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New International, May–June 1953


Abe Stein

The Downfall of Beria

Exploding the Myth of Kremlin Democratization


From New International, Vol. XIX No. 3, May–June 1953, pp. 111–129.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


SURELY AMIDST THE MANY IRONIES OF HISTORY, there is none greater than the reason assigned by many observers for Beria’s downfall. The liquidator of the Bolshevik Party in the Transcaucasian Republics, the perpetrator of genocide against five minorities during the last world war, and the overlord of a many-millioned slave empire is now being presented in his last hours as the defender of civil liberties and the rights of oppressed minorities in Russia. Beria, we are told, fell because he was the chief author of the new policy of concessions. If this is so, then like Cawdor in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, nothing in his life became him like his leaving it.

In what sense Beria became the champion of the oppressed nationalities we shall see. Suffice it to say here that in the complex swordplay that accompanied the struggle for power inside the Kremlin after Stalin’s death, each side sought to force the issue on ground where it felt strongest. The general policy of large promises and small real concessions, was not and is not even now, the exclusive property of any particular element in the regime. The visible proof is that the Kremlin propaganda line has not altered in this respect since Beria was purged.

THE EXTERNAL MECHANICS OF BERIA’S catastrophic downfall are meager. Motorized units of the army rolled through Moscow’s streets on the afternoon of June 27th, and just as swiftly withdrew. That evening Beria was not among the group of top party leaders who attended an opera at the Bolshoi theater. The next day this news item was flashed to newspapers in every part of Russia – an unusual procedure in Russia for so minor an item but obviously intended as a signal to party and government officials of what was soon to come.

On July 7th or 8th, a hastily summoned meeting of the party Central Committee took place in Moscow with Malenkov as the main reporter. Beria’s crimes (he was apparently already under house arrest) were denounced and his ouster in the name of the party and the “collective leadership.” The Central Committee gave its “enthusiastic support” to the collective leadership, now more unified and monolithic than ever, and on July 9th, Pravda carried the official communique of the Central Committee dismissing the Minister of Internal Affairs from his post as a “traitor and capitalist agent” and ordering his case be turned over for disposition to the Soviet Supreme Court.

On June 26th, the day before Beria was presumably put under house arrest, he seemed to be the first or second most powerful figure in the Kremlin hierarchy. As late as July 9th, foreign observers were still drawing detailed graphs showing a rising curve for Beria and a rapidly descending line for Malenkov. The next day the illusion of Beria’s power was unceremoniously punctured before the Russian people and the outside world.

What immediately leaps to the eye is the swift and seemingly painless manner in which this piece of potentially dangerous surgery was executed at each stage of the operation. It immediately raises a question: why was Beria unable to defend himself, if he was the victim of a conspiracy? Or if it was he who was conspiring against the rest of the Kremlin gang, how did he fall so easily into the counter-trap that was set for him without putting up any considerable resistance?

The answer lies in the social nature and function of the secret police. By itself it only has the illusion of power. Separated from the party, it is like a sword without an arm to wield it – it is powerless to strike and lacks direction. Stalin purged Yagoda and replaced him with Yezhov. Yezhov carried out the bloody purges which have entered history under his name – the Yezhovchina – and was then replaced by Beria. Now Beria has been replaced by Kruglov. To continue, to speak, as some observers do, of the secret police in totalitarian Russia as an independent “lever of power” is to demonstrate the power an illusion has to generate the illusion of power.

IN THE NEW GOVERNMENT THAT WAS FORMED on March 6th, Beria took control of the combined ministries of the State Security Police (MGB) and the ordinary police-slave labor camp administration (MVD). A month later, on April 3rd, Beria created a world sensation when his new Ministry of Internal Affairs announced the “doctors’ plot” of January 13th had been a frame-up. The doctors were declared innocent and Beria’s wrath turned against the former Minister of State Security, Ignatiev and his deputy and head of the Investigation Section, Ryumin, who had personally fabricated the case against the doctors. Ryumin, Beria’s statement declared, had been arrested for violating the rights of Soviet citizens and obtaining confessions by impermissible means. The former Minister, Ignatiev, was censured for “political blindness and inattentiveness.” On April 7th, an even harder blow was struck at Ignatiev. He was dismissed from his post as secretary of the Party’s Central Committee.

Why was Beria so interested in destroying Ignatiev? Ignatiev had suddenly come into prominence when he was elected to the Presidium at the 19th Party Congress in October 1952. At the time it was noted that Beria’s deputy, Abakumov, formally Minister of State Security since 1946, had not even been elected to the Central Committee. That Ignatiev had taken Abakumov’s place was not known publicly till February 1953, when he was nominated by the employees of the Ministry of State Security to the Moscow City Soviet. Ignatiev’s loyalties, then, did not lie with Beria. Where they lay was revealed by his appointment in the new March 6th regime to the secretariat of the party. He was Malenkov’s representative in the secret police.

If Beria, furthermore, was interested in vindicating the innocence of the arrested doctors, it was not out of some sudden access of conscience, a change of heart, but as a simple act of self-defense in the jungle of Stalinist intrigue. The case which Ryumin- Ignatiev had been preparing against the doctors must have had Beria as one of its intended victims. Those observers who speculated that this was the meaning of the many editorials in Pravda attacking the “intelligence organs” (Beria) for neglect, have been proven right. And behind the underlings, Ignatiev-Ryumin, stood more powerful forces, Stalin-Malenkov.

What, however, is of importance to us here, is the fact that on the day of Stalin’s death Beria did not control the state security police. And the events that have occurred since Beria’s downfall reveal that neither did he control what had been the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Kruglov, the head of the MVD until March 6th, and then named Beria’s deputy, immediately became Beria’s successor on July 9th. Since such prizes are rewarded only for disloyalty and betrayal, Kruglov must have had a hand in bringing about Beria’s downfall. Had he remained faithful to Beria, he would have suffered the same fate.

