WITH THE FINANCIAL SUPPORT OF THE MINISTRY OF CULTURE OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION
THE RUSSIAN MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
Less than a minute before the start of the first Soviet A-bomb, RDS1.
10 km from the epicenter of the explosion, heads of the nuclear project
were waiting: physicists Igor Kurchatov and Yuli Khariton and Politburo member
The first nuclear test was the result of many years of hard work
and an issue of state concern.
To the last moment there was a chance that the bomb wouldnít explode.
A powerful shockwave left no doubts. It worked. From now on, the Soviet Union
became second nuclear country after the USA.
For the successful completion of the tests Beria was granted Stalinís award,
and his position in the government strengthened.
THE LAND OF SOVIETS. THE FORGOTTEN LEADERS
Of all Stalinís comrades-in-arms Lavrenty Beria was the most enigmatic figure.
The customary pince-nez, the cold eyes, the early bald spot covered with a hat.
Rumors about him were full of mystery.
In the memory of the coming generations he remains the main culprit
of the repressions, though in fact they had diminished in his time.
His achievements as economic manager and curator of the A bomb project
were forgotten, and all mentions of his name deleted from all sources.
Who was Lavrenty Beria ñ the best manager of the 20th century or
an evil genius of the Soviet era?
The Military Sukhumi Road connects Sukhumi with Kodor Canyon and continues
across the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range to Cherkessk.
A small village of Merkheuli lies on this road.
Today it is inhabited by the Abkhazs.
In the late 19th century, when the Tsarist authorities deported the indigenous
population, it was inhabited mostly by Megrels ñ one of the Georgian communities.
Here, on March 29, 1899, Lavrenty was born to Pavle and Marta Beria.
Marta Dzhakeli was a member of a poor but aristocratic Megrel family.
A widow with 3 children, she worked as a maid at Prince Lakarbaís.
He was the one to find her a new husband, the young and handsome Pavle,
who sought refuge from Tsarist police in Merkheuli.
There is a legend that he killed an official during a peasant uprising in Megrelia,
but the true story is unknown.
Pavle Beria began a new life in the new village with a modest household.
In spite of all hard work, he was unable to save the family from poverty.
Marta took some sewing on the side, and soon it became their major income.
The Beria family was plagued with troubles. Lavrentyís little brother
died of smallpox at 2. His sister Aneta survived, but lost her hearing and sight.
Boys would tease her, and Lavrenty stood up for his sister
and often ended up beaten.
His parents were prepared to go to any length for the sake of his education.
To find money for Lavrentyís school, his father sold half of his house.
At 8 the boy went to Sukhumi with his mother and enrolled in a school.
A new and important stage began in young Beriaís life.
He knew he couldnít afford to lose his place at school, got at such a high price.
He studied vigorously. To support himself and his family,
Lavrenty began to give private math lessons.
He found time for school pranks and frolics, though. A history teacher
jokingly predicted that he would become a Caucasian abrek.
After graduation the 16-year-old Beria went to Baku to enroll into a
mechanics and construction school.
He was gifted in drawing and draftsmanship. Beriaís dream was to become
an architect. The reconstruction of Tbilisi in the 1930s, supervised by Beria,
made the city one of the most comfortable in the Soviet Union.
Beria was a disciplined and punctual person. He would wake up early,
spend some time reading or studying, and then worked till late.
He was a modest man and preferred simple Georgian cuisine, like kidney beans
with walnut sauce.
Stalinís personal interpreter Berezhkov recalled, ëHe ate very little,
ëbut a plate of small peppers always stood on his table. He ate them like
ësunflower seeds. Once he offered me one, and my mouth was on fire
ëwhen I merely touched it with my lips. Beria insisted that I swallowed the pepper.
ëI pretended I had and later secretly threw it under the table. í
Even having become one of the Party leaders, he never craved luxuries.
Purposefulness and discipline remained his main traits.
In 1916 during summer vacations Beria worked at the Nobel Oil Company HQ.
