The Monster Lurking In Stalin's Shadow
The Russian people aren't any better or worse than any other. However, their political road map did sometimes lead to some very dark places indeed. Case in point : Joseph Stalin and his minion, Lavrentiy Beria.
Stalin was one of those deranged, all-powerful leaders, on a par with Hitler. Some estimates tell us that in thirty years, Stalin's totalitarian regime wiped out 22 million noncombatants, while Hitler's fascist regime killed 11 million in about half that time. You know things are really bad when you're reduced to body counts to ascertain the horror on an historical period, but of course that's not all : Stalin and others like him were in a way like rocks in the forest. And when you lift that rock, weird little bugs will scurry about in the wet humus, disturbed by the light.
Before Stalin and Hitler deservedly became history's roadkill, no-one should be surprised that their regimes had a higher number of bugs than almost any other.
And Lavrentiy Beria was a prime example of those weird little bugs that nestled under Stalin's rock. Whereas Hitler's monster Josef Mengele hid behind a very thin veneer of scientific research to perform his disgusting deeds, Lavrentiy Beria needed none of that.
He wanted to BE the rock.
In the early 1920s, Beria joined the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, and in 1924, suppressed a revolt in Georgia so savagely that he earned a commendation for showing Bolshevik ruthlessness. He was then promoted to head the secret division of the OGPU, the same organization that had Sidney Reilly killed. Indeed, Beria was one of those nondescript bureaucrats who, having a knack for getting promoted, are active in almost every political party. Given half a chance, those people would advance their careers by leaving piles of cadavers in their wake, if the party demanded it. Stalin called Beria "My Himmler” in comparison with Hitler's henchman, who was the ruthless head of Hitler's secret police.
With his interrogations, torture, murders and walled-up cadavers, one could say that Beria was somewhat medieval in his cruelty, but that would be giving that historical period a bad name.
Kuntsevo Dacha, Kuntsevo District, Soviet Union, some time before the fifth of March, 1953 :
Joseph Stalin, Beria's mentor, lies moribund and oblivious to the world.
Beria is standing by his side... smiling broadly at seeing him at death's door.
Then Stalin moves, seeming to regain a bit of consciousness.
Beria falls to his knees and starts kissing Stalin's hands.
Because such is Beria.
For thirty years, Stalin did just about anything he liked in the Marxist-Leninist-inspired pyramid of fear that he built in Soviet Russia, while brutally trying to make his vision for the future of his communist state come true.
Beria, a Georgian compatriot of Stalin, was never averse to using flattery on his superiors to seek advancement. He even got appointed director of Russia's secret police in a most Machiavellian way. He faked a plot against Stalin, then faked foiling said plot.
That is how, in recognition of his apparent loyalty, Stalin appointed him at the helm of the NKVD (that was later to transition into the KGB and eventually today's FSB). Beria reportedly then strangled his predecessor.
For fifteen years, Beria was responsible for murdering millions of Russians, mostly in the Lubyanka or in one of those forlorn places up in the Siberian forests and tundras from which prisoners didn't often come back alive : the dreaded gulags. He vastly expanded them into an almost industrialized network of death.
Beria's handshake was “plump, moist and deathly cold”. Just the mention of his name was enough to instill terror in subordinates, who would instantly jump to their feet at attention when he called them up on the telephone. Beria also hated Stalin and is rumored to have poisoned him to expedite his passing, but those speculations will have to remain unproven.
He masterminded the Katyn Massacre (see THE MAN WITH THE PERFECT GUN) that aimed to behead Poland by killing off its intelligentsia. He sent Moscow's favorite executioner Vasili Blokhin, a regular in the Lubyanka, to transform the basement of the local NKVD building into an assembly line of death because there is one theme here : efficiency in the killing of fellow human beings, may they be dissidents, suspected dissidents, or mere innocents. The only aspect of Beria's usual methods somewhat subdued in Katyn was pre-execution torture and interrogation because, after all, the purpose here was to wipe out information and ideas; not gather them.
