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


Chapter 66. Beria’s Hundred Days

“All power,” said a moron in his cups, “Tends inevitably to corrupt, And absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Clever men should think astutely, And not repeat a thought so feeble, Power in fact is corrupted by people.

Iuri Andropov (KGB chairman 1967–82)33

THERE WERE BROADLY THREE reactions to the news of Stalin’s death. Many workers, peasants, children, and students were hysterical with grief; they felt bereft of certainties and abandoned to the mercy of enemies and intriguers, domestic and foreign. GULAG prisoners smiled, laughed, tossed their caps into the air; this was their first ray of hope, the first time they had seen their guards discomfited. The party apparatchiks and hangmen calculated how power would be inherited and began a waiting game, while the leadership maintained, for the time being, the semblance of unity essential for their immediate survival.

Stalin’s achievement may be measured by the ease with which the state survived his demise. Four days after his death Beria, Malenkov, Bulganin, and Khrushchiov amicably reallocated power. The leaders from eastern Europe who came for Stalin’s funeral were reassured. Malenkov was “prime minister” on the Council of Ministers; Molotov took over foreign affairs, Beria internal affairs, and Bulganin was defense minister, with the former minister Marshal Vasilevsky staying on as his deputy. Khrushchiov ran the Central Committee of the party, which now became the servant not the master of the government. Mikoyan and Kaganovich had posts that preserved their self-esteem; Voroshilov basked in the empty title of head of state.

But Beria was taking the helm with formidable speed and fearlessness. Like the east European communists, he understood the Ministries of the Interior and of State Security to be the focus of power. He made the Ministry of State Security what it had been before 1941, a department of the Interior Ministry. Sergei Ignatiev quietly stepped aside. Beria first needed to win from his colleagues, the party, and the Red Army what they most begrudged him: trust and popularity. Immediately after Stalin’s funeral, he had Polina Zhemchuzhina flown back to Moscow to be remarried to Molotov. He rehabilitated Kaganovich’s brother Mikhail, and awarded his widow a pension. However, neither Molotov nor Kaganovich showed any gratitude.34

Less than a week after Stalin’s funeral, Beria set up four commissions to report to Kruglov, Kobulov, and Goglidze within two weeks. One commission acquitted the surviving Kremlin doctors, the second rehabilitated state security officers whom Riumin had brought down, the third liberated artillery officers purged by Stalin, the fourth freed the Mingrelians imprisoned or exiled by Rukhadze. Beria himself then rehabilitated Solomon Mikhoels. He was extraordinarily unvindictive: of Mikhoels’s murderers, only Ogoltsov and Tsanava suffered; Riumin was traced to his shack outside the Sevastopol post office, arrested, interviewed by Beria for fifty-five minutes and promised his life if he confessed everything, then handed over to Vlodzimirsky and Khvat. On March 24 he wrote to Beria, “When I have to die, regardless of why or in what circumstances, my last words will be: I am devoted to the party and its Central Committee! At the moment I believe in the wisdom of L. P. Beria . . . and hope my case will have a just outcome.” In a second interview with Beria Riumin was told, “You and I shan’t see each other again. We are liquidating you.” Riumin fell ill with despair, but then Beria forgot about him.

Others who had actually worked against Beria or whom he had undermined—General Vlasik, Rukhadze, who had engineered the Mingrelian arrests, Abakumov, and a handful of Abakumov’s most brutal interrogators—remained in prison, but they were left in peace. Beria interviewed Rukhadze in his office in March 1953, and Rukhadze groveled to Beria from the Lubianka:

I weep, I am in agony, I repent everything that has happened. I feel very, very sad. Please believe me, Lavrenti, that I had no hostile intent. The circumstances I was in, and my loneliness, had a big part in my sins. . . . I turn to you with a plea, as to my own father and tutor, and on my knees with tears in my eyes ask you to spare, forgive, and reprieve me. For my children’s sake let me have the chance of dying in freedom, after seeing them for the last time. You and only you, Lavrenti, can save me.35

At first Beria had support from his closest ally, Malenkov, who in April drafted a speech deploring, without naming Stalin, the “personality cult” of Stalin’s last years. The party meeting was postponed and the speech never made.36 The biggest shock came on March 26, when Beria sent a note to Malenkov proposing the world’s biggest amnesty: it would empty the GULAG of a million prisoners. Half, Beria pointed out, were there because of Stalin’s 1947 law prescribing long prison sentences for all kinds of theft. Everyone with sentences of under five years was to be freed and their slate wiped clean. Sentences over five years would be halved. All women who had children under ten or who were pregnant were to be freed, as were males over fifty or under eighteen. The Ministry of Justice had one month to come up with alternatives to prison for most crimes.

