Lavrenty Beria

Lavrenty Beria

Lavrenty Beria, the son of a landowner in Abkhazia, was born near Sukhumi, Russia, on 29th March, 1899. His mother was a deeply religious woman and had a great impression on him as a child. Beria attended the Baku Polytechnicum and joined the Bolsheviks in March 1917 and was a member of the Baku City Soviet during the Russian Revolution.

During the Russian Civil War Beria supported the Muslim Democratic Musavat Party in opposition to the Red Army. According to Roy A. Medvedev, the author of Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (1971): "Beria had never been a Marxist or a revolutionary. Right from the start he was an unprincipled careerist, capable of any crime... as early as 1919, he had connections with the Musawat intelligence service of Azerbaijan, and in 1920 with the security division of the Menshevik government of Georgia." Nikita Khrushchev was told by Grigory Kaminsky that when he was working in Baku "there were rumours rampant that during the occupation of Baku by English troops, Beria worked for the counter-intelligence service of the Mussavat government. Since the Mussavat counter-intelligence service was under the control of the English, it was said that Beria must be an English intelligence agent operating through the Mussavatists." The Musavats were defeated in 1920 and over 2,000 members, including Beria, were arrested. It was later claimed that Beria was about to be executed when he was saved by the intervention of Sergy Kirov.

Beria became a member of Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka) and played an important role in the defeat of the Mensheviks in the region. By 1922, Beria was deputy head of the Georgian branch of Cheka's successor, the Government Political Administration (OGPU). In 1924 Beria was in charge of the repression of a Georgian nationalist uprising. It is claimed that up to 10,000 people were executed. Beria used to tell his prisoners that we will "let you rot in the camps... we'll turn you into camp dust." He liked to boast about his victims: "Let me have one night with him and I'll have him confessing he's the King of England." A psychopath, Beria was said that he was one of the few senior figures in the OGPU who personally tortured his victims. As a reward for his efforts. Beria was promoted head of the Georgian OGPU.

Simon Sebag Montefiore has claimed that: "He (Beria) was witty, a font of irreverent jokes, mischievous anecdotes and withering put-downs. He managed to be a sadistic torturer as well as a loving husband and warm father but he was already a Priapic womanizer whom power would distort into a sexual predator." Vyacheslav Molotov met him during this period and described him as a "most clever man" who was "inhumanly energetic - he could work a week without sleep".

Beria with Stalin and his daughter, Svetlana.
Beria with Stalin and his daughter, Svetlana.

In 1926, Gregory Ordzhonikidze, head of the Soviet Communist Party in the South Caucasus region, introduced him to fellow-Georgian Joseph Stalin. The two men became close friends and Beria took over Stalin's holiday security. Milovan Djilas pointed out: "Beria was a Georgian, like Stalin, but one could not tell this at all from the looks of him. Georgians are generally bony and dark. Even in this respect he was nondescript. He could have passed more easily for a Slav or a Lett, but mostly for a mixture of some sort."

Nikita Khrushchev later recalled: "Beria and I started to see each other frequently at Stalin's. At first I liked him. We had friendly chats and even joked together quite a bit, but gradually his political complexion came clearly into focus. I was shocked by his sinister, two-faced, scheming hypocrisy. Soon after his transfer to Moscow, the atmosphere in the collective leadership and in Stalin's inner circle took on an entirely different character from what it had been before. It changed very much for the worse." Stalin told Khrushchev: "Before Beria arrived, dinner meetings used to be relaxed, productive affairs. Now he's always challenging people to drinking contests, and people are getting drunk all over the place." Khrushchev was always cautious when Stalin criticised people: "Even though I agreed with Stalin completely, I knew I had to watch my step in answering him. One of Stalin's favorite tricks was to provoke you into making a statement - or even agreeing with a statement - which showed your true feelings about someone else. It was perfectly clear to me. that Stalin and Beria were very close."

In 1936 Beria started plotting against Gregory Ordzhonikidze. According to Adam B. Ulam, the author of Stalin: The Man and his Era (2007): "In Party circles Ordzhonikidze enjoyed genuine popularity. Unlike Molotov or Kaganovich, he was reputed on occasion to stand up to Stalin and to try to soften his cruel disposition. It is quite possible that the very fact of their early intimacy, the memory of the pre-Revolution days when Ordzhonikidze ranked him in the Party, now grated on Stalin. Later on it was alleged that the tyrant's new favorite, then head of the Transcaucasian Party, Lavrenti Beria, had for a long time intrigued against Ordzhonikidze and worked systematically to arouse Stalin's suspicions against him. Beria's rise was enhanced by the very fact that those who knew him, like Ordzhonikidze, considered him a scoundrel and advised Stalin accordingly: a man like that had to be personally loyal; perhaps the very hostility against him was prompted by fear that he would unmask their intrigues, tell Stalin what they were saying behind his back."