It was a lucky draw that could have affected his future career. At 17, Beria
became interested in oil extraction and refining. His new goal was to become
a successful oil engineer.
By that time his mother and sister came to live with him in Baku. He supported
them with his small salary, continuing his studies.
His father preferred to stay in the village, unaccustomed to a big city.
The local oil business brought considerable profit, though it mostly belonged to
The contrast between the rich and the poor in the oil-bearing Baku were more vivid
than anywhere else in the empire.
The doubts in the fairness of such order brought Lavrenty to an underground
Like other revolutionaries, he believed that Marks theories would help solve
these contradictions. He was elected the circleís treasure because of
his comradeís trust.
Meanwhile, after Nicholas IIís abdication the country was emerging into chaos.
A vast number of parties and political groups were fighting for power.
This also referred to the Caucasus with its national and religious peculiarities.
The popular Azerbaijani party, Musavat, advocated a single Turk state of Turkey
and Azerbaijan. Local Armenians and Russians were scared by this prospect.
The situation was complicated by several foreign countries striving to take
the Caspian oil under their control.
Agents of England, Turkey, Germany were active in the region.
Beria had joined the Party before October 1917, when the Bolsheviks took power.
This choice had defined his fate.
In February 1918 Beria began his work at the Baku Council of Peopleís Deputies.
In April 1918, the Bolsheviks, supported by armed Armenian squads,
took power in Baku.
The banks, shipping companies, and oil fields were nationalized.
The Commune of Baku was established.
The Council of peopleís Deputies headed by Shaumian was tasked with securing
uninterrupted supply of oil to the Soviet Russia.
Turkish and Azerbaijani troops were preparing to attack Baku.
Other parties invited British troops and formed a new government, The Central
Caspian Dictatorship. It lasted for 6 weeks. The Soviet power in Baku had fallen.
September 15, 1918, the Turkish and Azerbaijani troops
took the city under control. The Azerbaijani Democratic Republic government
was transferred to Baku.
The Azerbaijani Democratic Republic ñ an independent state proclaimed May 28, í18.
Its government included several Musavat members and is thus often called
Musavatist. April 27, 1920, the Red Army crossed the border of the republic
and entered Baku the following day. ADR had fallen, replaced by Azerbaijani
Soviet Socialist Republic.
Lavrenty Beria stayed in Baku and became a clerk at a factory.
We know very little about his activities at that time. All we have is
an autobiography written in 1923.
It was enclosed in an application sent to the Georgian Central Party Committee
requesting to give Beria opportunity to continue his education.
He writes about his first Party mission: infiltrating the Musavat intelligence.
In 1953, when Beria was accused of state treason, the application was filed
with his dossier, and he was charged with cooperation with Musavatists.
The issue had surfaced earlier, but then Beria was able to prove
that he was a Bolsheviksí undercover agent. There is an opinion that,
if Beria had been suspected in supporting enemies of the Soviet power,
nobody would have trust him with a delicate mission in the 1920s, when
Bolsheviks entered Baku. However, they did.
The oblast Party committee took notice of Beria. The Revolutionary Council
of the Caucasus Front sent him for underground work in Tbilisi, Georgia,
which was then ruled by Mensheviks.
Beria was commissioned with creating an underground Bolshevik organization,
preparing ground for the Red Army invasion.
The Russian Social Democratic Workersí Party split into Bolsheviks and
Menshevicks at its Second Congress in 1903. The delegates were divided into
2 large groups led by Lenin and Martov. At the elections to the Central Committee
and the editorial offices of Iskra Leninís group had the majority of votes.
Thus, Leninists became Bolsheviks , and Martovís group
Immediately after his arrival to Tbilisi Beria was arrested and later released
with orders to leave Georgia in 72 hours. He managed to stay, though, and
continued undercover work under an alias Lakerbay. He worked at Russiaís
embassy to Tbilisi, headed by future Politburo member Kirov.
This is how Beria described this period in his autobiography.
ëI set up a network of agents in Tbilisi,
established contacts with Georgian Army ëHQ.
