Lavrentiy Beria

Lavrentiy Beria Biography

Military Leader (1899–1953)
Lavrentiy Beria, who was compared to Hitler's Heinrich Himmler, was Stalin's marshal of the Soviet Union and the ruthless head of the secret police.


Lavrentiy Beria was born in March 1899 in the republic of Georgia. He rose quickly through the new Soviet Union's ranks via his violent methods and his flattery of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. He was appointed head of the NKVD and carried out Stalin's vision for purges and secret police tactics. Stalin proudly introduced him as the equivalent of Hitler's Gestapo head, Heinrich Himmler. After Stalin's demise, Beria overestimated his power and was assassinated by political rivals headed by Khrushchev on December 23, 1953.

Early Life

Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria was born on March 29, 1899 (March 17 old style), in Merkheuli, Kutaisi Governorate (now known as the Republic of Georgia), Russia. His father was a farmer, and his mother, who was seven years older than her husband, was descended from noble lineage. His father, whom he was close to, sent him to a Russian establishment school on the Black Sea. As a teen, Beria attended Baku Polytechnical School for Mechanical Construction, graduating in 1919.

Midway through his time at Baku, Beria joined the Bolshevik wing of the Communist Party, and was active in counterintelligence activity in Georgia, which was also Stalin's native region, during the October Revolution.

In 1921, Beria was tapped for the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage—the infamous Cheka—the new Soviet Union's secret police in charge of eliminating "enemies of the state," and he became known for the violent methods he employed. By maneuvering Georgia to succumb to centralized Bolshevik control, Beria rose to the position of chairman of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, known as the NKVD, in the region.

Beria ingratiated himself with Soviet party leader Josef Stalin by penning On the History of Bolshevik Organizations in Transcaucasia in 1935, a propagandist treatise that fostered Stalin's cult status in the region. Pravda, the major party newspaper, serialized the book, bringing Beria national recognition.

Under Stalin

Beria's methods and political persuasion naturally came to the attention of Stalin, who brought him to Moscow in 1938 and made him second in command of the NKVD. Yet it wasn't long before the head was out and Beria was in as the leader of that law enforcement agency, which was often indistinguishable from the secret police. Beria assisted Stalin in carrying out the purges of the military during World War II—as he had done with the Georgia region in the 1930s—and remained a favorite of the Soviet leader by playing on his paranoia.

According to Beria's son Sergo, who wrote Beria, My Father: Inside Stalin's Kremlin, Beria was a practical man—he wanted to preserve the lives of 300,000 Polish solders whom the USSR had captured in 1939 to help form an army against the Germans. Beria and the NKVD were blamed for their ultimate execution, known as the Katyn massacre, but documents confirm that it was the decision "of the Politburo as a whole."

In 1941, Stalin appointed Beria deputy prime minister, and Beria eventually joined the Politburo. At the Yalta Conference in 1945, Stalin proudly introduced Beria to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as "our Himmler," referring to Hitler's head of the Gestapo.

Death and Legacy

Lavrentiy Beria was shot by political rivals on December 23, 1953, at the age of 54. After Stalin's mysterious death earlier that year, Beria had overestimated his power. He had billed himself as an anti-Stalinist reformer and begun installing anti-Stalinist policies.

Beria had appointed himself first deputy prime minister, having become disillusioned with Stalin's ideology, and decided that forging a strategic alliance with the West would be beneficial for the country's economic recovery. This didn't sit well with his erstwhile friends in the Politburo, headed by Nikita Khrushchev. They charged him with treason and with being an imperialist agent, and had him interrogated by his own secret police using methods he developed. He was convicted and executed in the basement of KGB headquarters.

A few years later, Khrushchev denounced Stalinist policies such as the purges and mass executions, and began relations with the West.

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