Stalin's fear of Ordzhonikidze increased when he discovered that Ordzhonikidze was using his influence to protect party members such as Georgy Pyatakov who were being investigated by the NKVD. Rumours began to circulate that Ordzhonikidze planned to denounce Stalin before the central Committee Plenum in February, 1937. It was therefore not surprising that Ordzhonikidze was found dead before he could make his speech. The death certificate, signed by Grigory Kaminsky, the Commissar for Health, claimed that he had died from a heart-attack. Kaminsky was himself arrested soon afterwards and executed.

In 1938 Joseph Stalin told Nikolai Yezhov that he needed some help in running the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and asked him to choose someone. Yezhov requested Georgy Malenkov but Stalin wanted to keep him in the Central Committee and sent him Lavrenti Beria instead. Simon Sebag Montefiore commented: "Stalin may have wanted a Caucasian, perhaps convinced that the cut-throat traditions of the mountains - blood feuds, vendettas and secret murders - suited the position. Beria was a natural, the only First Secretary who personally tortured his victims. The blackjack - the zhgtrti - and the truncheon - the dubenka - were his favourite toys. He was hated by many of the Old Bolsheviks and family members around the leader. With the whispering, plotting and vengeful Beria at his side, Stalin felt able to destroy his own polluted, intimate world."

Lavrenty Beria
Lavrenty Beria

Robert Service, the author of Stalin: A Biography (2004) has argued: "Yezhov understood the danger he was in and his daily routine became hectic; he knew that the slightest mistake could prove fatal. Somehow, though, he had to show himself to Stalin as indispensable. Meanwhile he also had to cope with the appointment of a new NKVD Deputy Commissar, the ambitious Lavrenti Beria, from July 1938. Beria had until then been First Secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia; he was widely feared in the south Caucasus as a devious plotter against any rival - and almost certainly he had poisoned one of them, the Abkhazian communist leader Nestor Lakoba, in December 1936. If Yezhov tripped, Beria was ready to take his place; indeed Beria would be more than happy to trip Yezhov up. Daily collaboration with Beria was like being tied in a sack with a wild beast. The strain on Yezhov became intolerable. He took to drinking heavily and turned for solace to one-night stands with women he came across; and when this failed to satiate his needs, he pushed himself upon men he encountered in the office or at home. In so far as he was able to secure his future position, he started to gather compromising material on Stalin himself.... On 17 November the Politburo decided that enemies of the people had infiltrated the NKVD. Such measures spelled doom for Yezhov. He drank more heavily. He turned to more boyfriends for sexual gratification."

On 23rd November 1938, Beria replaced Nikolai Yezhov as head of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). Yezhov was arrested on 10th April, 1939. It is claimed by the authors of Stalin's Loyal Executioner (2002) that Yezhov quickly confessed under torture to being an "enemy of the people". This included a confession that he was an homosexual.

With the murder of Leon Trotsky in 20th August, 1940, all the leading figures involved in the Russian Revolution were dead except for Joseph Stalin. Of the fifteen members of the original Bolshevik government, ten had been executed and four had died (sometimes in mysterious circumstances). The armed forces suffered at the hands of Beria and the NKVD. It has been estimated that a third of all officers were arrested. Three out of five marshals and fourteen out of sixteen army commanders were executed.

Beria prospered under Joseph Stalin and he became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In February, 1941, he became deputy prime minister and in 1946 joined the Politburo. Milovan Djilas met him during this period: "Beria was also a rather short man in Stalin's Politburo there was hardly anyone taller than himself. He, too, was somewhat plump, greenish, and pale, and with soft damp hands. With his square-cut mouth and bulging eyes behind his pince-nez, he suddenly reminded me of Vujkovic, one of the chiefs of the Belgrade Royal Police who specialized in torturing Communists. It took an effort to dispel the unpleasant comparison, which was all the harder to forget because the similarity extended even to his expression - a certain self-satisfaction and irony mingled with a clerk's obsequiousness and solitude."