In May 1920 I went to Baku for new orders in connection with the peace treaty
ëwith Georgia. On my way back I was arrested. í
The local counterintelligence exposed Beria in the middle of preparations
for an armed uprising against the Georgian Government and sent him to prison.
This arrest was fateful for Beria. His cellmate was Georgian Bolshevik
Aleksandr Gegechkori. His family ñ wife Vera and niece Nino ñ
often visited him in jail.
Thatís how Beria met his future wife.
Nino hardly paid any attention to her uncleís cellmate.
Beria couldnít forget the charming girl and soon proposed to her.
Two months later Beria went on a 4-days hunger strike. As a result, the inmates
were sent back to Azerbaijan. Beria returned to Baku. In August 1920 he was
appointed executive officer of the Central Party Committee of Azerbaijan,
and later ñ secretary of the Committee for Expropriation from the Bourgeoisie
and Improvement of Workerís Living Conditions.
Nino came to Baku and got married to Beria. When the Baku mechanics and
construction school was reorganized as a polytechnic college, Beria enrolled
immediately. However, the closer he came to his dream, the closer life would
bring him to party agencies and law enforcement.
At 22 Beria was appointed deputy head of the secret operative group at Cheka
and deputy head of Azerbaijan Cheka.
March 12, 1922, the Transcaucasian Federation was formed of Armenia, Georgia,
and Azerbaijan. In the fall Beria moved to Tbilisi. Here his son Sergo was born.
Beria became deputy head of Georgian Cheka and head of its secret operative group.
He was also appointed head of the Special Dept of the Transcaucasian Army.
In August 1924 the Mensheviks were preparing for an uprising.
It was to embrace the whole republic.
Cheka knew about their plans. Beria wanted to avoid a bloodbath and suggested
a peaceful solution.
Papers were planted for the insurgents, which showed that Cheka
knew about their plans.
One of the Menshevik leaders Valiko Dzhugeli, secretly returning from emigration,
was arrested. However, this didnít stop the plotters.
The uprising continued for 2 weeks.
At first, the independence fighters were successful. They took control over
several West Georgian cities. There were fights even in Tbilisi suburbs.
Additional Red Army regiments were brought in to fight the uprising.
The Mensheviks retreated. Those who hadnít manage to flee to Turkey
were arrested. Some were executed, others sentenced to prison.
For suppressing the August uprising, Beria was awarded with the Red Banner order.
By that time the Cheka, Committee to fight Sabotage and Counterrevolution,
created by Dzerzhinsky, was reformed into GPU and later OGPU. In 1926, Beria
became deputy representative of OGPU and deputy chairman of GPU in the
April 4, 1927, Beria became Peopleís Commissar of Internal Affairs in Georgia.
Among other responsibilities, he prepared reports on peopleís sentiments.
It was obvious that the Georgians didnít approve the Bolsheviks. They had enough
reasons for this: lack of goods and food, destroying local traditions.
One of the big upheavals took place in 1929 in Adzharia, a Muslim region.
The Soviets tried to close the religious school ñ madrasah, and prohibit women
from wearing veils. Beria had to again suppress the uprising.
He went to Khula region, the center of the uprising, and spent a whole night
in negotiations with the insurgents.
The attempt to settle the conflict amicable failed. They had to engage troops.
On seeing them, most of the insurgent left to their homes.
The most active ones accepted a fight. The losses were minimal, and the
Adzharia leaders met most of the insurgentsí demands: allow wearing veil,
leave the madrasah alone, not to make girls go to school.
Beria kept fighting with Georgian Party leaders over their going to extremes
in the anti-religion campaign. In his report he suggested to prosecute the culprits
in church robberies and stop arresting priests. This, he believed, was the only
way to ingratiate the believers with the Soviet power.
Beria was respected by his subordinates, but he confessed that he was tired
of working for GPU.
In 1930, being the head of the Transcaucasia Cheka, Beria wrote to his sponsor,
head of the Supreme Council of National Economy Ordzhonikidze.
He again asks for permission to continue his studies or at least transfer him.
