Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)
Part VIII. THE RISE OF LAVRENTI BERIA
Chapter 47. Beria in the Caucasus
LAVRENTI BERIA WAS BORN on March 29, 1899, to Pavle and Marta Beria in Merkheuli, a village near Sukhum, the capital of Abkhazia. The Berias were peasants and Mingrelians, a people related to the Georgians, and lived in a three-walled hovel with a hole in the roof for a chimney. Lavrenti, like Stalin, was the third and only healthy child of the marriage.1 Marta was by birth a Jaqeli, a family related to the Dadiani, feudal princes of Mingrelia. She was a fine seamstress, a talent which kept her family from starvation, while for a time the young Beria helped by working as a postman. Like Stalin’s mother, Marta Beria was pious and determined to educate her son; he studied at Sukhum City College. Beria became a hydraulic engineer, a trade he practiced when conscripted in the summer of 1917, and which then took him to the oil fields of Baku, where he enrolled in technical college in 1918.
Beria’s revolutionary credentials in Baku are murky. In 1919 and for part of 1920 he was an intelligence agent for the Azeri nationalist party, the Musavat, which collaborated with the British forces then occupying Baku and repressed Bolsheviks. Later Beria insisted, probably truthfully, that he was working in the Musavat as a double agent on behalf of the Bolsheviks. No conclusive proof is yet available, but suspicions never abated.2 In 1920 Sergei Kirov proposed shooting Beria; in 1926 investigated him; in 1931 Georgian communists, and in December 1936 Lakoba’s widow, brought Orjonikidze in Moscow a dossier. Each time Beria thwarted his accusers with worse allegations against them.3
By mid-1920 Beria was in independent Georgia, where he was arrested in Kutaisi as a Soviet spy. Sergei Kirov, then ambassador to Georgia and preparing for the Soviet 11th Army’s invasion, bullied the Georgian government into releasing Beria, who returned to Baku. There he was detained by the new Azeri Cheka and then released by its head, the future satrap of Azerbaijan, Jafar Bagirov. Cheka headquarters in Moscow disliked the local organization. Mikhail Kedrov, fresh from ravaging Arkhangelsk, went to Baku to eradicate local nationalism and attacked both Beria and Bagirov for corruption. They were drinking with the local clergy, Christian and Muslim, oppressing Armenians and Russians, favoring Azeris and Georgians. Beria was saved from arrest on Anastas Mikoyan’s intervention.
By October 1922, eighteen months after the Soviets had invaded Georgia, Beria was head of secret operations in the Georgian Cheka. He married a girl of sixteen, Nina Gegechkori, whom the Cheka had arrested after an anti-Soviet demonstration. In Tbilisi, as in Moscow, the Cheka was staffed largely by outsiders: Latvians and Russians. Beria, speaking Georgian, Russian, Mingrelian, and a little Azeri, was invaluable in this polyglot city.4 His references from his seniors deplored his cowardice but praised his persistence, and Józef Unszlicht, deputy chairman of the GPU, was impressed enough to award Beria an inscribed Brauning revolver in 1923. Beria made his mark in 1924, stage-managing the bloody suppression of a Georgian national uprising, although he apparently had tried to warn the rebels.
That warning suggests the survival of vestiges of humanity in Beria, and in 1924 he applied to leave the Cheka. He wanted to resume his career as a hydraulic engineer and, hoping to be sent to Belgium for training, asked to move to the oil fields in Baku. But the Cheka could not do without him. Remaining in the organization, Beria advanced rapidly, disgracing and transferring his rivals. The dislike that Beria aroused made many Georgian chekisty seek work elsewhere in the USSR.
Beria’s rise was speeded by sudden deaths among his colleagues, and he acquired a reputation for murder and falsification. In 1925, in an accident that baffled three commissions of inquiry, a Junkers aircraft crashed near Tbilisi, killing Beria’s superiors, the chairman of the Transcaucasian GPU, Solomon Mogilevsky, and Stalin’s favorite killer of the Caucasus, Georgi Atarbekov. Beria composed an obituary for Mogilevsky: “I cannot believe, I don’t want to believe that I shall never hear again Solomon Grigorievich’s soft voice. . . . I remember his especially attentive concern for me and the Azeri Cheka’s work: ‘We here rely on you,’ he said in his friendly chats with me.”5
Beria, loyal to his underlings and ruthless to his rivals, later found more subtle methods to oust his bosses. In 1926 Stalin’s brother-in-law, the Pole Stanislav Redens, who had during the civil war proved ruthless if erratic in Odessa and the Crimea, became head of the Transcaucasian GPU. Redens knew no Georgian and Beria, as head of the Georgian GPU, took advantage. Redens committed one blunder in March 1929: ignoring Beria’s advice, he made the Georgian Muslims of Ajaria close their religious schools and uncover their womenfolk’s faces. Armed rebellion ensued, and ended only when Beria undertook to settle the Ajarians’ grievances. Beria’s political rating rose; Redens’s fell. Beria finally disgraced Redens in 1931, when, after a scandal, Redens was sent by Stalin to the Ukraine.