After the death of Joseph Stalin in March, 1953, Beria attempted to replace him as dictator of the Soviet Union. He was defeated by a group that included Nikita Khrushchev, Vyacheslav Molotov and Georgy Malenkov. Beria was arrested and accused of conducting "anti-state activities". Lavrenty Beria was found guilty and was executed on 23rd December, 1953.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Roy A. Medvedev, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (1971)

Beria had never been a Marxist or a revolutionary. Right from the start he was an unprincipled careerist, capable of any crime. He began as an inconspicuous inspector of housing for the Baku city Soviet. During the Civil War the adventurer Bagirov gave Beria a job in the Cheka. At that time the Soviet regime was not firmly established in the Caucasus and Beria naturally tried to ensure himself against all eventualities. His trial in 1953 established that, as early as 1919, he had connections with the Musawat intelligence service of Azerbaijan, and in 1920 with the security division of the Menshevik government of Georgia. In 1921 M. Kedrov, head of a special division of OGPU checking up on the work of the Azerbaijan Cheka, whose chairman was Bagirov and whose vice-chairman was Beria, established that Beria had released enemies of the Soviet regime and condemned innocent people. Suspecting treason, Kedrov reported this to Dzerzhinskii in Moscow, and suggested that Beria be removed from his post as untrustworthy. For reasons unknown, his letter produced no results at that time.

In the second half of the twenties Beria transferred to the GPU of Georgia. By intrigues and crimes he advanced himself to the head of the GPU of Georgia and then of all Transcaucasia. Stalin did not know Beria personally before 1931, although he must have heard of him. He must also have known that Beria was an enemy of the Party's First Secretary in Transcaucasia, L. Kartvelishvili, and that Bagirov was Beria's protector. Stalin might also have heard negative opinions of Beria from Kirov and Ordzhonikidze. According to A. V. Snegov, then the head of the organizational section of the Transcaucasian Party Committee, Stalin and Beria met under the following circumstances.

In the summer of 1931 the Transcaucasian Party Committee suddenly received a special decree from the Politburo about a rest cure for Stalin. The Transcaucasian Committee was to make all the arrangements. Tskhaltubo was chosen as the place, with Beria as chief of security. In an impressive flurry, he sent a multitude of OGPU agents to Tskhaltubo and took personal command of Stalin's bodyguard for a month and a half. In these weeks, repeatedly talking with Beria, Stalin could see that he was a "useful" man.

In late September or early October Stalin returned to Moscow, but he did not forget Beria. Soon the Tbilisi officials received an order to prepare a report for the Politburo, on a subject not specified. All the members of the Transcaucasian Party Buro and of the three republics' Central Committees went to Moscow. Kaganovich presided at the Politburo meeting. Of course Stalin was also there, clearly in a bad mood. First Lavrentii Kartvelishvili spoke, then G. Davdariani for the Georgian Central Committee, V. Polonskii for the Azerbaijan CC, and A. Khandzhian for the Armenian CC. For some reason Ordzhonikidze was absent. Snegov asked his neighbor why, and received the reply: "Why should Sergo attend the coronation of Beria? He's known that crook for a long time."

(2) Milovan Djilas, Conversations With Stalin (1962)

Beria was also a rather short man in Stalin's Politburo there was hardly anyone taller than himself. He, too, was somewhat plump, greenish, and pale, and with soft damp hands. With his square-cut mouth and bulging eyes behind his pince-nez, he suddenly reminded me of Vujkovic, one of the chiefs of the Belgrade Royal Police who specialized in torturing Communists. It took an effort to dispel the unpleasant comparison, which was all the harder to forget because the similarity extended even to his expression - a certain self-satisfaction and irony mingled with a clerk's obsequiousness and solitude. Beria was a Georgian, like Stalin, but one could not tell this at all from the looks of him. Georgians are generally bony and dark. Even in this respect he was nondescript. He could have passed more easily for a Slav or a Lett, but mostly for a mixture of some sort.

(3) Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Count of the Red Tsar (2004)

Stalin gently told Yezhov that he needed some help in running the NKVD and asked him to choose someone. Yezhov requested Malenkov but Stalin wanted to keep him in the Central Committee so someone, probably Kaganovich, proposed Beria. Stalin may have wanted a Caucasian, perhaps convinced that the cut-throat traditions of the mountains - blood feuds, vendettas and secret murders - suited the position. Beria was a natural, the only First Secretary who personally tortured his victims. The blackjack - the zhgtrti - and the truncheon - the dubenka - were his favourite toys. He was hated by many of the Old Bolsheviks and family members around the leader. With the whispering, plotting and vengeful Beria at his side, Stalin felt able to destroy his own polluted, intimate world.

