Staunton, July 14 – It is an ancient observation that if someone tells you who his heroes are, he is saying a great deal about himself, often unintentionally. Thus, it is perhaps significant that Vladimir Putin identifies as one of the heroes of the Soviet past as Laventy Pavlovich Beria, Stalin’s brutal secret police chief.
In a commentary for The Moscow Times, observer Viktor Postnov notes that Putin has said that “each time requires its own heroes” and that for 1937, the time of Stalin’s Great Terror, the obvious hero was and remains Beria (moscowtimes.ru/2023/07/14/zlodei-lavrentii-beriya-oshibochnii-geroi-vladimira-putina-a48891).
To justify his choice, Putin mentions Beria’s role in developing Soviet nuclear weapons and in launching Russia’s rocket program, the commentator says. But neither of those events occurred in 1937, raising questions as to why the Kremlin leader would mention Beria in this way.
In that year, Beria wasn’t building nuclear weapons or rockets but rather carrying out purges in the Caucasus. It is no challenge to identify cases when Putin gets Russian and Soviet history wrong, but the interesting question is why he should make some mistakes rather than others.
With regard to Beria, it appears that Putin wants to remind Russians that someone whose reputation rests on his viciousness as an executor of Stalin’s purges was in fact also someone who contributed to the development of Russia’s power by his work on atomic bombs and rockets.
That fits with Putin’s procmlivity to promote a single stream story of Russian history, but it also may have another purpose closer to home. Although Postnov doesn’t mention it, Putin’s reference to Beria may constitute a defense both of Stalin and of Putin himself, an appeal to remember the positive things he says he and his predecessor did and not just the negative ones.