Lavrenti Beria and The Collapse of the Soviet Union

A column from The Herald 1992 on an article by Donald Rayfield in the Scottish Slavonic Review.


That Lavrenti Beria was a monster is well enough known, though the full extent of his activities is still dimly understood. Apart from developing state terror as an instrument of policy, he killed and tortured personally, for the pleasure of it. He became Stalin’s secret police chief. When the Soviet Union finally acknowledged its responsibility for the Katyn Massacre of 1943 – when more or less the entire Polish officer squad was wiped out by the Soviet secret police – it named Beria as the guilty man, though his recommendation was countersigned by Stalin and others.

Stalin came to suspect him and towards the end of his life was moving against him to curtail his immense power. Beria is thought to have engineered Stalin’s death in1953. Beria then plotted to seize supreme power but was himself denounced and executed later that same year.

Beria, writes Rayfield, was fascinated by the arts and particularly by artists and writers. From 1927, when he won a dominant position in the Georgian Cheka, he built up dossiers on all the leading figures in literary groups, in the conservatoire and the university, targeting most for destruction. His work culminated in the mass denunciations, arrests, torture and executions of 1937.

The blow fell in May 1937 when Beria made his report to the party. A long survey of politics and economics ended with a cultural review. ‘The list of works published or aborted was very like that of citrus and tea bushes planted or uprooted, coalfields exploited or abandoned.’

A member of the writers’ union was entrusted by Beria with the task of pursuing the unfortunates. All the writers mentioned in his speech were made to attend sessions where they incriminated themselves and others.

During one session a poet suddenly pulled out a hunting gun and shot himself. On December 10 the proceedings were over: a quarter of the writers were slaughtered. A year later Beria went to Moscow. There, concludes Rayfield with characteristic sarcasm, he found his workload ‘enormous’.

It is an appalling episode even in the context of an appalling career. Yet are we doing enough to help prevent a relapse into so terrible a tradition? The other week I listened to a talk given by Tauno Tiusanen, professor of economics in the Institute of Soviet and Eastern Studies at Glasgow University. I must say I left feeling as if I had strayed into one of Ibsen’s less cheery dramas. This year because of scheduled debt payments, the professor pointed out, the West proposed to exact a net capital transfer from East Europe and the former Soviet Union. ‘This is catastrophe,’ he said with a gloom that seemed entirely justified. History may prove that only Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics and Poland have managed a decisive break with the old empire. If Russia relapses into autocracy then we in the West will carry some of the guilt.