Ordzhonikidze might show this letter to his friend Stalin, who knew Beria well.
Te latter was providing his security during summer vacations in Abkhazia.
Beria didnít get a permission to study. In 1931 he was elected for a new position.
He became the leader of Georgian Party and a year later ñ first secretary
of the Transcaucasian Party Committee. It was also an elective office.
The local party elite were enraged. They viewed the 33-year-old Beria as a parvenu.
They even boycotted their new boss.
Beria didnít care much, feeling the support of Moscow.
Finally he had a broad field of economic work before him, as he had long dreamed.
He quickly reorganized the coal industry, mechanized manganese mining in Chiaturi.
Offshore drilling began at the Caspian Sea, leading to dramatic increase in oil
When Stalin suggested converting Georgian coast into a resort zone,
Beria supervised the construction of spas and holiday centers, turning Georgia into
an all-Union health resort.
After the big-scale irrigation of Kolhida Swamps, Beria suggested drastic changes
in the structure of Georgiaís agriculture. He placed emphasis on subtropical crops:
grapes, tea, tobacco, tangerines, and peaches. With high purchase price for them,
Georgian peasant became the wealthiest in the country.
It was not just the agricultural achievements that endeared Beria to Stalin.
He suggested to create a Stalinís museum in his native town of Gori
and organized the construction and reconstruction of the area where Stalin had
spent his childhood.
In July 1935, Beria delivered a report for Tbilisi Party activists. It was dedicated to
the history of Transcaucasian Bolshevik organizations and aimed at preventing
nationalistic trends in local Party organizations.
Stalin approved his work, and a monograph was published, On the History of
the Bolshevik Organizations in Transcaucasia. It became compulsory for
studying at schools and colleges. It was complied by a number of authors
but signed by Beria, making him a renowned Party theorist and further
strengthening his position.
Beria always hated lengthy meetings and rallies. He loved soccer as a young man
and even played left halfback for one of the Georgian teams.
Later he would attend all Dynamo club games and was a fan of Dynamo Tbilisi.
As First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, Beria set up a gym in his yard.
He exercised there every morning with neighborhood kids. After that, his driver
would drive him to the office, where he had to make harsh decisions
and often compromise with his conscience.
In 1937 the Big Terror began in the country. Peopleís Commissar of Internal Affairs
Yezhov was put at the helm of the big surge.
Beria was involved in the mass arrests and executions as well as other leaders
of the republics. Together with Malenkov and Mikoyan who were sent from Moscow
he took part in Party surges in Armenia and Georgia.
Some of the Caucasus leaders were open separatists. Chairman of the Abkhazia
Central Executive Committee Lakoba didnít try to hide his intention to separate
Abkhazia from Georgia, which often led to conflicts with Beria.
After Lakobaís death in December 1936, the rumor was that he was poisoned
on Beriaís orders or by Beria himself. However, he would never have dared do it
without instructions from Moscow. Killing Stalinís friend, even the one who had
fallen out of favor, could mean death sentence.
Stalinís relationship with Beria at that time wasnít close enough for such orders.
Among those arrested and shot were some old Bolsheviks who had opposed
his election in the early 1930s: Orakhelashvili, Toroshelidze, Ordzhonikidzeís
elder brother Papuliya.
However, thereís no reason to believe that Beria was settling personal scores.
Papuliya Ordzhonikidze was a known anti-Sovietist, and Beria had helped him
more than once.
Sergo Beria recalls, ëI knew Papuliya well, since he was our neighbor.
ëHe not always worked on prominent positions and was more known as
ëa playboy and a passionate hunter. He always criticized socialism. Today he would
ëperhaps be considered a democrat, but at that time even a brother
ëof a Soviet leader wasnít allowed to criticize the established order. í
From Beriaís letter to Sergo Ordzhonikidze. ëA word about Papuliya.
