was spent before they fled a battle were shipped-off to hard labor camps in Siberia. Beria later became First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers.
In later years, despite enjoying his status at the high table of Soviet Power, Beria grew to loath his boss. Stalin was an impulsive leader, ordering the deaths of anyone who crossed him in the slightest way or that he suspected of being a threat. Perhaps the only thing that saved Beria from a purge was the he was so dependable at carrying them out. He grew worried in 1952, however, upon learning that Stalin was planning to have trusted Party comrade Vyachislav Molotov purged in the following year.
In the early days of March, 1953, Josef Stalin suffered a massive stroke. Beria was the first person to arrive at Stalin's private dacha outside of Moscow. As other party leaders arrived to find out why they had not heard from their General Secretary, Beria forbade them from entering the house. "No one is to disturb Comrade Stalin!" said Beria, and none of the others were of a mind to disagree. Later, as they finally decided as a group to go in, they discovered Stalin lying on the floor, paralyzed. The doctor that arrived soon after said the condition was caused by age and poor health, though Beria was overheard saying that he had "done him in" perhaps meaning that he had initiated the stroke. As the men surrounded the dying Stalin's bed, Beria began cursing the leader he had so fervently served. When Stalin's eyes opened in a glare at his head of security, Beria pitifully fell to his knees and kissed Stalin's hands. once Stalin's eyes closed again, Beria rose to his feet and spat on the floor before returning to the cursing of his boss.
Stalin died on March 5, 1953, surrounded by his ministers in the Soviet government. A jubilant Beria immediately ran outside, calling for his driver. Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan leaned to Nikita Khrushchev and said: "There goes Beria, off to seize power". He had little idea how correct he was. The next day, four divisions of troops from Beria's NKVD had surrounded the city, armed with tanks and multiple rocket launch trucks. Khrushchev, Bulganin, Kaganovich and Mikoyan were arrested and relieved of their positions. They were executed in the cellars of the NKVD headquarters in Moscow.
Beria instituted a power-sharing deal with Molotov and Malenkov, forming what was known as the "Jewish Triumvirate" because of the partial Jewish heritage that each of the men shared. Despite this arrangement, Beria assumed the top leadership role of General Secretary, as announced on July 11, 1953, while retaining control over security. Malenkov was made Prime Minister and Molotov, famed for his role as Foreign Minister, became the President of the Politburo. This new leadership ushered the Soviet Union into an age known as the "Beria Thaw," which saw a institutional relaxation of Stalin's stringent economic and foreign affairs policies.
Beria promised to end the Cold War peacefully, while making certain that the Soviet Union was prepared militarily if things heated up. While the Army was strengthened and the Navy increased, Beria decided not to institute a massive buildup of nuclear weapons. They money for the development of both the warheads and their delivery systems, he argued, would be better spent on conventional forces and the rebuilding of Soviet Eastern Europe to its pre-war industrial strength. He said that it was no use trying to "out-nuke" the West if the result was the total annihilation of the world? Beria divided the military into division-sized military districts, which were scattered throughout the Soviet Bloc. The logic behind this was that in the even of a massive nuclear strike, at least some part of the military would survive to defend the USSR and perhaps take Western Europe as a consolation prize.
While the military was being revamped, Beria made surprising peace overtures to the West. East Germany was allowed to reunify with the rest of Germany. Beria and American President Dwight Eisenhower agreed that the US and the USSR should become the "parents" of a new, peaceful Germany. Both sides contributed to the rebuilding of the country, while agreeing that it would become a demilitarized zone.
Moreover, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia became independent, though they remained under the control of their respective Communist parties and were no more free than say Poland or Czechoslovakia. Beria justified this surprising move by saying that the Baltic states had not been part of "the revolutionary experiment of Bolshevism". When Ukrainian protestors took to the street of Kiev and Odessa to demand their own autonomy, the Red Army reacted swiftly and brutally to suppress them. It was clear that no other nationalities would be allowed to escape from under Moscow's thumb.
Beria denounced the harshness of Stalin's rule, while doing little to change the relationship between the Soviet government and the people. The political prisoners were not released, and hard labor was used to "tame Siberia". The failure of his "Managed Partial-Privatization" program, coupled with high defense spending and the enormous amounts of money spent on strengthening China and Cuba, led to economic stagnation in the Soviet Union that lasted throughout the 1960s and into the '70s. The decision not to invade Afghanistan in 1979 to support the Communist government there is seen as one of the reasons that the USSR remained intact into the Twenty-first Century, as Beria said that "it would become our own 'Vietnam,' and perhaps destroy our great nation".
Lavrenti Beria died of a heart attack on November 26, 1980 at the age of 77. The last decade of his rule was marked by seclusion and the slow relaxation of his grip on power. He was replaced by his head of security, and the only man he trusted both for that post and to be his successor, Yuri Andropov. Beria's body has been preserved and put on permanent display next to the body of Lenin in Red Square in Moscow.