Written by Salome Tsikarishvili
There are two ways to be remembered in history: be exceptionally noble or be exceptionally gruesome. For every humanitarian who struggled to achieve their lofty ambitions, ten cruel oppressors are remembered for their crimes against humanity.
The Protagonist of this article was to Joseph Stalin, what Heinrich Himmler was to Adolf Hitler.
Lavrentiy Beria was the head of secret police and brain behind some of the worst purges in the USSR. Countless lives were lost because of him, yet he is mostly forgotten. His legacy and memory live on mostly in Georgia, where he was widely hated because of his purges and reign of oppression.
Born into a fairly normal family, Beria didn’t have an upbringing that would raise any eyebrows, especially during the 20th century. He was born into a rural village with a mother who had once been a part of the nobility and a poor father who later disappeared from his life.
Interestingly, being born into a rural village and having an absent father figure is a common trend within Georgian dictators, with Joseph Stalin being another example.
Beria joined the communist party in 1917 and remained passionately involved in revolutionary activity in Azerbaijan, where he almost got caught. Almost being apprehended served as a sobering experience for him so he decided to increase his power so similar events would never occur again.
He then went on to seize political opportunities in Georgia to bolster his power.
The Georgian people needed Beria the most after military tanks rolled in to stop the nationalist movement. But, Beria only swooped in to help the military further.
He set up spy networks across Georgia to keep track of and eliminate any remaining nationalist forces. Those unfortunate souls were either executed in the country or deported to Siberia. He was also crucial in crushing a failed attempt at a revolution in 1924.
He would cut deals with leaders to make their men surrender only to execute all of them once they put down their arms. Throughout his regime, families with specific surnames were persecuted for no fault of their own. At least 10,000 Georgians were executed, with entire villages being wiped out.
During this time, Beria also met another aspiring Georgian communist, Joseph Stalin. He was one of Stalin’s only associates who did not mysteriously disappear (potentially because he was an extraordinary suck up). Beria knew how to appeal to Stalin’s vanity in order to live. He even wrote a book about Stalin, later earning him a promotion.
Beria became the party boss of the Transcaucasian Republics in 1932 and personally oversaw the political massacres during the Great Purge. Anyone could be executed at any time; people could be snatched from the streets and children died for the crimes of their parents.
Beria used this period to crack down on his enemies, target minorities, and squash political dissidents. He almost met his end during these purges too but he somehow managed to convince Stalin to spare his life.
Beria did not bat an eye at the sadistic measures of his regime but he hated inefficiency and wasted efforts. In his view, the time spent torturing an innocent man was wasteful and could be used to extract information from more useful prisoners.
Beria took part in multiple operations which ended with massive casualties. He was the brain behind the Katyn Massacre. He sent a proposal on March 5, 1940, to execute all captive members of the Polish officer corps, which was swiftly approved.
Mass execution of 22,000 Polish military officers and other intelligentsia took place in April and May of 1940. Though the killings happened in other places too, the tragedy is named after the Katyn forest where the mass graves were first discovered.
Initially discovered by Nazi Germany in 1943, the USSR denied all connections until 1990 when they admitted it and denounced NKPD for their actions.
Beria also helped plan the deportations of the Crimean Tatars, ethnic cleansing of at least 191,000 Crimean Tatars in 1944. Crimean women, children, and the elderly were sent to the Republic of Uzbekistan thousands of kilometers away.
8,000 died during the deportation and many more perished in the harsh exile. Any mention of these groups was forbidden in the USSR as Stalin wanted to eradicate any trace of their existence.
Later, Khrushchev condemned these policies, though the exiled were not allowed to return to their homeland until the 1980s. In 2015 the Ukrainian government recognized this event as genocide and declared the 18th of May as the remembrance day of the people who died during this period.
Beria had other atrocities under his belt as well. Namely, the assassination of Trotsky and the purge of the Red Army in World War Two.
Known as an infamous rapist in Moscow, Beria was often accused of driving around all evening till he saw a girl that he liked who he would then pick up, drive to his home, and rape.
The next day the women would be given a bouquet. Accepting it would mean it was consensual. We don’t know what denying them might have led to but judging from the number of bones of young women that were found in the garden of his mansion probably nothing good.
Stalin had warned his own daughter to never accept any rides from Beria.
Beria began denouncing Stalin and his actions only weeks after his death, while Krushchev didn’t do so till a couple of years later. Beria became a statesman who wanted to revolutionize the Soviet Union and implement more liberal reforms.
This begs the question: how sincere was he about these policy reforms? Were these all just ploys to take the office and just assume more power or was there sincerity in his promise? Unfortunately, we will never know.
After losing favor because of revolts in East Germany, Beria’s fate was sealed.
Beria’s name does not cause people to remember his crimes or shiver in fear but to rack their brains to figure out who he is. '
Authoritarian regimes are built on a foundation of bones and today we must remember those that laid the initial pillars to make sure that we can somehow prevent such things from happening again.