Lavrentiy Beria was the longest-serving head of the Soviet secret police. As head of the NKVD in the 1930s, he supervised the final act of the Great Purge, bringing Stalin’s justice to those who had torn the heart out of the Soviet army and government. During World War II he built the Gulag system, and populated it with tens of thousands of political prisoners and members of ‘unreliable’ ethnic groups. In Eastern Europe, his death squads carried out the initial stages of Stalinization, exterminating bourgeois elements in Poland and the Baltic States. When off duty, he used his position to carry out a sexual reign of terror, being responsible for dozens if not hundreds of sexual assaults and rapes. At the Yalta Conference, Stalin jokingly introduced him to F.D.R as “Our Himmler.” For twenty-five years he was the most feared man in the Soviet Union. When Stalin died in 1953, he became the most powerful man in the Soviet Union too.
Nikita Khrushchev was a party apparatchik from Ukraine, with a good record of loyalty to Stalin and success. Though he served as a Commissar during the Great Patriotic War and was responsible for purging the Ukrainian Party during the 1930s, most of his career was in mining engineering and agriculture, attempting to rebuild the Ukrainian economy after the twin disasters of the Holodomor and the Nazi Occupation. He was generally successful at this, and was promoted to a position in Moscow in 1949, where he continued to focus on agriculture and housing policy in the city. When Stalin died, Khrushchev was demoted, relieved of his responsibilities and relegated to a ceremonial position.
One of these men would go on to rule the Soviet Union for twelve years.
The other would die screaming in a prison cell.
This is the story of how that came to be.
On March 5th, 1953, Josef Stalin suffered a fatal stroke and died at his Moscow dacha, and all of the existing power arrangements in the USSR flipped upside down. Nobody knew what to do, nobody could even imagine how things would function. Nobody except Beria. As the members of the Politburo stood around their leader’s bed, many sobbing in shock, Beria ran from the room, shouting for his driver. “He’s off to take power” somebody muttered to Khrushchev. They were right. In the coming days and weeks, as people scrambled to take advantage of the gaping hole left in the center of the Kremlin, Beria’s already considerable power increased rapidly. He continued his directorship of the Ministry of State Security (MGB), and gained control of the Ministry of the Interior (MVD), as well as the post of First Deputy Premier. His ally Malenkov became Prime Minister, and together with Minister of Foreign Affairs Molotov they formed the new ruling troika. Though Malenkov held the most senior positions, it was obvious to everyone that Beria was the true power behind the throne. Khrushchev, and other senior ministers favored by Stalin in his final days, was quietly demoted.
Given Beria’s ferocious reputation, one might expect his reign to be an intensification of Stalinist hardliner polices. Instead, like many ageing secret police chieftains, Beria fancied himself a liberal. He amnestied over a million political prisoners, publicly exonerated those arrested in the Doctor’s Plot, and made noises about possible economic liberalization. In terms of foreign policy, he proposed even more radical changes: the Baltic States given autonomy or maybe even independence, the return of the Kuril Islands to Japan and the Kaliningrad Oblast to Germany, even the reunification of East and West Germany as a neutral buffer state. In return for all this, he hoped to secure much-needed economic assistance from the United States. Unfortunately for Lavrentiy, he overreached himself. By distancing himself so rapidly from Stalin’s legacy, Beria lost any chance to portray himself as the legitimate successor to the Great Man, leaving his power resting only on the crawling terror of the secret police. His liberalization program infuriated and alienated the Old Bolsheviks and Stalinists, while the moderates remained terrified that he would turn and destroy them. For twenty-five years, Beria had been the shadow lurking in the corner of the Kremlin, destroying anyone who challenged or questioned Stalin. Even a million political prisoners freed from the gulags couldn’t change that.
Beria held power, but it was shaky. Even his closest allies were terrified of him, and waited in expectation of being purged. Despite his newfound claims of moderation, there were widespread rumors that he would use his private military forces to carry out a coup d’etat. Within weeks, an opposition faction began to emerge, centered around Khrushchev. Nikita had the connections to organize a countervailing force, and more importantly Beria didn’t see him as a threat. Before long, Khrushchev had the support of a large faction of the Politburo, including Defense Minister Nikolai Bulgannin and Beria’s ostensible ally Malankov, and they began working behind the scenes to obstruct and delay Beria’s reforms while searching for a more permanent solution. Meanwhile, Khrushchev looked elsewhere for support: the Red Army. Moscow and the Kremlin itself were garrisoned by MGB security battalions, loyal first and foremost to their chief. Any attempt to arrest Beria would be met by violence. The Red Army had reason to hate Beria. He had been an integral part of the Great Purge of 1936 which had gutted the Soviet Armed Forces, and the surviving officers and generals had no wish to see him ascend to ultimate power. But they also knew that any failed attempt to remove him would result in another bloodletting. In the end, Khrushchev’s contacts agreed to assist him–but with a catch. They would support him against the MGB, but not until after he had taken Beria into custody. Only a few officers were willing to take the risk of actually participating in any action against Stalin’s Executioner. Of these, by far the most notable was Georgy Zukov. Marshal of the Soviet Union, Hero of the Soviet Union, the man who had commanded at the Stalingrad Counteroffensive, Operation Bagration, and the Fall of Berlin. He was probably one of the most famous Soviet military offices alive, and in the days immediately following the conclusion of the Great Patriotic War Beria had attempted to have him purged. This turned out to be a mistake.