If Beria did not control the secret police on the day Stalin died, then he had no real power. Malenkov, whom we can assume was Beria’s chief antagonist, had every advantage, Beria none. What brought about the sudden change for the better in the latter’s fortune? The only explanation consistent with the events which followed Stalin’s death is that Malenkov’s retreat was forced, not by Beria, but by a group which was fearful of seeing Malenkov acquire too much power. This group, the “Old Stalinist Guard,” consisting in its core of Molotov, Kaganovitch, Mikoyan and Voroshilov, must have formed a temporary alliance with Beria against Malenkov.

By restoring Beria’s position, this group was immediately able to check Malenkov’s growing power, which now included not only control of the party apparatus as party secretary, but of the secret police through Ignatiev. Moreover, this group must have been terrified at the possibility of an open clash immediately following Stalin’s death. The possibility that such a struggle might lead to the collapse of the regime must have been very real in their panic-stricken minds. It explains the very first words of the regime, exhorting the Russian people to stand firm and avoid “disorder and panic.” We know now where the panic and disorder prevailed.

The decisive role the “Old Stalinist Guard” played in the struggle, explains the changes which took place in the party and governmental structure during March. The Presidium of 25 members was reduced to 10, giving it the decisive voice in any crucial dispute. The strength of the group was also reflected in the inner cabinet of the new Council of Ministers. Malenkov was Premier, but surrounding him as his four First Deputy Ministers were Beria, Bulganin, Kaganovich and Molotov, with Mikoyan added as a plain Deputy Minister. In late March this group compelled Malenkov to make a further retreat. He “voluntarily” yielded the key post of first party secretary to Khruschev. Ignatiev’s dismissal from the Secret Police and his own removal from the position of first secretary deprived Malenkov of direct control of the party and police apparatus.

With the central police apparatus once more in his hands, Beria moved to consolidate and extend his power. The release of the doctors and the attack on Ignatiev-Ryumin were the first measures. So long as the doctors were under arrest, Beria remained in danger of suddenly being charged with complicity in the plot to murder the top military and party leaders. And in quashing the frame-up, Beria must certainly have had the support of the “Old Stalinist Guard.” It was imperative for the Kremlin clique to indicate to a nervous and fearful bureaucracy as well as to the masses that “unity” prevailed at the top, and that the show trial and purge which had been in preparation before Stalin’s death would not be carried through.

The dissolution of the “doctors’ plot” and recovery of real control of the police apparatus was conducted by Beria under the cloak of concern for the “civil liberties” of Soviet citizens. The fortune of war now forced Beria to assume the role of defender of the rights of national minorities. An attack on those who “inflamed national antagonisms” provided the propaganda cover he needed for shifting the struggle to a field where he felt potentially strong and the enemy weak.

On April 3rd, Beria had announced the release of the doctors and the arrest of Ryumin. Ignatiev was officially dismissed as party secretary on the 7th. On April 15th, Beria swept out the entire party and police apparatus in his native Georgia. The chief victims of Beria’s onslaught were Mgeladze, first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party and the head of the state security police, Kotschlabaschivili. These two functionaries along with their underlings went to jail. Out of the same jails, where they had been languishing for some time came the former chiefs of the Georgian party, police and government apparatus, who were restored to their former positions and privileges. In the key position of Georgian Minister of Internal Affairs, Beria placed Vladamir Dekanozov, a long-time member of his clique and fellow Georgian. [1] A palace revolution on a local scale had taken place.

Moving with feverish haste as if his life depended on it, (with the wisdom of hindsight we can now say it did), Beria carried through shakeups in the police apparatus of seven national republics besides Georgia. By April 21, that is, in little more than a month, he had replaced the secret police chiefs in Latvia, Lithuania, the Ukraine, the Karelo-Finnish Republic, Azerbeijan, Tadzhikistan and Byelo- Russia. It is curious to note that Beria, the new champion of oppressed nationalities, installed a Great Russian in each of these instances as the head of the police apparatus. On April 27th, Esthonia was added to the list of republics where a change in the police apparatus was effected.

In the case of Latvia, the purge of the apparatus was not limited to the police. The entire government was also ousted and six Great Russians were appointed in place of the Latvian Ministers who had up till then composed the Cabinet. Beria’s choice of Great Russians to replace the ousted officials in all these instances was a strange way to act if his interest was to win the support of the local population against Great Russian chauvinism. Unpleasant as it is, the right to be oppressed by policemen of one’s own nationality or race, can be admitted as an aspiration of racial and national minorities.

THE DESPERATE TEMPO AT WHICH BERIA set about reconstructing the police apparatus is the compelling proof that he had lost complete control of it before Stalin died. The question naturally arises: when and why had Stalin decided to dispense with Beria? Was Stalin merely following his supreme rule of statesmanship – never trust one man – particularly the head of the secret police – with too much power for too long a time? Or did the matter lie deeper? We shall simply anticipate the answer given by events and say that Beria was a casualty of the never-ending struggle between the local bureaucracies in the different republics and the central apparatus in Moscow.

In 1950-51 the post-war campaign against “bourgeois-nationalism” became a veritable storm. In the first stages it was waged on the “ideological front,” to use the horrible journalese of Russian writing. Poets, playwrights, historians, educators and journalists fell under a ban in the various republics for failing to glorify the leading role of the Great Russians – past, present and future. To sing the praises of one’s own land was a major crime and to recite its truthful history an outrage. In the Ukraine the poet Sosyura was denounced for his poem Love The Ukraine, written in 1944 and which simply celebrated virtues of the country. In Armenia, the classic 19th century novel Flames which described the independence struggle of the Armenians was banned. The history of Uzbekistan had to be rewritten to show that Tsarist Imperialism had played a progressive role in Central Asia during the 19th century. Russification did not simply remain a negative matter of criticism. A steady stream of teachers poured out of Leningrad and Moscow into the national republics. In Kirghizia, which is a typical example, hundreds of Russian teachers were incorporated into the educational system from the very first elementary grades up.

