By Paul Goble
70 years ago today, Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria was arrested by his fellow leader of the Communist Party and the Soviet state and six months later he was shot not after a trial for his crimes against the Soviet people but in order to protect the other leaders from becoming victims of such revenge and reprisals as well.
In a remarkable and lengthy lead article, the editors of Nezavisimaya gazeta re-examine what happened seven decades ago and conclude that Russians have not assimilated the lessons of what happened then and so have left open the possibility that such acts of revenge and reprisals will occur again (ng.ru/editorial/2023-06-25/2_8756_society.html).
The editors point to Beria’s action in the months after Stalin died, including the release of hundreds of thousands of GULAG prisoners, criticism of the Russification and Sovietization policies in western Ukraine and Lithuania, and his calls for a new approach to East Germany to keep its population from fleeing to the West.
Until his arrest by other members of the Politburo, all these Beria recommendations for change were unanimously approved by the party leadership. But Nikita Khrushchev and the others began to recognize that what Beria was doing could open the floodgates of change that could ultimately threaten their positions of power and even their lives.
They therefore decided to have the military arrest Beria, to conduct a detailed interrogation of this longtime head of Stalin’s secret police, to blacken his reputation with attacks on his policies and even say he was an English spy, and then in December 1953 to have him shot without any court verdict.
The details the editors of Nezavisimaya gazeta give to Beria’s criticism of what had been Stalin’s russification and sovietization policies in Ukraine and Lithuania are certain to attract enormous attention given what the current Russian government is doing today. But the paper’s broader point about the Beria affair is certainly even more important.
The editors’ conclusions on that point are worth quoting in extenso:
“70 years ago, the leaders of the USSR, by arresting Beria, resolved issues of their own security. They had no energy or ideas of their own. Meanwhile, many questions that were raised in those distant days remain relevant to this day. And the main one involves the nature of fear in the leadership when making key, life-changing decisions for the country.
“Beria was convicted and shot. What was he accused of? Nothing less than “the liquidation of the workers’ and peasants’ system to restore capitalism and the rule of the bourgeoisie. All his notes of March-June 1953, which were approved by the Presidium of the Central Committee and on the basis of which the relevant decisions were adopted, paradoxically formed the basis of the accusations.
“And, of course, Beria was accused of being an agent of foreign intelligence since 1919. It is clear that the accusations against Beria contained all the traditionally punishable “sins” of the Stalin era: treason against the motherland, organizing an anti-Soviet conspiracy, committing terrorist acts…
“Can this kind of punishment serve as a lesson to future generations? At least to someone? Of course not: he was convicted for fictional, non-existent crimes. Therefore, someone can conclude: it is possible to kill, it is possible to create lawlessness, it is possible to falsify trials. The main thing is not to fall into the boss’s disgrace.
“After all, it would never occur to anyone that Beria really wanted to restore capitalism in the interests of British intelligence …
“The lessons of the ‘Beria case’ are numerous and varied. It is amazing how quickly colleagues, associates, and closest employees disowned him. From interrogations, testimony and speeches at the Plenum of the Central Committee, it turned out that Beria was a man of low moral character, rude, poorly educated, self-serving. And he wrote out cash prizes for himself, and forfeited half a million rubles to his son, and in the atomic project – an empty place, and does not read books …
“Two and a half years later, Stalin’s personality cult was exposed on a large scale at the 20th Congress, and ‘the anti-party group’ in another year and a half. Party comrades then quickly disassociated themselves from other long-term ‘leaders’ — Molotov, Malenkov, Kaganovich, Bulganin and … Shepilov, who joined them. Nobody was shot and no one went to jail, so there was some progress and it allowed ‘the leaders’ to live out their lives in peace.
“But from the point of view of the interests of the whole society, the lessons of the Beria case have not been fully learned … [Moreover,] those who remain in power a long time typically have vindicative grievances against otherss. The nightly fears of ‘the leaders’ and their loved ones make them cling to power out of fear of extrajudicial reprisals.
“All this stems from the misunderstood concept of ‘party unity’ as the highest value for the political leadership of the Bolshevik government. Unity around ‘the leader’ was presented as the main need and interest of the whole society. The main enemy of this falsely understood unity is a free press, freedom of political activity, opposition, and criticism.
“So it turns out that while a person is in power, they praise him. But people at the top are usually cynical and have no illusions about their own identity. They do not believe in the gratitude of descendants and the fairness of justice. Since they themselves have administered such “justice” many times against opponents.
“And they stay in power until the last moment, coming up with various projects to stay for one more term, and one more, so that everything looks legitimate.
“Beria, his family and closest subordinates became victims not of justice, but of reprisals. When this becomes impossible, then Russia will be a state of law. Society should not be held hostage to the nightly fears of the elite.”
Many will read these words as is likely intended not as a description of events 70 years ago but of what has taken place in Russia in the last seven days.