ëI talked to him several times and sent people to him in the hope theyíd talk
ësome sense into him. Maybe this wasnít done very gracefully, but thatís how
ëit was. He refuses any job, curses us and threatens a hunger strike. Finally,
ëI found a job for him as head of the control department at the Transcaucasian
ëRailroad, and he accepted. I think this solves the matter. Yours, Beria. í
The Big Terror affected not only the Party elite bit also local intelligentsia.
In these years Georgia had lost poet Tabidze, director Akhmeteli, painter
Shevardnadze, scientists Tsereteli and Eliava, and many others.
In August 1938, Beria received a phone call.
He was called to Moscow for a personal meeting with Stalin.
Beria understood at once that his life was to change dramatically.
Stalin decided if not to stop then to slow down the wheel of terror.
Beria was the one commissioned with this task.
He didnít want to go to Moscow and become head of the punitive agency, NKVD.
He felt at home in his beloved Georgia. Besides, the office of NKVD head
was a dangerous place. 2 years before, Yezhovís predecessor Yagoda had been shot.
Yezhovís fate was also predetermined.
However, refusing Stalinís offer was even more dangerous. August 22, Beria
became first deputy head of NKVD. De facto he was its head.
Agent Pavel Sudoplatov recalls, ëAn order was issued that puzzled us all:
ëwarrants were invalid without Beriaís signature.
ëThere were rumors that Beria lovingly called Yezhov ëmy little hedgehog. í
ëHowever, this amity was only for show. í
3 months later Yezhov was suspended and then arrested.
He was charged with preparations for an anti-Soviet coup and with sodomy.
February 3, 1940, Yezhov was sentenced to death by the Military Collegium.
The next day he was executed.
Over a year earlier, December 8, 1938, Beria became official head of NKVD.
He started with a purge, firing all those involved in Yezhovís crimes.
He gave instructions to hire educated people in their place.
The level of skills at NKVD had risen significantly.
People who would take care of the countryís defense in WWll came to work here.
In 1939, 7372, or 23%, of the NKVD employees were fired and 14,506 hired
in their place. 35% of all personnel had higher education, compared to 10%
in Yezhovís times. The share of those lacking secondary education went down
from 42% to 18%. Many of the previously fired professionals were restored at work.
The new atmosphere made Cheka workers trust the new head, whom they saw as
a principled man, intolerant to incompetence
and loyal to those able to meet his requirements.
Beria founded a complaint office for reconsidering the 1937-38 cases.
The so-called Beria thaw began.
One half of the 630,000 political prisoners convicted in the Great Terror were
released from jail in 1938 alone.
They would release those who refused to pledge guilty and those on whom
they had nothing but the forced confessions.
Beriaís appointment put a start to reconsideration of Red Army officersí cases.
Those unlawfully suspended from service were restored on their positions.
Of the 30,000, fired or convicted un 1937-38, 12,500 returned to the army.
One of then was Gen. Rokossovsky, who would command the Victory Parade of 1945.
Peopleís Commissar of Defense Timoshenko solicited for his release,
and the decision was taken by Stalin himself.
From now on restoring the rule of law became the NKVD motto.
Beria cancelled the troikas ñ extrajudicial bodies consisting of heads of NKVD
administrations, Party representatives, and prosecutors. They would pass
sentences in absentia, without studying the case properly.
Since late í38 the order had changed. All cases would undergo all procedures
and only then would be passed to court.
This didnít stop politically motivated arrests.
Among the executed were film director Meyerkhold, journalist Koltsov, writer
Babel, et. al. However, the number of charged with counter-revolutionary crimes
subsided, as well as the number of death sentences.
It would be wrong to give sole credit for the diminishing scale of terror to Beria.
He was acting on orders from above.
However, he had never been as bloodthirsty as legend depicts him.
In Moscow, as earlier in the Caucasus, the Beria family led a modest life.
Stalin offered them an apartment in Kremlin, but Nino refused.
ëAs you wish. Weíll find you a mansion, then,í Stalin agreed.
The family settled in 28, Malaya Nikitskaya St.
There were rumors that Beria brought as many as 200 bodyguards with him.
He actually brought his colleagues from Georgia to work at NKVD and later
the government: Merkulov, Kobulov, Goglidze, Dekanozov, and others.