It is truism that the ideology of chauvinism is the mask of class and national exploitation. Stalin demonstrated this when he transformed the ideological purge into an organizational housecleaning of the non-Russian national republics. In 1951–52, one local bureaucratic clique after another was ousted for the simple reason that each had grown exceedingly corrupt in office, and, intent on its own interests, was unable and even unwilling to efficiently exploit the nationalities for Moscow’s exclusive benefit.

Moscow’s complaints are familiar enough and need only be sketched briefly. In Uzbekistan, for example, a number of party workers had been dismissed for “financial and other irregularities involving collective farm funds.” A letter to Pravda from Uzbekistan “cotton farmers” further revealed that the theft of crops, livestock, farm machinery and the like was a common practice. Tens of thousands of acres of collective farm land were being misappropriated by “individuals” for their private benefit. And to make matters worse, the corruption at the top had its effects at the bottom. The peasants were also looking out for their own interests and refusing to give up their private plots so that the land could be turned to cotton growing. The end result was that production goals for cotton were not being met. What was true of the Uzbekistan Republic was true, with only minor variations, in Azerbaijan, George, Kozakhstan, Byelorussia, Moldavia, Armenia, the Ukraine, and Estonia. And in all these republics purges of the party-state apparatus took place.

Because they were the original seat of Beria’s power, the conditions in the Transcaucasian Republics have a special interest. Bagirov, the head of the Azerbaijan party, lashed out, in a speech delivered to a party meeting in the summer of 1951, at the failure to meet production goals. The oil industry, concentrated in the famous Baku fields had failed to meet 1950 production quotas by a large percentage. The drilling program for new wells was more than 70 per cent behind 1950 schedules. In the fields of power, transportation and building construction the picture was just as dismal.

The peasants Bagirov said bitterly, were committing the crime of trying to serve their own interests instead of the collective farms. The urban consumers, that is, the workers, were being supplied with inadequate quantities of consumer goods. And what was supplied was of poor grade and the food produced under unsanitary conditions. If this was what Bagirov openly admitted, one wonders just how bad the real situation was in 1951.

In Beria’s native Georgia, which came under his very special protection, the general picture of corruption on top and a restive population below, was enlivened as so often in Georgia’s troubled history, by some especially picturesque features. Not only were the collective farms being looted on a grand scale of money, crops, livestock and other property by their chairmen, party and government officials, but in addition a violent crime wave was causing a panic in the capital city of Tiflis. Several gangs of auto thieves were making life hazardous for bureaucrats who dared resist their occupational activities.

The corruption of the apparatus was described by the new first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, Mgladze, in September 1952, when he attacked the local and district bureaucrats in the following terms:

“Those who think they are going to parcel out Georgia for their own benefit like tribal chieftains are going to be smashed as Stalin taught as to smash such evils.”

A total purge of the Georgian party, police and state apparatus was begun in November 1951 and continued through September 1952. It was by far the biggest and lasted the longest of the purges that shook the national republics in 1951 and 1952. It had a special significance since the clique of bureaucratic thieves who were ousted were Beria’s hand-picked agents. In destroying this clique, Stalin was destroying the original and most important base of Beria’s power.

The sweep of the purge is indicated by the fact that among those ousted were two of the five secretaries of the Georgian Communist Party, the first secretary of the Georgian YCL, the chairman of Georgia’s Supreme Court, the Minister of Justice, and many other minor figures. Although news of this drastic change was allowed to filter to the outside world, it was not until much later that it became known these bureaucrats had been not only been dismissed from office but also arrested.

The drastic measures taken in Georgia show that Stalin’s purge of the non-Russian national republics had, as one of its essential ingredients, an intrigue against Beria, the preparation for his liquidation. But the intrigue in itself was not the cause of the purge, as the facts themselves indicate. The purge began in 1950, but 1950 was the year in which the invasion of South Korea began and war tensions reached new heights. The need to supply Chinese and North Korean forces plus the increasing expansion demanded by the accelerated rearmament program placed a tremendous strain on the Russian economy. This meant the Kremlin was forced to squeeze the masses even harder. But Stalin discovered that instead of getting more, he was getting even less. The very means of exploitation, the bureaucratic apparatus, had turned into a serious obstacle. It had become so disorganized and corrupted in the national republics that a complete shake-up was necessary. It was then, apparently, that Stalin decided Beria had to go, since he and his deputies were no longer able to carry out their police functions of keeping the apparatus in check in the national republics which fell under Beria’s supervision, the Transcaucasian Republics, the Baltic states and the area of Central and Western Asia. Abakumov, Beria’s deputy, was dismissed, and Ignatiev and Ryumin installed to carry through the purge.

Beria himself provides the proof that just this happened. Not only because the palace revolutions he executed with blitzkrieg swiftness centered on these areas, but in the propaganda barrage which accompanied his reconstitution of his apparatus. As we pointed out earlier, Beria’s first move after releasing the doctors and arresting Ryumin was to completely reverse the purge which had taken place in Georgia between November 1951 and September 1952. The officials whom Stalin had then placed in power were arrested and the very same corrupt bureaucrats who had been jailed in the couse of the purge were “rehabilitated” and restored to power by Beria.” [2]

Beria was not content merely to act. He indicated in his propaganda barrage against whom he was acting. A series of editorials and statements appeared in Zarya Vostoka in April, the newspaper controlled by Beria’s agents in Georgia which directly linked the case of the Jewish doctors with the fabrication of the case against the Georgian party and government leaders whom Beria had just “rehabilitated.” Ryumin, the former Deputy Minister of State Security was denounced together with the former Georgian State Security Minister, Rukhadze, for having prepared the case against Beria’s henchmen in November 1951. Zarya Vostoka declared that both cases had leaned heavily on false charges of racial and nationalist bias. It said, further, that both cases were but two facets of a conspiracy which used false evidence to pursue personal animosity and personal ambition. And in an editorial piously entitled Soviet Legality is Inviolable, Zarya Vostoka warned that both the doctors case and the Georgian case would be the “objects of the strictest prosecution ... and the defendants brought to criminal responsibility.” Beria had already arrested Rukhadze and Ryumin, Ignatiev had been dismissed from the post of party secretary and presumably would be arrested. After Ignatiev, the next object of assault could only be someone higher up, named Malenkov.