The motive was purely practical. As Beria pointed out, the judicial system was flooding the GULAG with 650,000 new prisoners every year. Political prisoners—some half a million, except for a very few with short sentences—would still serve their time.37 Two months later Beria abolished the special sessions, the troikas of MVD, prosecutor, and party secretary that since 1934 had sentenced millions to deportation, imprisonment, or death. Beria washed his hands of the whole penal system and handed it to the Ministry of Justice except for the special prisons and camps that still held 220,000 of the political prisoners and war criminals.38 Beria had, in theory, established the rule of law in the USSR but the irony is that he let the measures be called the Voroshilov Amnesty. Over 1,200,000 prisoners were in fact freed and nearly half a million prosecutions were aborted. By summer 1953 Russian cities were being plagued by amnestied thieves, muggers, and rapists, while political prisoners and their families went on suffering.

On April 3, 1953, thirty-seven doctors were publicly rehabilitated; Ignatiev was disgraced and Lidia Timashuk lost her medal. Beria sent a secret memorandum to the Presidium with statements from Abakumov, Ogoltsov, and Tsanava admitting the murders of Mikhoels and his friend Golubov on Stalin’s orders. Lest the typist be shocked by the lèsemajesté, Beria inserted Stalin’s name by hand. Again, the killers had their medals taken away. On April 4, 1953, Beria prohibited torture. The chambers in Lefortovo prison were dismantled and all instruments destroyed; the poisons laboratory, however, remained. Four days later the Presidium received a long document from Beria expressing concern for his native Georgia. In consequence, the Mingrelians purged by Rukhadze and Stalin were rehabilitated, as were 11,000 unfortunate Georgian citizens who had been deprived of all their possessions and deported. This document too had Stalin’s name inserted by hand wherever the chain of responsibility led to the top. There were no revenge arrests; Akaki Mgeladze, whom Stalin had put in charge of the Georgian party, went to manage a tree nursery in northeastern Georgia. Beria made a rehabilitated Mingrelian, Aleksi Mirtskhulava, the Georgian party leader.

Beria brought back conventional economics: he told army generals the military was costing too much; he stopped work on gargantuan civil engineering projects—canals in the central Asian deserts, railways over Arctic permafrost—dear to Stalin’s heart, which drained the budget and took thousands of prisoners’ lives. The savings would be used to pay the peasants more, and charge consumers less for food.

In May, Beria surpassed even the amnesty when the May Day parade in Red Square took place without the usual giant portraits of the leaders. Was the age of idolatry over? Beria remarked that Canadians had no internal passports and proposed abolishing most restrictions on movement. All closed cities would now be open, except for three naval bases, and anyone gainfully employed would have the right to live in Moscow and Leningrad. Thanks to Beria, the inhabitants of 300 cities and the frontier zones rejoined the outside world.

Beria was driving the ship of state so fast its crew feared it would break up, and as if he knew that he had but little time, he gave orders that inevitably provoked mutiny. At the end of May he proposed handing power in the western Ukraine and Lithuania to officials native to the area. As a result, Ukrainians took charge of the local party, a move that won Beria popularity among Ukrainian writers and filmmakers, but not among the Russified party elite. In Lithuania all official proceedings, Beria insisted, had to be in Lithuanian, and Russian party secretaries who did not speak the local language had to go.39 Belorussia and Latvia benefited in the same way.

Malenkov and Khrushchiov saw this as the wrecking of the USSR and Beria’s next straws broke the camel’s back. On June 2 he tabled measures “for creating a healthy political climate in the German Democratic Republic.” The GDR was in crisis. Riots took place as the East Germans saw West Germany overtake them and achieve prosperity, and in two years half a million people—including 3,000 party members and 8,000 police—had fled west. Beria proposed negotiating the reunification of a “democratic, peace-loving independent Germany” by letting German communists talk to West German social democrats. Private capital was to be allowed, cooperatives disbanded, harsh punitive measures abolished, and prisoners freed. The aim, Beria admitted, was to further “the peaceful settlement of international problems,” and he demonstrated this in Hungary by forcing Mátyás Rákosi to take on as his prime minister a Soviet agent, the gentler Imre Nagy. Beria also canceled Stalin’s plans to assassinate Tito and tried to mend relations with him. In the east, Beria urged the Chinese and North Koreans into peace talks to end the Korean War. He recalled all the MVD’s intelligence agents to Moscow, allowing back out only those who passed an examination in the language of the country where they were posted.

Beria was jeopardizing party rule, Russian dominance, and the integrity of the USSR and its eastern European empire. He had to go. The reasons for removing him, Khrushchiov would argue later, were moral: Beria was utterly ruthless and depraved. This was undoubtedly true, although more went to their deaths on Molotov’s or Khrushchiov’s signature than on Beria’s. The vital difference was that they killed with a stroke of the pen or a touch of oratory whereas Beria got blood on his shirt. As for Beria’s legendary sexual proclivities, he was certainly guilty of many rapes—usually by blackmail rather than force—and of violating young girls. On the other hand, some of his mistresses were fond, or at least respectful, of him. By the standards of some Soviet leaders, who used the Bolshoi Ballet as a brothel, or even compared to J. F. Kennedy or David Lloyd George, Beria was not beyond the pale, even if at intervals during meetings he ordered women to be delivered to his house, as modern politicians order pizzas.