Yezhov probably tried to arrest Beria, but it was too late. Stalin had already seen Beria during the Supreme Soviet on 10 August. Beria was coming to Moscow.

He had come a long way since 1931. Beria, now thirty-six, was complex and talented with a first-class brain. He was witty, a font of irreverent jokes, mischievous anecdotes and withering put-downs. He managed to be a sadistic torturer as well as a loving husband and warm father but he was already a Priapic womanizer whom power would distort into a sexual predator. A skilled manager, he was the only Soviet leader whom "one could imagine becoming Chairman of General Motors", as his daughter-in-law put it later. He could run vast enterprises with a mixture of villainous threats - "I'll grind you to powder" - and meticulous precision....

Beria had the "singular ability to inspire both fear and enthusiasm". "Idolized' by his own henchmen even though he was often harsh and rude, he would shout: "We'll arrest you and let you rot in the camps... we'll turn you into camp dust." A young man like Alyosha Mirtskhulava, whom Beria promoted in the Georgian Party, was still praising Beria for his "humanity, strength, efficiency and patriotism" when he was interviewed for this book in 2002. Yet he liked to boast about his victims: "Let me have one night with him and I'll have him confessing he's the King of England." His favourite movies were Westerns but he identified with the Mexican bandits. Well-educated for a Bolshevik magnate, Stalin teased this architect manque that his pince-nez were made of clear glass, worn to give an impression of intellectual gravitas.

This deft intriguer, coarse psychopath and sexual adventurer would also have cut throats, seduced ladies-in-waiting and poisoned goblets of wine at the courts of Genghis Khan, Suleiman the Magnificent or Lucrezia Borgia. But this "zealot", as Svetlana called him, worshipped Stalin in these earlier years - theirs was the relationship of monarch and liege - treating him like a Tsar instead of the first comrade. The older magnates treated Stalin respectfully but familiarly, but even Kaganovich praised him in the Bolshevik lexicon. Beria however said, "Oh yes, you are so right, absolutely true, how true" in an obsequious way, recalled Svetlana. "He was always emphasizing that he was devoted to my father and it got through to Stalin that whatever he said, this man supported him." Bearing a flavour of his steamy Abkhazia to Stalin's court, Beria was to become even more complex, powerful and depraved, yet less devoted to Marxism as time went on but in 1938, this "colossal figure", as Artyom puts it, changed everything.

Beria, like many before him, tried to refuse his promotion. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity - Yagoda had just been shot and the writing was on the wall for Yezhov. His wife Nina did not want to move - but Beria was rapaciously ambitious. When Stalin proposed Beria as NKVD First Deputy, Yezhov pathetically suggested that the Georgian might be a good commissar in his own right. "No, a good deputy," Stalin reassured him.

Stalin sent Vlasik down to arrange the move. In August, after hurrying back to Georgia to anoint a successor to run Tiflis, Beria arrived in Moscow where, on 22 August 1938, he was appointed First Deputy Narkom of the NKVD. The family were assigned an apartment in the doom-laden House on the Embankment. Stalin arrived to inspect the flat and was not impressed. The bosses lived much better in the warm fertile Caucasus, with its traditions of luxury, wine and plentiful fruit, than elsewhere: Beria had resided in an elegant villa in Tiflis. Stalin suggested they move into the Kremlin but Beria's wife was unenthusiastic. So finally Stalin chose the Georgian new boy an aristocratic villa on Malaya Nikitskaya in the centre of the city, once the home of a Tsarist General Kuropatkin, where he lived splendidly by Politburo standards. Only Beria had his own mansion...

Beria and Yezhov ostensibly became friends: Beria called his boss "Dear Yozhik", even staying at his dacha. But it could not last in the jungle of Stalin's court. Beria attended most meetings with Yezhov and took over the intelligence departments. Beria waged a quiet campaign to destroy Blackberry: he invited Khrushchev for dinner where he warned him about Malenkov's closeness to Yezhov. Khrushchev realized that Beria was really warning him about his own friendship with Yezhov. No doubt Beria had the same chat with Malenkov. But the most telling evidence is the archives: Beria finagled Vyshinsky into complaining to Stalin about Yezhov's slowness. Stalin did not react but Molotov ordered Yezhov:

"It is necessary to pay special attention to Comrade Beria and hurry up. Molotov." That weather vane of Stalin's favour, Poskrebyshev, stopped calling Yezhov by the familiar ty and started visiting Beria instead.