IT IS NECESSARY TO PAUSE FOR A MOMENT and examine Beria’s new-found reputation as a defender of the oppressed non-Russian nationalities. In pursuit of his highly partisan interest, Beria, released the doctors and proclaimed his devotion to the cause of “civil liberties.” This act was, there is no doubt, a tremendous event. But his attack on Great Russian chauvinism is another matter. To cover his local palace revolution in Georgia, he took up the defense of those who were unjustly accused of “non-existent nationalism.” What Beria did in practice was simply to put one group of corrupt Georgian bureaucrats in jail and take another group out of jail. And in shaking up the police apparatus, he installed Great Russians in an obvious attempt to win support in the Russian dominated Central apparatus. The curious fact is that the two most important measures taken against Great Russian Chauvinism in the world of reality were not the work of Beria’s hand. The two measures, which have great significance, were the ouster of the local satraps in two important national Republics, Bagirov in Azerbaijan and Melnikov in the Ukraine.

Bagirov, like Beria, had begun his career as a GPU agent in the Transcaucasus and had served under the latter as one of his chief deputies. While Beria carried out the pacification of Georgia, Bagirov cleaned house for Stalin in Azerbaijan. For his labors he was rewarded by being made party boss of the republic.

Earlier, we quoted Bagirov’s complaints on the lamentable state of affairs in Azerbaijan in 1951 and 1952. But while the purge destroyed the career of many a lesser bureaucrat, Bagirov was not touched. Instead, Bagirov received further honors. At the 19th Congress of the Party in October 1952, he was elected to the Central Committee and became a member of the Presidium which replaced the old politburo. In the new government that was formed after Stalin’s death, Bagirov remained as an alternate on the reduced 10 man presidium. It would seem his career had not been affected by Beria’s decline even though he had a record of past collaboration with the doomed chief of the secret police.

Observers have noted that after the new regime had been established and Malenkov, to all appearances, seemed in the ascendancy, the Azerbaijan press outdid itself in fulsome praise of the new Premier and studiously avoided mention of Beria. On April 2nd, 1953, for example, the Baku Worker, dedicated a long article to the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Caucasian Social-Democratic Party without once mentioning Beria. In the middle of April, Bagirov received still further honors when he was made Premier of Azerbaijan. And in his opening speech to the Azerbaijan Supreme Soviet, Bagirov called on the party and government to “rally around the Leninist-Stalinist Central Committee of the Party and around Malenkov, the head of the Soviet government and the true pupil of Lenin and close collaborator of Stalin.” (Baku Worker, April 19, 1953.)

However, on July 18th, a week after Beria’s purge, the Moscow radio announced that M.D. Bagirov, had been expelled from the Central Committee of the party in Azerbaijan. Bagirov’s dismissal had been presided over by an agent of the Kremlin clique, Pospelov, a member of the secretariat. What makes Bagirov’s ouster puzzling is that no direct link with Beria was made, and that his past history did not indicate he was part of Beria’s personal apparatus. We shall postpone an explanation until we have dealt with the question of Melnikov, party boss in the Ukraine.

The acid test of any change in the policy of “Russification” has been, is, and will be till the demise of Russian totalitarianism, the treatment of the Ukraine. No other nationality has suffered so greatly from the repressions and pacifications of the Kremlin as this second-largest national grouping in Russia. While Stalin, for example, allowed other non-Russian nationalities the sop to their national pride of being nominally ruled over by “native sons,” this was not the case in the Ukraine from 1938 on. After the terrible purges of the Ukrainian party which saw the wildest excesses of brutality, Stalin installed Khruschev, the Great Russian as first party secretary in the Ukraine and directly responsible to the Kremlin.

The “Russification” of the Ukraine, both its eastern and western parts was largely the work of this vicious Stalinist careerist. And his second in command during these years was L.G. Melnikov. When Khruschev was called to Moscow in 1950 to enter Stalin’s immediate entourage, Melnikov took his place as the iron fisted ruler of the Ukraine. His reward came at the 19th Party Congress when he, like Bagirov, was chosen to the enlarged Presidium. When Stalin died and the Presidium was reduced in size, he also was made an alternate, an indication that he was still held in high favor. His links with Khruschev are established by their long period of cooperation in “pacifying” the Ukraine. His tie to Malenkov is more indirectly indicated. During the brief period when the official press was glorifying the new Premier and still first party secretary, the Ukrainian press was louder and much more unrestrained and for a longer period, than the central organs in Moscow and Leningrad.

The news, therefore, that Melnikov had suddenly been dismissed on June 13 as first secretary and buro member of the Ukrainian party seemed to point to Beria as the instigator. Furthermore, the crimes of which Melnikov was accused seemed to fit into the propaganda pattern Beria was exploiting to oust his enemies and reconstitute his apparatus. Melinkov was accused of “Russifying” the Western Ukraine [3], that is, the section of the Ukraine which Russia had taken from Polish rule. Specifically he was charged with placing persons from the Russian or eastern regions of the Ukraine in leading positions in the Western Ukraine; of imposing Russian teachers and Russian as the exclusive language of instruction in the new higher schools. In addition, the Ukrainian party boss was condemned for having “committed major errors in the work of the organizational and economic strengthening of the collective farm system in the Western Ukraine.” The last charge translated into simple language means Melnikov pushed the collectivization of the peasants in the newly-acquired area at too fast and brutal a rate. This charge, like the others is true, of course, but as his accusers know, the entire policy was ordered by the Kremlin itself.