However, his personal security squad had a dozen of people who worked in turns.
He never used the armored Packard assigned to him and preferred an ordinary car
with only one following car.
As head of NKVD, Beria had won reputation of a man whoíd better be left alone.
He had a very good memory for events and faces.
He gave lots of attention to economic safety issues.
Embezzlement wasnít unheard of in the Stalinís time. Crime groups were formed
from high-ranking officials, especially in faraway regions, who would misuse
the resources entrusted to them.
A new Economy Administration was formed at NKVD to fight the crime.
Beria appointed his old comrade from Caucasus Merkulov as its head.
GULAG was another important part of his responsibilities.
GULAG, the Head Administration of Labor Camps and Jails at NKVD of USSR.
It united 53 camp administrations. Since the 1930s, the convicts were used
on the construction of channels, power plants, roads and railroads, etc.
They took part in building up cities and towns: Komsomolsk-na-Amure,
Sovetskaya Gavan, Dudinka, Vorkuta, Dubna, in mining and lumbering.
The inmates were paid salaries and could be paroled for good work.
In Stalinís time, 3% of GDP was produced by GULAG. The major part of the inmates
were convicted on criminal or economical, not political charges.
Beria gave orders to improve the conditions for convicts, raising their rations.
Of course he did it first of all to increase the economic viability of GULAG,
but it saved many lives. By 1940 death rates in the camps had decreased threefold.
He created a network of so-called sharashkas as part of GULAG ñ secret labs
with scientists and engineers ñ prisoners from camps - working at them.
They had been arrested before he became the peopleís commissar,
but even he was unable to simply release them.
The sharashkas had relatively mild conditions: better nourishment, permission
to walk outdoors and meet with families.
One of these labs, TsKB, known as Special Jail 11 or Tupolievís Sharaga,
was situated in Moscow and later became the biggest air design office.
Under the guidance of Tupoliev and Petliakov it designed the TU2 and PE2
dive bombers which brought it glory in WWII.
Soon many engineers were awarded and amnestied. Petliakov was released
before the war, Tupoliev ñ in June 1941, and later ñ other designers.
Beriaís area of responsibility was broadening. In February 1941, in addition
to leading NKVD, he became Deputy Chairman of the Council of Peopleís
Commissars, second to Stalin in the Soviet leadership, taking responsibility
for strategically important areas of economy.
After his transfer to Moscow Beria became close to Stalin. But they never became
bosom friends, and their meetings were strictly related to business.
Beria rarely attended rallies and mass events. He was busy with his work,
in part, supervising strategic surveillance. Under Beriaís guidance the USSR
acquired a vast network of agents in Europe, Japan and the US.
All agents' reports would go directly to Beria.
It was clear from them that Hitler was planning to attack the Soviet Union,
but the reports on the date were contradicting one another.
The higher leadership realized that the country was unprepared for the war.
Sergo Beria recalls, ëFather called from Kremlin that night. ëItís coming!
ëListen to the radio!í
ëA layman wouldnít understand the meaning of his words, but Mom and I
ëknew: the war had begun. í
At 5:45 AM June 22, 1941, Beria, Molotov, and Timoshenko with his
two deputies, Mekhlis and Zhukov, entered Stalinís office.
At 12:15 AM Molotovís address was broadcasted on the radio. The country learned
that the war had begun.
Beria was the last to exit from the office at 4:45...
From then on the countryís life was dedicated to the work for the victory.
Beriaís area of responsibility increased. He would still coordinate the work
of the Soviet intelligence and counterintelligence, production of armaments,
the defense of Caucasus. He would prevent the Germans from capturing oil fields.
Later he would head the top secret project on creating Soviet nuclear weapons.
4 years after the war ended, the Soviet Union was able to conduct
successful nuclear tests. However, Beria was removed from all his posts
and proclaimed the enemy of the people.
His name had long instilled fear in people. But few knew what exactly he was
doing as one of the leaders of the state.
TO BE CONTINUED