On June 16th, 1953, construction workers in East Berlin went on strike, in protest of higher work quotas and pay cuts. This quickly spread, any by the next day thousands of protesters were in the streets in Berlin and other cities of East Germany, with demands both economic and political. The government of the DDR responded with overwhelming force, ordering 20,000 Soviet troops into the streets, where they swiftly crushed the revolt, killing dozens. This was the opportunity Khrushchev had been waiting for. The challenge to Soviet supremacy in Europe undermined Beria’s calls for liberalization, and emboldened the hardliners. In addition, it make him look weak, especially when he began discussing the possibility of concessions to the protesters. The last waverers in the Politburo were won over, and Khrushchev was ready to make his move.
On June 26th, 1953, Lavrentiy Beria arrived at the Kremlin for an emergency meeting of the Politburo. It was an unusual situation, as the meeting had been called suddenly, with no announced agenda, but Beria saw no reason for alarm. The Politburo was controlled by his allies, the Kremlin was surrounded by his guards, and Moscow was filled with his loyal troops.
Khrushchev opened the meeting, and with no warning at all began to attack Beria, calling him a traitor to the Soviet Union, alleging he was working for British intelligence and attempting to undermine communist society. Beria stared at him in confusion. “What’s going on, Nikita Sergeyevich? Why are you picking fleas in my trousers?” he is said to have asked. Khrushchev merely sat down, and another member of the Politburo stood to declaim Beria’s treason and anti-socialist activities, followed by yet another and another. As Beria began to realize what was happening, he begged Malenkov, his closest friend to defend him from these baseless accusations. Malenkov wouldn’t even look at him. Finally, Khrushchev announced that due to the special danger of this traitor, he would have to be arrested immediately. At that signal, Marshal Zukov himself and a group of officers burst into the room. Beria, now frightened but still not understanding that the monster he had served for so long was now devouring him cried out “Oh Comrades, what’s the matter? Just sit down.” Zukov grabbed him, shouting “Shut up, you are not the commander here! Comrades, arrest this traitor!” The men did so instantly, dragging him out of the council chamber.
This was the most dangerous part of the coup. The conspirators were out in the open now, but their position was far from secure. If any of the MGB troops down below had an inkling of what was happening inside the fortress they guarded, Khrushchev and the others would be slaughtered. The soldiers dragged Beria down into the lower levels of the Kremlin, and stuffed him into a storage closet. There they waited the rest of the day. It is said that a scribbled plea for help was later found hidden on the former First Premier’s person. If he had been able to find a way to smuggle it outside to the guards–but that didn’t happen. Together, the conspirators and their quarry waited out the long hours of the day, until night fell at last. Suddenly, a small cavalcade of cars pulled up to the Kremlin gates. Out of them disembarked a squad of men in the uniform of the MGB, who quietly relieved the day guards, and took position around the Kremlin walls. They were led by a young man named Leonid Brezhnev. One of Khrushchev’s proteges, as it happened, with stolen uniforms and forged papers for his men. At last, the path was open. Zukov’s men dragged Beria outside and into one of the cars, and he was driven to the Moscow District Air Defense Headquarters bunker.
As dawn crested over Moscow on the morning of June 27th, the air was filled with the roar of engines as the Kantemirovskaya Tank Division and the Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division rolled into the capitol. At last, the military was committed. With no warning, the Ministry of State Security was unable to put up even a token resistance. As the citizens of Moscow watched in confusion and the U.S ambassador frantically wired home for instructions, Soviet infantry stormed the headquarters of the MGB and the homes of Beria’s top subordinates. Dozens were taken into custody, while tanks and armored personnel carriers cruised the streets for days. Meanwhile, the Kremlin remained officially silent as they systematically crushed the secret police. It was not until the 10th of July that Pravda announced that Beria had been arrested for crimes against the state. By then, Khrushchev was in control.
On December 23rd, 1953, Lavrentiy Beria and six of his subordinates were placed on trial before a special military tribunal. Unusually for a show trial, most of the charges were essentially accurate. Beria was charged with terrorism and counterrevolutionary activities for his various purges of the Soviet Armed forces. He was charged with treason for his diplomatic contacts with the Axis powers during the Great Patriotic War. He was charged with espionage on behalf of Great Britain. Except for the final charge, all of the activities Beria was accused of having committed occurred. That they were done on the express order of Josef Stalin was not mentioned. As none of the defendants were allowed to speak in their own defense, the trial was short. Sentences of death were handed down that afternoon.
Beria’s men were executed by a firing squad.
Beria himself died on the floor of his prison cell, a rag shoved in his mouth to muffle his screams for mercy, and a bullet shot through his forehead.
The consequences of the 26th of June for the Soviet Union would be enormous. Internally, the death of Beria would prove to be the punctuation mark of Stalinism: never again would the political squabbles in the Politburo turn into actual bloodshed, and never again would a single man hold so much power in the USSR. The Ministry of State Security would be broken, replaced by the much less powerful and prestigious Committee of State Security (KGB). Never again would the secret police dominate Soviet government so thoroughly. The singular tyrants and colorful henchmen of the Totalitarian Age were gone, and then on the USSR would be ruled more or less collectively by councils of bureaucrats and politicians.
Many years later, Khrushev was forced out of power himself. Betrayed by his once-loyal protegee Leonid Brezhnev, and ordered into retirement by his colleagues he exclaimed to a friend: “I’m old and tired. Let them cope by themselves. I’ve done the main thing. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore and suggesting he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear is gone, and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.”
With Special Thanks to Santa Of History for his help with historical accuracy!