So far no great changes have taken place in the Ukrainian party and government apparatus – with one significant exception – in terms of appeasing nationalist sentiment. Alexander Korneichuk, the poet and playwright has been named first deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Council of Ministers, and on the same day that Melnikov was dismissed, was appointed to the buro of the Ukrainian party. Korneichuk’s promotion is directly aimed at the nationalist feelings of the Ukrainians. For it was Korneichuk who achieved an unhappy notoriety for bourgeois-nationalism in 1951. At that time the libretto he had helped write for the opera Boghdan Khmelnitzky was subjected to severe criticism by Moscow as a particularly rotten example of “nationalist deviation.” And since it was none other than Melnikov who, as party boss, took the platform at a plenum of the Ukrainian party in November 1951 and attacked Korneichuk and his collaborator, Rylsky, the Ukrainians must have gotten some small sense of gratification to see Korneichuk rise on the day Melnikov fell. The planning of both moves was too deliberate to be accidental.

The cases of Bagirov in Azerbaijan and Melnikov in the Ukraine differ in many circumstances, but they do share two important features. They were both known as “Russifiers” and both had accumulated a great deal of power and glory. Bagirov was at the same time, first secretary of the local party, premier of the government and alternate to the Presidium of the All-Union Communist Party. Melnikov had acquired a similar garland of position and prestige as first secretary of the Ukrainian party, member of its directing buro and alternate to the presidium. As the undisputed satraps in their respective republics, they were living reproaches to the slogan of “collective leadership.” In addition, they had exceedingly unpleasant reputations as “Russifiers.”

The possibility arises then that these two local autocrats were pulled down in a struggle that goes beyond the Malenkov-Beria conflict. Their downfall may have been a warning that concentration of too much power in the hands of one man is forbidden. And since both had engaged in an excessive campaign of glorification of Malenkov at the time when he, too, seemed to concentrate a great deal of power in his hands as Premier and First Party Secretary, in the early weeks of March, we can surmise at whom the warning is being directed.

THE REASONS FOR BERIA’S DOWNFALL are implicit in the course which he followed. The “Old Stalinist Guard” in our opinion originally restored Beria’s power as a counter-balance to Malenkov and to prevent the latter from setting the machinery of a purge and trials of Beria and his adherents once again in motion. Yet here was Beria pursuing a course that was concentrating a great deal of power in his hands and which he was threatening to use to purge Malenkov and his clique. All of this must have caused this group to reconsider the wisdom of its alliance with Beria.

Yet it is possible that Beria might have been subdued behind the protective facade of the “collective leadership” had not the mighty wave of discontent, with its premonition of revolution, swept the satellite empire. Whatever plans either side had, these tremendous stirrings from below must have sharply accelerated the need to come to a decision. No ruling class can afford the luxury of an internally divided state power, least of all a totalitarian regime, when faced with the resistance of the masses. The demonstrations and strikes in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, to speak only of those events directly known to have happened, were not the sort of trouble that could be resolved by the manipulation of the apparatus. The entire weight and authority of the Russian imperial power had to be brought to bear in support of the feeble shadow power of the satellite regimes if the demonstrations were not to turn into the first stages of a revolution. The independence and conflict of the police power with the rest of the Russian state apparatus had to be ended immediately.

Until that time there was no turn to a line of concessions in domestic affairs either in propaganda or fact. The only measure that remotely resembled the new line proclaimed inside Russia was the amnesty decreed in Rumania on April 4th, a week after it had been announced in Russia. In Hungary, an amnesty was promised by the government on April 12th, but was not put into effect until some time later under very different conditions.

The measures of “liberalization” to which one can point were not at all related to the internal life of the satellites, but were moves in the field of foreign policy. On May 28th, Moscow announced that Eastern Germany had been placed under civilian control, under the Supreme Commissar, to use Moscow’s own phrase, Vladamir Semyenov. The same change was introduced in the Soviet zone of Austria on June 7th. Were these measures intended also to appeal to the nationalism of the population in Austria and Germany? If so, they failed of their purpose, as the Russians learned to their sorrow on June 17th.

The fact is that except for the amnesty measure, the course followed by the Kremlin in the satellite countries was the exact opposite of that taken inside Russia itself. The shadow regimes in Eastern Europe began to increase instead of relaxing the intolerable pressure on their subject peoples.

The clearest example that the Kremlin was continuing Stalin’s line was the currency reform of May 30th, in Czechoslovakia, which was intended to solve the inflation at the expense of the workers. No regime which planned a policy of concession would have enacted so crude and naked a measure. But this was not the only measure enacted in Czechoslovakia, although the most far-reaching. On June 1st, the very day on which the Czech workers and the people in general began their protest demonstrations, the regime issued a decree that all men less than 60 years of age and women less than 50 could be forced to work unlimited hours for the state or community outside of regular working hours. The workers had begun to fight the inflation by absenteeism – what point was there in working when wages had no purchasing power? The currency reform and the disguised forced labor decree were the regime’s answer to the problem.

The struggle within the Kremlin seems to have been very muted and not to have extended to the East European regimes in too open a manner. Beria seems to have been content to have regained control of the police apparatus and to have confined the struggle to Russia itself. The only area in which there is a possibility that the Kremlin conflict burst into the open is in East Berlin on the eve of the great demonstrations and strikes.

In April, Semyenov, who had been chief political adviser to the Military High Commissioner of the Russian Zone, was replaced by Pavel Yudin. (Yudin’s history is a particularly unsavory one. During the entire course of the struggle with Tito, he played the role of direct Kremlin agent and spy over the propaganda and administrative apparatus of the Cominform.) In May Semyenov returned as supreme Civilian Commissioner and Yudin was demoted to his deputy. Was their a conflict of loyalties between Semyenov and Yudin as some observers and journalists assert? The former representing Beria and the latter Malenkov?

On June 10th, the East German government issued a series of measures “liberalizing” the regime. The distinctive feature of the new policy was that it appealed exclusively to the peasantry and the small shopkeeping, trading and manufacturing class. The peasants who had fled to West Germany were promised the return of their farms they had abandoned or new ones. The promise was made that crop quotas would be reduced and penalties for non-delivery of crop quotas or non-payment of taxes would be revised. Small shopkeepers, wholesale traders and small industrialists were promised the return of their properties and cheap state loans.

