Staunton, May 13 – Few Soviet leaders have a more unsavory reputation than Stalin’s last secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria; but in the wake of the dictator’s death, he took a series of liberalizing steps which became the model for Nikita Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin campaign three years later beginning at the 20th Party Congress, Emil Pain says.
The Moscow specialist on ethnic conflict says this presents a problem for historians who must wrestle with the issues of when bad people do good things, but a closer examination of Beria and especially the way he became a model for Khrushchev helps explain this “paradoxical”
“Khrushchev like Beria may be called an executioner-benefactor,” someone who fully participated in Stalin’s crimes and fully deserves condemnation for that. But at the same time, “these pupils and heirs of the tyrant began the process of de-Stalinization, the freeing of the country from the continuing threat of state terror,” Pain continues.
But in both cases, and especially with regard to Khrushchev, “the pragmatic motivation” of the two, who viewed the attack on Stalinism as a means to advance their personal political fortunes, meant that de-Stalinization remained incomplete and that there was not for a long time an understanding that Stalin’s crimes were part and parcel of the Soviet political project.
The ethnic specialist cites historian Oleg Khlevnyuk who argues that “Beria really earlier than the other heirs of Stalin proclaimed the need for transformations which then to a significant degree Khrushchev carried out. However, it is also true that many of Beria’s actions give a basis for doubting his ‘sincerity’” in this process.
Pain for his part adds that there are also reasons to doubt Khrushchev’s sincerity and “the humanistic motivations” that many have ascribed to him.
In the immediate wake of Stalin’s death, he continues, Beria found himself in intense competition for power with Malenkov and Khrushchev and immediately “began a campaign to rehabilitate the victims of political repressions,” a campaign designed to deflect attention from his own criminal reputation and undermine his opponents who were involved in Stalin’s crimes.
Historian Vladimir Naumov argues that “Beria was the first to use data about Stalin’s crimes as a weapon of pressure on his colleagues who were particularly frightened that he would reveal the secrets” that Beria had about all of them in his safe and thus make them political poison as far as the party was concerned.
As a result, the others approved Beria’s initiatives until they arrested him. Then in many cases, they reversed course. This was especially true on nationality policy both with regard to the Mingrelian affair which Beria saw as a Stalin move against him and the anti-Semitic “doctors’ plot” that many viewed as a prelude to the deportation of Jews from European Russia to Asia.
The history of the doctors’ plot shows in high relief the game that Beria and the others were involved in. By cancelling the doctors’ plot and releasing 37 medical leaders and several dozen of their family members, Beria sent a message that there should be an end to the broader campaign against “’rootless cosmopolitanism.’”
That had consequences which may have accelerated Beria’s own downfall and execution. According to Pain, many in the party leadership “suddenly began to consider him a Jew who wanted to please his fellow ‘tribe members.’” After all, many in the leadership – Malenkov, Suslov, and Molotov – had promoted this anti-Semitic and xenophobic effort.
Initially, Pain writes, “they concealed their feelings but after Beria’s execution in December 1953, they openly sabotaged the decisions” he had sought and they had gone along with. Beria’s arguments against the doctor’s plot were published only in 1996 because of their sensitivity in this regard.
Beria also took the lead in declaring that officials of the state had violated the law and should be punished, something that put many at risk, including of course himself if he lost the political struggle.
“The good deeds which Beria carried out for one or another reason in the spring of 1953 in no way exculpate his crimes in Stalin’s times,” Pain argues. “however, in the history of humanity it has happened more than once that when important and pivotal transformations occur, they are carried out by people who to put it mildly are far from being good by nature.”
When Beria was executed on December 23, 1953, it was done illegally and in full conformity with Stalinist practice: “he was killed not for real crimes but for invented ones.” He had to be charged with espionage because that was one of only three crimes that carried the death penalty in the USSR after January 1950.
“Beyond doubt,” Pain concludes, “’the Beria thaw’ of 1953 became the prologue to ‘the Khrushchev thaw’ which began three years later.” On the one hand, Beria had taken the lead in spreading the information about Stalin’s crimes well before Khrushchev did in his “secret speech” to the 20th Party Congress in 1956
And on the other, and more important, “Beria’s experience showed Khrushchev the possibility of using the strategy of unmasking Stalin as a means of struggle for power in the highest leadership of the country,” a lesson he put to good use when he faced down the so-called “anti-Party group” in 1957.