On 23 December 1953, Lavrenti Beria was executed. Born in Georgia on 29 March 1899, Beria had risen to prominence in Georgia during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and, during the 1920s, became a firm favourite of fellow-Georgian, Joseph Stalin. In 1938 Beria was appointed head of the dreaded secret police, the NKVD.
‘Perfidy and cunning’
A brutish, inhumane man, Lavrenti Beria declared in 1937 that enemies ‘of the party of Lenin and Stalin [would] be mercilessly crushed and destroyed’. He was true to his word and played a major role in Stalin’s Great Purges of the 1930s, sending countless numbers to the gulags or to be executed.
Yugoslavian writer, Milovan Djilas, described Beria as ‘plump, greenish, and pale, with soft damp hands… with [a] square-cut mouth and bulging eyes behind his pince-nez.’ Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter, described him as ‘more treacherous, more practiced in perfidy and cunning, more insolent and single-minded’ than even her own father.
Beria had risen through the ranks as first secretary of the Georgian communist party, forcing through collectivisation and quashing nationalistic tendencies. His first task as head of the NKVD, was to purge his predecessor, Nikolai Yezhov (or Ezhov), and wind down the Great Terror that had reached a climax in 1937. The worst may have been over but the arrests continued and Beria, according to contemporary accounts, was not shy in getting his hands dirty while interrogating suspects; relishing in torture and beatings meted out to the unfortunates brought before him.
Appointed deputy prime minister in 1941, Beria’s mobilised mass slave labour to produce the urgently needed raw materials for the Soviet Union’s war effort.
Beria became Stalin’s most trusted and loyal aide, heaping praise on the ageing dictator, and acting with increasing ruthlessness to win the praise of his boss. But only as a means of advancing and protecting his own position. As Stalin lay dying in his dacha, in March 1953, Beria appeared distraught, although he fooled no one. As soon as Stalin was declared dead, Beria spat on the old man’s body and left the dacha ‘beaming’.
‘None of us can feel safe’
With Lavrenti Beria now favourite take power, other members of the Politburo feared for their safety: ‘As long as that bastard’s alive, none of us can feel safe,’ said one. Beria implemented an amnesty, releasing many from the gulags, but many saw this as a mere attempt on imposing his claim on succeeding Stalin.
But it wasn’t enough – on 26 June 1953, Beria was arrested on trumphed-up charges, such as spying for the British. Nikita Khrushchev (who was to replace Stalin) described Beria’s reaction when arrested: ‘He dropped a load in his pants!’
From his cell, Beria wrote several groveling letters to his politburo colleagues pleading his innocence and his devotion to the party and the communist cause. Exasperated by the flow of letters, Khrushchev ordered the removal of Beria’s pen and paper.
In December 1953, Beria was put on trial. The whole case was a mockery but no more than Beria had subjected so many of his victims. He was, unsurprisingly, found guilty and sentenced to be executed. Beria fell on all fours and begged for mercy. He was taken down and promptly shot. Lavrenti Beria died as so many of his victims had.