The regime also enacted broad measures to mollify the religious feelings of the middle-class. A truce was called in the struggle with the church, and the regime issued a joint decree with the Bishop of the Protestant Evangelical Church promising there would be no further attacks on church youth groups and arrest of Church officials. To further convince the population that a new turn was really intended, an amnesty was immediately put into effect on June 13 and hundreds of persons, jailed since last November were released. On the same day, the Taegliche Rundschau, the official Russian paper in East Germany, declared that its former Military Control Commission, which in the meantime had been dissolved, had been guilty of some errors. [4] The editorial also demanded that the “personal rights and security of citizens of the Democratic Republic must be protected by the Constitution, which is to be adhered to closely by all organs of the state.” One of the aims the Kremlin was pursuing with this change of line is indicated in the editorial which declared “The decisions are of greatest international importance ... They are aimed at the great goal of re-unification of the German people in a united national German state.” We can hardly attribute this change in line to Beria, since the course adopted by the Kremlin has not changed since Beria’s fall and will not in the coming period.

WHILE THERE WAS NO CONFLICT APPARENTLY in the East German government on applying these measures to the peasants and middle-class, the question of whether the new “liberal” course should be applied to the workers apparently became a matter of dispute. It is at this point that the question arises as to whether the dispute amongst the East German hirelings of the Kremlin was a private family quarrel or was inspired by the conflict inside the Russian apparatus. The spark that immediately set off the workers’ demonstrations was the contradictory statements made by the East German regime on one side and the trade-union bureaucrats, through their newspaper, Tribune on the other. The regime promised to rescind the recent 10 per cent increase in work-norms while Tribune declared they would be restored in a short time. Some observers have professed to see the reflection of the Beria-Malenkov dispute in this division among the German leaders. They believe that Semyenov, an employee of the secret police before he entered the diplomatic service in 1945, pursued Beria’s “soft” line and worked in conjunction with Zaisser, the East German secret police chief to put it into effect. Malenkov, working through Judin and Ulbricht, the head of the Eastern German Communist Party, resisted the extension of concessions to the workers. The alternate and contradictory statements on the cut in work-norms was, therefore, only a reflection of this struggle in the Kremlin.

To attribute the confusions of the regime simply to the struggle within the apparatus between the adherents of Beria and Malenkov would be to oversimplify problems the shadow regime in East Berlin faced in the middle of June. It was face to face for the first time with a novel force – the workers en masse and it did not know how to deal with the imminent explosion. A similar situation developed in Czechoslovakia after the early June demonstrations when the regime introduced severe penalties for absenteeism. The next week it was compelled to rescind the decree.

Two changes followed in the satellite countries directly after Beria’s fall. One was the loss of independent status by the secret police. Under Beria they had remained outside the control of the shadow government and the Communist party in each country, were directly responsible to him in Moscow. They have now been merged with the Ministry of Internal Affairs in each country and subjected to control from Moscow through the party-government apparatus. The second change in the apparatus has been the abolition of the post of secretary-general in the party. The party secretary has now become the secretariat in accordance with the Kremlin’s principle of “collective leadership.” But if the first measure signified the liquidation of Beria’s attempt at independence, at whom is the second measure aimed?

While Beria pursued his aim of reconstructing his apparatus inside Russia under the cloak of “liberal” propaganda, he made no such attempt in the satellites, contenting himself with regaining control of the already existing police apparatus. The turn in the Kremlin line was compelled by the elemental uprisings of the masses. For if we seek to date the first signs of a change in policy, we find that the Kremlin began to retreat after the strikes and demonstrations in Czechoslovakia in the first week of June. This new policy, a careful mixture of real concessions, large promises and the use of terror became more pronounced after the German workers rose up on June 17th.

The terrible blows dealt to the Kremlin by the uprisings in Czechoslovakia and East Germany have found their strongest reflection in Hungary. The Kremlin evidently decided to experiment with a program of concessions in one of the countries where dissatisfaction had not taken on stormy and uncontrollable features, and the program could be controlled. On July 2nd, the Budapest radio announced a complete reorganization of the government. Rakosi, the boss of the Communist Party and premier resigned from the government and his place was taken by Imre Nagy. The program announced by Nagy is important since it was directed not only to the peasants and middle-class but to the workers as well.

Nagy declared that the country’s economy was based on the individual farm. The forced collectivization would come to a halt and persecution of “kulaks,” that is, peasants resisting collectivization, would cease. Furthermore, peasants already in collectives could leave them, and the government, to show its good will, would permit peasants to rent land free and would also guarantee their crops. The shopkeepers and wholesalers were promised similar freedom to reopen their shops instead of being liquidated and forced into state controlled cooperatives.

Turning to the workers, Nagy declared that “nothing justifies exaggerated industrialism when we lack the essential materials. The tempo of mechanization must be diminished and emphasis put on consumers goods and food.” The regulations punishing workers for lack of punctuality, absenteeism, or leaving their job without permission were abolished. Overtime work was no longer compulsory and the free time of the workers was to be their own and not subject to the orders of the state or the Communist Party.

Besides the specific economic measures designed to win the support of the different classes and to revive the economy, Nagy announced other and more general measures. The concentration camps were to be liquidated and the middle-class elements who had been thrown into them would be allowed to return to the cities. There was to be greater religious liberty and “forcible measures” against the church would not be tolerated.

Even as mere propaganda, the program the Kremlin has ordered for Hungary is imposing in its sweep. And the peasants and workers did not wait for the government to fulfil its promises. A recent editorial in Szabad Nep, the Hungarian Communist paper declares: “In most enterprises the government’s program speech has been misunderstood and the clock-watchers proclaiming that ‘everything goes’ simply stay away from work.” Other articles complain that since Nagy’s speech, unwilling members of farm cooperatives are leaving them en masse or reclaiming fields that had been absorbed into the cooperatives.