By 1931 Beria had his own gang of henchmen, Georgians and especially fellow Mingrelians from western Georgia. His efficiency and his personal modesty—he drank only wine and dressed appallingly—in a country notorious for its leaders’ nepotism, self-indulgence, and laxity, impressed Stalin. The rebellions that swept Azerbaijan in the wake of collectivization were calmed by Beria with maximum cunning and minimal firepower.
Whatever Moscow did, Beria’s Tbilisi imitated. After Menzhinsky’s dispossession of the Russian Church, Beria attacked the Georgian Church, sending Catholicos Ambrosi to prison for nine years. In 1927 Beria “elected” the compliant Kristopore as Georgian patriarch and then stopped his “leftist” colleagues oppressing the remaining clergy. Caucasian technical specialists suffered in the 1930s at Beria’s hands, just as Russian scientists suffered from Menzhinsky and Stalin: Baku’s oil fields were allegedly run by counterrevolutionaries working for the British consulate and their prerevolution owners the Nobel brothers. In Georgia too, both left and right oppositions were exposed and smashed. For Stalin, the Caucasus was a microcosm of the USSR, and in Beria he had a viceroy to rule it with rigor. Beria did lessen the burden of collectivization on Georgia, but the only rebuke he had from Stalin was for failing to eradicate vine pests.6
Beria fawned on Stalin. His intermediary was Nestor Lakoba, with whom Stalin spent some weeks every summer. Beria swallowed his antipathy to the Abkhaz and tried to overcome the aversion Lakoba felt for GPU Georgians who came from Tbilisi to visit Sukhum. One such was Nadaraia, soon to be a virtuoso executioner at Tbilisi’s main prison and later employed as Beria’s pimp. Beria’s first notes to Lakoba of 1928 are already phrased in intimate terms; they are requests for various comrades from the GPU to have their crimes and failings overlooked and forgiven:
Dear Comrade Nestor! I send you greetings and our best wishes. Thanks for the letter. I would very much like to see Comrade Koba before he departs. If you get a chance it would be good if you could give him a hint about this. I have ordered Comrade Nadaraia to be recalled. Instead, a good chekist will be coming. Greetings, Your Lavrenti.
In January 1929, Beria thanked Lakoba in the only way he knew: “Dear Nestor, I am sending you my own revolver and 250 cartridges. Don’t let its appearance bother you—the revolver is a competition one. With a greeting, Your Lavrenti.” Later Beria took great trouble to find a fine edition of Jules Verne for the twelve-year-old Rauf Lakoba.
In 1931 Stalin lost patience with Georgian leaders, especially the husband and wife Mamia and Mariam Orakhelashvili, who had run both the party and the Russian-language press since 1929. They were lenient to Georgian Mensheviks and Trotskyists, and offhand about Stalin’s heroic role in the Caucasus. 7 Beria seemed the only real Stalinist in the Caucasus.
In March 1931 Menzhinsky gave Beria an encomium:
. . . the ten years that the GPU has existed in Georgia have left a glorious page in the history of the Cheka-OGPU . . . full of self-sacrificing, heroic struggle with enemies of the proletariat . . . this enormous, intensive work has basically been done by local cadres, brought up, educated, and tempered in the fire of battle under the unceasing leadership of Comrade Beria . . . exceptional intuition . . . always finding his bearings precisely even in the most complex circumstances.8
Beria was on his way up. In 1931 Lakoba sent Beria notes of discussions with Stalin (Koba) and Sergo Orjonikidze:
Koba: Will Beria do for Transcaucasia?
Me: The only person who works properly is Beria. Perhaps we are biased toward him.
Sergo: Beria’s a fine chap, he works. . . .
Sergo: Well, are you pushing Mamia out?
Me: Mamia doesn’t organize anybody or anything, he doesn’t call anybody to order, he doesn’t get a hold on anything. . . .
Koba turns to me, asks: He (indicating Sergo) says Polonsky ought to be put in charge of the Transcaucasian Committee. What do you think?
Me: That would be a very bad mistake.9
Beria thus became first secretary of the Georgian party and yet kept de facto control of the GPU in Transcaucasia. To become both the Stalin and Iagoda of the Caucasus, he now had only to take over the secretaryship of the Transcaucasian party. In summer 1932, from Gagra on the Black Sea, Lakoba reported to Beria Stalin’s thoughts:
Koba: . . . Does Beria want to get a voice on the Politburo? . . . when is Beria coming? (He put that question at the beginning of the conversation. . . .)
Me: If needed, Beria will come right away.
Koba: We have freedom of movement, there’s no law against coming by any particular time.10
In October 1932 Beria was duly appointed first secretary of the Transcaucasian party. Now, by direct appeal to Stalin, he might overrule anyone in the Politburo or the Caucasus. His wife’s cousin Aleksandra Nakashidze now kept house for Stalin in Moscow and fed Beria information for the next ten years. Summer 1933 Beria spent with Lakoba and Stalin and their families. He sat the motherless Svetlana Allilueva on his knee; he flaunted his loyalty, waving an ax at the shrubs in Lakoba’s garden as if they were the heads of Stalin’s enemies. Despite an unfortunate episode during a cruise when border guards fired on their launch, the three following summers the Berias, Lakobas, and Stalin vacationed together, hunting and playing skittles; only Beria’s flirtations with his womenfolk alarmed the patriarchal Abkhaz.