It is, however, the great merit of Amy Knight's scholarly biography to show that Beria was much more than a sadistic police chief. For, unlike Himmler, Beria played a crucial role in the domestic and foreign policy of his country. Indeed, between 1938, when he became chief of the NKVD, and the death of Stalin in 1953, he may well have been the third most powerful person in the Soviet Union after Stalin and Molotov.
Using material recently released from Soviet archives, Amy Knight has written a deeply informed book which casts important light on the workings of the Soviet system. Her view is 'revisionist' in the sense that it undermines the myth of Stalin as all-powerful. In fact, Stalin's rule depended on a large number of compliant Berias. These included Nikita Khrushchev, seen as a 'liberaliser' during the 1950s, but the man who in 1938, as Moscow party secretary, had recommended that 20,000 'kulak and criminal elements' be shot. As a virulent anti-Semite, Khrushchev may well have been the instigator of the 'Doctors Plot' in 1952, which was intended by Stalin as the prelude to the wholesale deportation of Soviet Jews.
One of the paradoxes Amy Knight has unearthed is that it was Beria, not Khrushchev, who sought to liberalise the Soviet system after Stalin's death. Declaring that only 221,000 of the 2.5 million political prisoners were 'especially dangerous state criminals', Beria began to reform the Soviet
criminal code, and to put in train a more liberal nationalities policy. Under his leadership, the Soviet system might have been transformed more, not less rapidly, than it was under Khrushchev. It was, after all, one of Beria's successors, Yuri Andropov, who, on becoming General Secretary in 1982, showed that a secret policeman could mutate into a 'liberal' without any difficulty at all.
Discredited by the June 1953 revolt in East Germany, Beria became the victim of a coup by Khrushchev, who had him arrested at a hastily convened meeting of the Soviet Presidium. Beria seems to have been tried in camera in December that year and shot immediately afterwards. The suspicion that Beria was in fact killed earlier, perhaps at the Presidium meeting itself, is discounted by Amy Knight. After his death, Beria became a 'non-person' for many years: the editors of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, for example, provided for its
subscribers a replacement entry on the Bering Sea, and recommended that the entry on Beria be removed 'with a small knife or razor blade'.
With his death, Beria, like Stalin, became the scapegoat for the Soviet system. Responsibility for the horrors could be shovelled on to them. By dying, they made every other Communist leader innocent. It was their last service to the Soviet cause.
In scope and depth, this is far more than a routine biography. Not the least of its merits is to remind us that it takes more than simply removing a few 'villains' at the top to alter a whole political system. Amy Knight's conclusion is dispiriting, but, in the light of the rise of Zhirinovsky, highly prescient: 'The long history of rule by dictatorial methods in the former Soviet Union has left an enduring legacy, which, despite the continued progress towards democracy, could affect its political evolution for years to come'.
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