The government, alarmed that the workers and peasants were taking Nagy’s program too literally, has attempted to stem the flood. It has ordered a stop to the disintegration of the collective farms and also decreed that farmers who do not deliver their quotas will have them raised ten per cent and be forced to hand them over on the spot.

THE ELIMINATION OF BERIA HAS NOT ELIMINATED the acute crisis the Kremlin faces in the satellite countries. The uprising of the masses has caused Moscow to call a temporary halt to the super-industrialization program, the collectivization of the peasantry and the liquidation of the middle-classes – the causes of the economic misery which drove the masses into action in June.

The policy of small real concessions, large promises and the use of terror faces its greatest test in Eastern Germany. For here the problem of reviving the satellites economically by allowing a breathing spell is complicated by the stubborn pressure of the masses which will not permit the Kremlin and its puppet governments to extricate themselves with trifling measures. The strength of the workers in East Germany lies not only in their own magnificent resources, but in the weakness of the Kremlin. The pivot of Russian foreign policy in Europe is to detach Germany from the Western bloc, to prevent its absorption into the Western European Defense Community. It cannot embark on a program of total terror in Eastern Germany while it pursues this aim. Its own internal instability, the economic crisis throughout the satellite empire, the demands of foreign policy, and the pressure of the masses compel the Kremlin to pursue its present general line of “concessions,” or more accurately, of vacillation and retreat.

The opinion has been expressed in many quarters that Beria’s liquidation would be followed by a large-scale purge. But one must see what this means in terms of the regime and its relation to the bureaucracy and the masses. In his attempts to create an apparatus solely answerable to himself, Beria ousted or shifted the secret police chiefs in eight of the national republics and overturned the government, party and police apparatus completely in one republic, his native Georgia.

Immediately following his denunciation, the Kremlin clique began to undo Beria’s work. Dekanozov, Beria’s trusted deputy, whom he had installed as Minister of Internal Affairs in Georgia was expelled from the Georgian Communist Party and from his post as Minister. Along with Dekanozov, the bureaucratic clique Beria had rescued from jail where Stalin-Malenkov-Ignatiev had thrown them in November, 1951, were also expelled. In the Ukraine, the same chief of the secret police, Strokach, whom Beria had ousted in April, was promptly reappointed to his post. And it is safe to say that each of the secret police officials whom Beria got rid of will be returned to his post and the present incumbent demoted or jailed.

While these changes in the bureaucratic apparatus are important as signs of what the struggle at the top was about, they are not yet a purge in the sense of the bloody annihilation that occurred in the middle thirties. One must ask: does the regime have the means to carry through a large-scale purge? It is a remarkable fact, which few observers have commented on that the secret police has suffered three blows in succession, each one greater in intensity than the one that preceded – blows to its authority from which it cannot recover so quickly and which make it an unserviceable instrument temporarily.

At the time of the “doctors’ conspiracy” in January, the secret police was accused of not being vigilant enough in uncovering plots against the state. This was the Stalin-Malenkov preparation for a blow against Beria and a wide-scale purge. In April, Beria “discovered” that the secret police had been fabricating plots that violated the rights of Soviet citizens under the constitution. This was his propaganda cover for the attack on Malenkov-Ignatiev. And the present collective leadership delivered the heaviest blow of all when it accused the secret police (Beria) of setting itself above the party and preparing to overthrow the state and overthrow capitalism.

A purge is impossible without the use of the secret police, yet how can the present clique in the Kremlin proceed to one with so blunted and compromised a weapon? At the present time the secret police is being purged of Beria’s adherents in the name of the party, and party members are being urged to assert the party’s control over the secret police. We read in a New York Times dispatch of July 23rd that Communist Party meetings in the Azerbaijan and Moldavian republics as well as in the Leningrad area have “subjected local organs of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to sharp criticism.” In Moldavia, one party meeting heard criticisms that “MVD officials were said to pay no heed to the voices of Communists and not to take into account the attitude of primary party organizations.” To arrest Beria and to put him on trial is not too difficult an affair. Even to liquidate hundreds of his supposed supporters will not convulse the country. But the present shaky regime simply cannot manipulate the party and mass organizations as it pleases, one day turning them towards an attack on the secret police, the next day subjecting them to its persecution.

TO DISPOSE OF BERIA, THE “COLLECTIVE LEADERSHIP” had to assure itself of the army’s support. There is not only the visible evidence of the active participation of the Moscow garrison on June 27th. There is also the fact that the regime called upon the most prominent leaders of the armed forces for declarations of support after Beria had been arrested and publicly denounced. This may be interpreted as one pleases, but it is unprecedented in the political history of Stalinism. It could not and did not happen under Stalin. The only time Stalin called for loud declarations of loyalty from the army was after he had decapitated 99 per cent of the general staff.

Immediately following Beria’s arrest, the first military figure of importance to make a public statement was General Antonov, commander of the Transcaucasian military district. Addressing a meeting of army Communists, that is, officers, he pledged full unity to the party and the government. And on July 16th, the leading figures of the Russian armed forces heard Bulganin and a Colonel Zheltov, chief of political administration in the army, report on the Beria affair. The popular Marshals, the heroes of the Second World War, Zhukov, Vasilevsky, Sokolovsky, as well as other important military figures participated in the public ritual of pledging support to the party and the regime. And in every military district a slavish imitation of this rite is being performed. These political demonstrations, they are nothing else, intended to assure the country and the outside world that the regime does not fear the military, are obvious signs of the Kremlin’s weakness and the army’s strength.

This has immediately led some journalists to talk about the Russian Army as the real power in Russia and of Zhukov as the new Napoleon. All the talk is concentrated heavily on that incomparable phrase “levers of power,” with the army as the favorite “lever,” because it has wide popular support, is really progressive and now holds the balance of power.