He organized Trotsky's icepick murder in Mexico city and masterminded the USSR's massive atom bomb program, where he was in charge of about 400,000 people.
Even today, in his house's cellars, you can see his torture chambers, the dungeons where he kept his victims. Remodeling anywhere in that house possibly entails finding skeletons hidden under the floors and cemented into the walls. This makes the house's sprawling cellars comparable to some ancient catacombs.
World War II, streets of Moscow, warm evening :
An armored Packard limousine drives slowly through the streets with Beria sitting in the back.
He spots a nice looking girl and directs his henchmen to detain her and bring her to his home.
Once he has collected a few of them, he sometimes wines and dines them.
Then he orders them to undress and get down on all fours, heads together, forming the shape of a flower. He calls this "The Flower Game."
He walks around them, inspecting the offerings, then grabs one by the leg and drags her into the next room to rape her.
Because such is Beria.
Afterwards, as the girls left his house, his henchmen were instructed to hand each of them a bouquet of flowers, because accepting the bouquet signified consent. One girl once refused his advances and, enraged, he declared that the bouquet would become a wraith and would rot in her grave, The next day, his secret police arrested her.
Beria also took a shine to the daughters of many other high ranking members of the nomenklatura, to the point that they had to rescue them from him. A look, a compliment from him would send the fathers into a flurry of panic. An admiral once told his daughter to “never accept a lift from Beria.” Even Stalin, learning that his daughter was in the same house as Beria, phoned to tell her to get out of there.
His house is now the Tunisian embassy and even today, the bones of his female victims are sometimes found in what used to be his wife's garden. Those are reputed to be the bones of those teenage girls he had kidnapped and who were strangled for resisting him. Workers, recently digging up the pavement in front of his house in Moscow's Kachalova Street, uncovered lime pits containing human remains.
He sometimes told women that he would ensure that their loved ones would be liberated from the gulags if they submitted to his predatory sexual tastes. In one case, a woman he had abducted accepted the trade and he then had his way with her, knowing full well that her loved ones had already been executed months earlier. He then had her arrested and sentenced to isolation in a gulag. She eventually survived the camp.
Beria was syphilitic.
The Monster's Surprise
Subsequent to Stalin's death, Soviet union, 1953.
Beria, believing that he was Stalin's successor, plans to institute grand liberalizing reforms in the USSR that reverse Stalin's “reign of terror” policies (he had already moved to end the Great Terror in 1938).
He also plans to rehabilitate four million Kulak exiles, even those he himself had imprisoned.
Forbid torture in prisons and liberate more than a million prisoners from the gulags.
His vision of reforms are comparable to Gorbachev's glasnost, decades later.
His reforms are so extreme that Nikita Khrushchev, fearing for the country's stability, has him tried and executed in secret on trumped up charges.
His body was cremated somewhere, and his ashes were reportedly blown away by a strong fan.
He was a good father.
Because such was Beria.
“I am not trying to rehabilitate my father. No one in that regime can be rehabilitated but things should be known”, says Sergo Beria, son of Lavrentiy Beria, who lived under an assumed name until the nineteen nineties. He denies stories showing his father to be a sexual predator, but says his father once announced to him that he now had a previously unknown sister in this way : “Life is very strange ; you have a little sister.” He also affirms his father tried to constrain the growth of gulags, not multiply them.
A woman, who turned out to have been his unwilling mistress long ago, was tracked down by researchers and was promised money by an editor for spiced up accounts of her relationship with Beria. To this, she answered : “... he was not a monster to me. He was gallant and affectionate. Why should I sin by speaking ill of the dead?”
Whether one chooses to lend them credence or not, the fact remains that Beria racked up a humongous body count during his career and, as his son himself affirmed : ”No one in that regime can be rehabilitated...”
Finally, a Word of Caution About Monsters
"It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding. ( … ) Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history. To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them." (Highlights mine)
- Timothy Snyder, in Bloodlands
Written by: Vincent HARDY