Beria, Stalin’s First Lieutenant

Sovietologists long believed that, shortly after Stalin’s death in March of 1953, Beria simply lost the ensuing power struggle and before the year was out was arrested, tried, and executed by onetime friends and colleagues, led by Nikita Khrushchev. In the end, it was thought, Beria got exactly what he himself had dispensed so mercilessly during his bloody tenure as head of the NKVD. Consolidating his power, Khrushchev then embarked upon the first significant path of reform.

For much of her book, Knight studiously documents Beria’s rise through the ranks in a career that prompted Stalin to characterize his bookish-looking aide as “our Himmler.” She succeeds admirably in bolstering Beria’s reputation as one of the century’s truly pernicious characters. His prints are all over some of the most nefarious events in Soviet history: the deportation of nations; political assassinations and party purges; mass murder; and the design and management of the infamous GULAG network.

Taking a decidedly revisionist tack based on an examination of newly released archival materials, Knight concludes that Beria had what appears to be a graveside conversion following Stalin’s death. According to this novel interpretation, Beria quickly grabbed the reins of power and instituted a series of “liberal reforms.” These measures were aimed at undermining the Communist Party’s authority and were therefore bitterly opposed by Khrushchev and his allies. Beria then paid with his life, not for decades of capricious brutality, but for this brief improbable stint as champion of long overdue reforms.

In this study, Knight clearly undertakes to refurbish Lavrentii Beria’s image at the expense of Khrushchev, eventually credited at home and abroad with the renunciation of Stalinism and with enkindling the “thaw.” For the time being, Knight’s interpretation remains the view of a distinct minority, but she clearly has achieved her objective of examining Beria’s career in “a broader historical context.”