Beria brought a new spirit to the NKVD: Yezhov's frenzy was replaced with a tight system of terror administration that became the Stalinist method of ruling Russia. But this new efficiency was no consolation to the victims. Beria worked with Yezhov on the interrogations of the fallen magnates, Kosior, Chubar and Eikhe, who were cruelly tortured. Chubar appealed to Stalin and Molotov, revealing his agonies.

(4) Robert Service, Stalin: A Biography (2004)

The Great Terror came suddenly to an end on 23 November 1938. The occasion was marked unofficially by the removal of Yezhov from the NKVD and the advent to office of his deputy Lavrenti Beria. Until then there had been no serious attempt to stop the carnage. Everyone near Stalin had known that the campaign of arrests, tortures and executions had his active support: it was perilous to advocate a change of policy while he seemed fixed in purpose.

Signs had already appeared that some in Stalin's entourage wanted to halt the machinery of terror. Malenkov began the attempt at the Party Central Committee plenum in January 1938; he did this subtly by deploring the large number of mistakes in expulsions from the party in the previous year.' Direct criticism of arrests and executions was avoided. Holding to the theme of internal party procedures, Malenkov rebuked local leaders for throwing innocent communists out of the party. Everyone knew that more was involved than the loss of a party membership card. Expelled Bolsheviks were invariably sent to the Gulag or shot. Malenkov later claimed that he was putting pressure on Stalin to see the light. If so, it would have been the only time he did so. Malenkov was Stalin's creature and it is inconceivable that Stalin did not sanction Malenkov's initiative; and in any case, apart from a decision to handle expulsions more carefully, no brake was yet applied to the machinery of terror. Nevertheless Stalin evidently had growing doubts about Yezhov. He made this manifest in a typically indirect fashion when, on 21 August 1938, Yezhov was given the People's Commissariat of Water Transport in addition to his existing duties. This implicitly warned him that he would have the NKVD taken away from him if he failed to satisfy the Leader.

Yezhov understood the danger he was in and his daily routine became hectic; he knew that the slightest mistake could prove fatal. Somehow, though, he had to show himself to Stalin as indispensable. Meanwhile he also had to cope with the appointment of a new NKVD Deputy Commissar, the ambitious Lavrenti Beria, from July 1938. Beria had until then been First Secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia; he was widely feared in the south Caucasus as a devious plotter against any rival - and almost certainly he had poisoned one of them, the Abkhazian communist leader Nestor Lakoba, in December 1936. If Yezhov tripped, Beria was ready to take his place; indeed Beria would be more than happy to trip Yezhov up. Daily collaboration with Beria was like being tied in a sack with a wild beast. The strain on Yezhov became intolerable. He took to drinking heavily and turned for solace to one-night stands with women he came across; and when this failed to satiate his needs, he pushed himself upon men he encountered in the office or at home. In so far as he was able to secure his future position, he started to gather compromising material on Stalin himself.

Quite how Yezhov could ever have made use of such documents is hard to imagine. His behaviour indicated how desperate he, the Iron Commissar, had become. Knowing he could be arrested at any time, he was sent daily into hysteria. His fate depended on whether Stalin wanted to alter policy or change personnel. If he was to survive, the NKVD chief needed Stalin to commit himself to permanent state terror with Yezhov still in charge.

A further decline in Yezhov's influence was detectable on 23 October 1938, when the writer Mikhail Sholokhov gained an audience with Stalin to complain about being investigated by the NKVD. Stalin humiliated Yezhov by requiring him to attend. On 14 November an order came from Stalin to purge the NKVD of individuals "not worthy of political confidence". Next day the Politburo confirmed a directive of party and government to terminate cases currently under investigation by the troiki and the military tribunals. On 17 November the Politburo decided that enemies of the people had infiltrated the NKVD. Such measures spelled doom for Yezhov. He drank more heavily. He turned to more boyfriends for sexual gratification. He spoke incautiously about politics. He was psychologically collapsing as Stalin increasingly treated Lavrenti Beria as NKVD chief-in-waiting. The wolves were gathering. At an evening meeting with Stalin, Molotov and Voroshilov on 23 November, Yezhov confessed to his incompetence in catching enemies of the people; his resignation was accepted. Yezhov kept his other posts in the Central Committee Secretariat and the People's Commissariat of Water Transport for some months. But his days of pomp and authority were over.

