Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)

Part VIII. THE RISE OF LAVRENTI BERIA

Chapter 46. Why Beria?

IN MID-1938, surveying a country where most were paralyzed by terror and many fired by suspicion and fanaticism, where the only initiative shown was in writing denunciations, a state bereft of its best professionals—army officers, physicists, translators, engineers, agronomists— Stalin may have paused for reflection. His own world had also been devastated: his wife had made the ultimate gesture of rejection; his two sons, terrified and repelled, avoided him; he had put to death two of his most trusted Georgian friends, Abel Enukidze and Sergei Orjonikidze. The yea-saying conversation of his loyal robots Kaganovich, Molotov, Voroshilov, Andreev, and Zhdanov provided little consolation; the note of comradely affection disappears from Stalin’s missives.

Clearly, the center of power had shifted. The NKVD was no longer the chief agency of Stalin, the Politburo, and the party, but a power that could bring down the highest echelons.

Stalin’s choice of Lavrenti Beria first to oversee then replace Ezhov was a logical decision. It worked on a personal plane: Stalin knew all about Beria, from the stains on his character to his fifteen-year-long record of intelligent, flexible, and ruthless efficiency. Unlike Ezhov, Beria knew when to hold back, when to step back. Beria was not just a vindictive sadist, he was an intelligent pragmatist, capable of mastering a complex brief, and one of the best personnel managers in the history of the USSR. With very slight adaptations, he could have made himself a leading politician in any country of the world.

Beria had proved himself as the Stalin of the Caucasus, murdering and terrorizing like Ezhov and Stalin combined but managing the economy more skillfully than Kaganovich, and the intelligentsia more masterfully than Andrei Zhdanov. Beria combined Ezhov’s energy and unscrupulousness with Menzhinsky’s intelligence and finesse. He could sustain the atmosphere of terror and yet repair the damage caused to the USSR’s economic and military strength. Only the disgust Beria aroused in almost every Bolshevik had stopped Stalin bringing Beria to Moscow before. But now that those who knew the worst about him—Sergo Orjonikidze, Sergei Kirov, Abel Enukidze—were dead, nobody in Stalin’s circle was so fastidious as to object to working with such a murderous, devious, ambitious, and utterly unscrupulous lecher. Fifteen years would pass before Kaganovich, Molotov, and Voroshilov would be as frightened of Beria as they had been of Ezhov.