Monday, December 24, 2018

A Most Surprising Debate: Could Beria have Transformed Stalin’s USSR into a Democracy?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 23 – Sixty-five years ago today, Stalin’s notorious secret police chief Lavrenty Beria was shot, at least according to the official version.  As that date has approached, a debate has broken out in Russia as to whether Beria could have transformed Stalin’s system into a democracy.

             Most people dismiss this possibility out of hand, but enough are taking it seriously that it is worth noting, not only for what it says about Beria and the situation following the death of Stalin but also for what it suggests about the way in which Russians think about their country’s past and even its future chances.

            The debate has arisen, commentator Yevgeny Krutikov writes in Vzglyad, because of Beria’s actions over the short period of time between March 1953 when Stalin died and June 1953 when Beria was arrested by his colleagues in the post-Stalin leadership, only to be interrogated and then shot (

                During that brief period, when Beria was first deputy chairman of the USSR council of ministers and head of the ministry of internal affairs, he “bombarded the Politburo with reports of a reformist character and tried to correct the situation with regard to repressions in the areas of his responsibility,” Krutikov says.

            Most of these had to do with specific criminal cases that Stalin had initiated near the end of his life for which there was no basis except the Soviet dictator’s paranoia – the doctors’ blot, the Mingrelian affair, the murder of Mikhoels, deportations, and so on – or unjustified imprisonments as well as the use of torture.

            Those efforts, Krutikov says, have given rise to the idea that Beria was a closet liberal who wanted to transform the system, but if one examines his orders and proposals, there are “extremely few” that in fact are about political change, except for giving passports to the peasants and certain rules governing those living in population centers.

            The major exception to this involved Beria’s proposals to unify Germany, something he apparently pushed out of the belief that it could prevent the continuation of the division of the world into two blocs and thus reduce pressure on the hard-pressed Soviet Union. But no documents have been found about Beria’s ideas on this point, Krutikov says.

            Consequently, what is known comes from the indirect memoirs of his opponents and more serious studies of the idea of German reunification which other Soviet leaders had been quietly promoting for some time before 1953. But these hints have come together to lead to a Beria boomlet in recent months.

            “Certain experts assert,” Krutikov says, “that Beria supposedly was ready for a radical  ‘perestroika’ of the entire state system of the USSR, including reducing the leading and directly role of the party, ‘the restoration of socialist legality,’ and an increase in the role of the soviets and the government.”

            There is no certain evidence for this, the commentator says. But it does reflect something important. By 1953, “the Stalinist system of administration with its characteristic and odious aspects, in the first instance, repressions, by that time had already exhausted itself and was not fulfilling any useful functions beyond its own reproduction and self-preservation.”

            Dismantling it, Krutikov continues, “was objectively necessary,” and whoever could promote that first was going to win the political struggle. Had Beria been able to do so, he might have won; had someone like Bulganin done so, he would have; but in the event, it as Khrushchev who did so.

            “Both within the country and around it existed a set of problems which required immediate resolution. In the spring and summer of 1953, Beria set out quite unsystematically to correct what he could as head of the interior ministry. But even the idea of returning passports to the peasants was not connected with agriculture in a direct way.”

            Therefore, Krutikov says, “to assess the potential chances of Beria as ‘the democratizer of the USSR’ is unreal. All conversations about this reduce to the fact that he ‘didn’t succeed’ or ‘couldn’t,’ but no one can say precisely what precisely he ‘did not succeed’ at doing. And there always remains the chance that the situation could have only become worse.”

            “To present Beria as a positive figure is just as strange as blackening him completely,” although there is a real basis for the latter, the commentator says.  But however that be, a serious conversation about him is impossible because of the absence of records and is likely to remain so for a long time to come.

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