Beria was charged with restoring order in the NKVD and submitting it to the party's control. Ruthless and competent, he could be trusted to clear up the mess left behind by Yezhov. Beria was no angel. Unlike Yezhov, he took an active part in beatings and kept canes for use in his office. Yet he had a steadier character than his predecessor, and Stalin and he instigated a set of reforms. Approval of torture in interrogations was not revoked but restricted, according to a January 1939 directive, to "exceptional" cases. A dossier was assembled on Yezhov, who appeared in public for the last time on 21 January 1939. He was arrested in April and executed the following year. The entire system of troikis was dismantled. The nightmare of 1937-8 was ended; it was popularly referred to as the "Yezhovshchina". This suited Stalin, who wanted the blame removed from his own shoulders. Yet although the terror-procedures were reduced, they were not abolished. The party did not control the NKVD at central and local levels on a daily basis. Torture continued to be used. The frantic atmosphere of the Great Terror had been dissipated but Stalin's USSR remained a murderous madhouse - and most of the leading madmen were confirmed in power.

Yezhov's removal came after Stalin started to allow discussion in his entourage about abuses of power. Two years of arrests and executions had occurred, and it was known that a high proportion of the victims did not belong to the categories of people describable as "anti-Soviet elements". It is quite possible too that Yezhov misled Stalin about aspects of the process. Yezhov's career and life depended on his ability to persuade Stalin that genuine anti-Soviet elements and enemies of the people were being arrested and eliminated. Yezhov's activity put everyone at risk.

(5) Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers (1971)

Beria and I started to see each other frequently at Stalin's. At first I liked him. We had friendly chats and even joked together quite a bit, but gradually his political complexion came clearly into focus. I was shocked by his sinister, two-faced, scheming hypocrisy. Soon after his transfer to Moscow, the atmosphere in the collective leadership and in Stalin's inner circle took on an entirely different character from what it had been before. It changed very much for the worse. Stalin himself once even confided to me his own unhappiness with Beria's influence: "Before Beria arrived, dinner meetings used to be relaxed, productive affairs. Now he's always challenging people to drinking contests, and people are getting drunk all over the place."

Even though I agreed with Stalin completely, I knew I had to watch my step in answering him. One of Stalin's favorite tricks was to provoke you into making a statement - or even agreeing with a statement - which showed your true feelings about someone else. It was perfectly clear to me. that Stalin and Beria were very close. To what extent this friendship was sincere, I couldn't say, but I knew it was no accident that Beria had been Stalin's choice for Yezhov's replacement. In addition to being the potentate of a powerful commissariat, Beria also pulled a lot of weight in the collective leadership. Anyone who wanted to be sure of staying in Stalin's good graces had to fawn all over Beria, too. Kaganovich was especially adept at getting ahead by flattery. I must say, I never saw any of this kind of debasing obsequiousness on Molotov's part. Nor did I ever kowtow to Beria myself, and I often had to contend with Beria working against me as a result. Since I worked for the Party and State in a number of important posts, I had many opportunities to make recommendations for progressive improvements. I usually had Stalin's support, and when I failed to have his support, it was almost always because of Beria's and Malenkov's influence on Stalin. I'm convinced that their opposition to me was based primarily on jealousy.

Beria, particularly, was fiercely jealous of his power in the collective leadership and his influence over Stalin. A story illustrates what he was capable of: Stalin's brother-in-law, Redens, had once been Beria's Deputy People's Commissar of State Security in Georgia. Before Beria himself was transferred to Moscow, he decided to have Redens bounced out of Georgia. Why? So that Stalin would have no informer in Georgia other than Beria himself. Beria had always been hostile to Sergo Ordzhonikidze for the same reason. So what did Beria do to get rid of Redens? He instructed some of his men to lure Redens into a cafe, where they took advantage of his weakness for drink, got him drunk, and threw him out into the gutter. The police came along and saw him lying there in a disreputable state. Beria saw to it that Stalin found out that Redens had discredited himself. That's why Redens was sacked from his job in Georgia and ended up in the Moscow Regional office of the NKVD. You see what sort of provocateur Beria was? Many years later, after Beria's downfall, the Central Committee received a long letter from a Georgian ex-convict enumerating all the people in Georgia who had been victims of similar provocations perpetrated by Beria.

(6) Adam B. Ulam, Stalin: The Man and his Era (2007)

Symbolically the first major victim following the trial was a man from Stalin's closest circle. Gregory "Sergo" Ordzhonikidze was his oldest friend, a member of the Politburo, Commissar of Heavy Industry. In Party circles Ordzhonikidze enjoyed genuine popularity. Unlike Molotov or Kaganovich, he was reputed on occasion to stand up to Stalin and to try to soften his cruel disposition. It is quite possible that the very fact of their early intimacy, the memory of the pre-Revolution days when Ordzhonikidze ranked him in the Party, now grated on Stalin. Later on it was alleged that the tyrant's new favorite, then head of the Transcaucasian Party, Lavrenti Beria, had for a long time intrigued against Ordzhonikidze and worked systematically to arouse Stalin's suspicions against him. But it is over simple to see Beria as Stalin's evil spirit and a major cause of the Great Purge. Still, with his ever deepening suspicions and a growing apprehension of what might happen when war came, Stalin was not unwilling to listen to tales about people closest to him and came to resent those who had known him as Koba. Beria's rise was enhanced by the very fact that those who knew him, like Ordzhonikidze, considered him a scoundrel and advised Stalin accordingly: a man like that had to be personally loyal; perhaps the very hostility against him was prompted by fear that he would unmask their intrigues, tell Stalin what they were saying behind his back. In his new phase Stalin subjected some of his leading collaborators (Kaganovich, Kalinin, Molotov, Mikoyan) to an inhuman test: close relatives would be arrested and held on fictitious charges while they were supposed to go on serving him without interceding for their dear ones. Now Ordzhonikidze, to the public one of the first men in the state and a "close comrade-at-arms of great Stalin," was expected to be working at his desk, appear smiling in photographs at the side of the Leader, while somewhere in an NKVD jail his older brother Papulia was being tortured. Ordzhonikidze was not a healthy man: he had undergone operations and suffered from high blood pressure and a heart ailment. And now on February 19 the Central Committee was to assemble to consider the "lessons" of the Pyatakov-Radek trial and to order new measures of repression against wreckers and saboteurs. Ordzhonikidze's part was a key one: his deputy Pyatakov had been shot, several of his most important subordinates and industrial directors had been arrested. He was to make a report on "wrecking" in industry and on further measures of repression to deal with spies and saboteurs.

But the meeting had to be adjourned. On the very day it was slated to open, newspapers carried the news of Ordzhonikidze's sudden death on the preceding day from a heart attack.

That Ordzhonikidze in fact committed suicide was well known in top Party circles, and it is incredible - as Khrushchev, in 1937 head of the Moscow Party organization, was to allege in 1956 - that Khrushchev learned the true facts of the death only many years later. We know that on the morning of February 17 Ordzhonikidze had a tempestuous interview with Stalin. He wanted to know why his office had been searched by the NKVD. Nothing unusual about it, replied Stalin; why, the NKVD might very well be ordered to search his own office Ordzhonikidze worked for the balance of the day in his Commissariat, attending to various items of business, issuing dispositions for the future. He returned to his Kremlin apartment at two A.M. The next morning he refused to get out of bed, and at five-thirty in the afternoon the shot rang out. Zinaida Gavrilovna Ordzhonikidze phoned Stalin, but he refused to see the widow of his lifelong friend alone, and arrived only after a while, accompanied by other members of the Politburo and Yezhov. According to Roy Medvedev, who collected evidence from eyewitnesses, Zinaida Gavrilovna shouted at the dictator, "You did not protect Sergo for me or for the Party" - certainly in the circumstances a masterpiece of understatement. Stalin's unsentimental reply was, "Shut up, you fool." His reaction on the death of the man whose recommendation had been instrumental in Lenin's appointing him to the Central Committee in 1912, and whose help had been essential at several other crucial points of his career, was one of wonder: "What an odd disease. Man lies down to rest, has a heart attack, and there." This, it is hardly necessary to add, was the official verdict of the medical certificate signed by four distinguished doctors, three of whom were subsequently liquidated.

"Why did Ordzhonikidze shoot himself and not Stalin?" asks a Soviet author. We have already tried to answer this question. Knowing him well, it is unlikely that Ordzhonikidze could have thought that his act of desperation would bring any remorse in Stalin or make him abandon or temper his bloody designs. The tyrant must have viewed his friend's suicide as an attack upon himself, a stab in the back: Ordzhonikidze deserted his post, tried to bring confusion and doubt into the highest Party ranks, discredit that essential work being done by the NKVD. It was undoubtedly great generosity on his part, Stalin believed, to cover his dead comrade with honors, to give him a hero's funeral, and to leave that chatterbox, Ordzhonikidze's wife, free. But Stalin's suspicions pursued a person even after his death. As after his wife's death, Stalin now brooded over the meaning of Sergo's suicide: What had he really meant by this act? Would his relatives talk, spread the true story, breed defeatism through gossip? One by one Ordzhonikidze's closest relatives and co-workers who knew the facts were arrested. In 1942, the year of supreme danger, when the Germans approached the Caucasus, Stalin remembered his fellow Caucasian, and orders went out to change the names of several cities and towns called after Ordzhonikidze There was no point in commemorating the man who had betrayed him.

(7) Isaac Deutscher, Stalin (1949)

He (Stalin) was moving within the vicious circle of his terror, where his mind, even if it had been perfectly sane, was bound to become gripped by persecution mania. The more realistic, sober, and sound the view he took of the men around him, the more acute became his distrust and fear of them. The more he was free from self-delusion, the worse were the nightmares he saw. He could not keep himself in power and destroy the whole of his own faction; he had to save part of it, keep it alive, and use it as the instrument of his rule. But with what feelings did the survivors serve him? Did men like Molotov, Khrushchev, Malenkov, Kaganovich, Beria, and Mikoyan not mind the execution of Rudzutak, Kossior, Postyshev, and Eikhe, who had been their closest comrades in the Stalinist Old Guard? If they did not mind it, they were scoundrels without a shred of conscience - how, then, could Stalin count on their loyalty? If they did mind, then, no matter how carefully they concealed their feelings, they could not but nurture a deep resentment and a hatred of their heartless master. In either case, Stalin could not take their obedience or obsequiousness at its face value. He had to distrust them, watch them, and be on his guard against them.

Sometimes, as when he was growling "Why are your eyes so shifty today?", he tried to penetrate into their hidden thoughts and feelings. But these were impenetrable; he himself had made them so. Having forced his lieutenants and underlings to feign boundless admiration and devotion, to dissemble and wear masks, he could not now induce them to show their faces. And so he could not know what evil thoughts and conspiracies they might be hatching behind their masks. That they should be hatching some plots would be only natural. No one is more inclined to see in the autocrat the source of all evil than are the tyrant's courtiers, the closest witnesses of his omnipotence, who know best how often their own fortunes and the conduct of public affairs depend on his whim or conceit. The idea of a conspiracy comes to them quite naturally; the palace revolt is their characteristic method of action.

Were no attempts at a palace revolt made in the Kremlin during these years, when the Kremlin was the sole centre of political activity in the country? All the inside stories Stalin's successors have told us contain no answer to this question; what they do reveal, however, is that in Stalin's last years there were the makings of an almost permanent conspiracy in his entourage. His closest lieutenants lived in constant fear of him, hovering ceaselessly between office and disgrace, and between life and death. If nothing else, self-preservation must have prompted them to take some action; and if Khrushchev and other party leaders could burst out with so much loathing and rage against Stalin in 1956, then surely these emotions must have stirred in them in his life-time as well, and tempted them to try and free themselves from the incubus. Stalin could not fail to sense this or guess it.

Why, then, did no plot against him ever materialize? Clearly, the would-be plotters were held back by strong inhibitions. Their Marxist habits of thought, however residual and perverted, were against the use of "individual terror". Far more powerful was the inhibition rooted in collective guilt and responsibility. Malenkov, Khrushchev, Beria, Molotov, Bulganin, and their friends had been privy to so many of Stalin's misdeeds and were bound to him by so many ties that it would have been suicidal for them to try and break those ties with violence. (Even when, after his death, they tried to cut the ties without violence, they found themselves drifting into disgrace.) It should be recalled that the terror first hit Stalin's own adherents shortly before the Second World War, when they had reason to fear that a palace revolt might ruin the country's morale and defences. The war adjourned the crisis at the top. After the war Stalin was protected by his victory - who would dare to lift a hand against the Generalissimo in his glory? It took time before the new miseries, the new terror, and new disillusionments tarnished the glory and once again drove men to despair. Thus, it was only in Stalin's last years that the crisis at the top was reopened. Voznesensky's fall and the Leningrad affair were its first manifestations. The new purges had not been preceded, as the purges of the Trotskyists and the Bukharinists had been, by protracted and partly open conflicts over issues of ideology and policy.