However, comparisons with other countries and other situations are out of order since this army occupies a unique position in a unique society. True, the army has popular support. That support was heightened by the victory of the army over the Nazi invaders. In the national consciousness it looms large as the armed defender of he nation. And no one can read the stream of post-war biographies, memoirs and fictionalized history produced by the new generation of Soviet refugees without being impressed by how much hope was pinned on the army as the great force which would liberalize Russia or better free the country from the tyrannical yoke. Yet nothing came of these dreams. Zhukov and the others were forced into the shadows while the cult of Stalin as the great generalissimo who had “forged the victory” flourished under official sponsorship.

An army, Trotsky once remarked, is a copy of society – except at a higher temperature. The Russian army is popular, but what other army knows of so vast a gulf between a privileged officer cast and the rank and file? What other army enforces so draconian a disciplinary code? The privileges and power of the officer cast bind it to those who rule in the Kremlin, not to those below who dream of overthrowing the unbearable despotism.

The dramatic events since Stalin’s death have given the army greater bargaining power. Only the army kept the empire from collapsing when its bayonets put down the revolts in Czechoslovakia and East Germany. And the supporting role it played in the liquidation of Beria gives it even more influence. How will it use this new-found influence and power?

The present generation of Russian military leaders, the Marshals and Generals are all in their late forties or early fifties. They are all children of the Stalinist regime, a regime that has rewarded them with incomparable social and economic privileges. They have every reason to defend the source of these privileges. Furthermore, these army leaders were all young, junior officers when the Red Army General Staff, headed by the brilliant Tukhachevsky, was decapitated by Stalin in one dread blow. We can be sure they took the lesson to heart. Military conspiracies, as the unhappy fate of the Decembrists teaches, has always ended disastrously in Russia.

These psychological inhibitions are complemented by certain objective difficulties. In a capitalist or semicolonial country the seizure of state power by the military can be accomplished without causing a single ripple in the economic and social life of the country. But if the army aspires to power is Russia, it must have a program. It must either envision the overthrow of the present system of state-owned property, the nationalized industry or its maintenance. Since this officer caste was nurtured by the present system and has never known anything else, it is doubtful that any section of it longs for capitalist restoration. This assumption is borne out by the remarkable unanimity of opinion among officers who have fled Russian-controlled territory since the end of the war. They all express their Opposition to the dictatorship but agree that the nationalized industry cannot be uprooted without destroying the economy.

The army has no intention of destroying the social basis of its class. And if it were to overthrow the present regime, it would have to take full responsibility for running the economy. In totalitarian Russia, the spool on which all the economic, social and political threads are wound is the party. The army, therefore, would overthrow this party regime in order to install – another party regime. This is the great obstacle to any military coup d’etat.

The army caste would intervene under one condition – not against the power of the present ruling class – but in order to save it from being shattered. Should revolution break out in the satellites or at home, and the regime prove incapable of gaining control of the situation, then the army most certainly would step forward in the role of savior. The events in East Germany and Chechoslovakia are a premonition of this possibility. Again, should the regime be paralyzed by internecine strife, the army would be compelled to play the role of the arbiter. But feverish though developments inside the Russian ruling class are today, they have not yet, so far as we can tell from the outside, reached this explosive pitch.

Meanwhile, because the regime is weak, because its role has increased in importance, the army will surely push for greater privileges and recognition in the period ahead. The desire to curb the arbitrary power of the secret police inside the army, the desire to play a greater part in making the political decisions, these are the demands the army can and will advance and which the present regime will seek to satisfy. But there is a limit to what the army can ask for and what the regime can give without bringing down the entire system in ruins.

ANY ATTEMPT TO ASSAY THE PATH THE REGIME will follow is almost an impossibility without knowing something of the mood of the masses in Russia and the attitude of the regime towards them. Fortunately, although the wall of censorship is almost impenetrable, some few pieces of information have begun to filter out. With regard to how the Russian people felt after Stalin’s death, we can only cite indirect evidence. In the New Leader of July 13, we read of an interview with a Soviet officer recently escaped from East Germany. The officer declares that when Stalin died:

“Many soldiers and officers dared to speak freely. Many drank to Stalin’s death and left their barracks without permission. Party discipline in the Army was seriously endangered. A political officer in one of the neighboring units was thrown into the water.... During the days immediately after Stalin’s death, many soldiers and officers felt emboldened to make friends with Germans and visit in their homes. (As you know, this is punishable by confinement in a forced-labor camp.) Many members of the Soviet Army were arrested, but after a few days an order apparently came that these offenders were not to be punished. At any rate, most of these prisoners were released. These outbreaks were not confined to the Soviet zone. I have heard the same from Poland and assume that things got even more out of hand inside Russia.”

Eddy Gilmore, Associated Press correspondent in Moscow for eleven years, writes in the New York Times of July 22nd, that “for the first time in years the Kremlin seems to be showing some concern for Ivan Ivanovich, the average Soviet citizen.” According to Gilmore, a rumor spread through Moscow in the last days of June that the ruble was going to be devalued again, Those who had money in the bank began withdrawing it; a wave of scare-buying spread, and the psychology of panic prevailed. Through the Ministry of Finance the government issued a statement declaring there would be no devaluation. Gilmore’s comment on this is valuable. He says, “That was a rare step. Under Stalin it would not have happened. The people would have been left to panic, they didn’t matter.” This, to be sure, is only a small sample of the relation between the regime and the masses. The anxiety of the rulers in the Kremlin, their concern with the slightest change in the mood of the masses, is a sign of fear and uncertainty. It is this which dictates the present and future domestic policy of the Kremlin. The large promises and modest but important real concessions: the amnesty, the reduction of prices, the slicing in half of the compulsory state loan, the ambitious programs announced for producing more consumers’ goods; all this adds up to a policy of concession and forced retreat. And the internal divisions within the regime and the tremendous pressures of the masses in the satellites do not make it any stronger. The elimination of Beria has not eliminated the crisis.

The July 9th editorial announcing Beria’s doom begins, as all such Stalinist falsifications do, with massive boasts about the growing strength, unity and inflexibility of Stalinist society in its strange downward march. The Stalinist style did not end with Stalin’s death. The weaker the regime, the stronger its declarations. The more disunited within, the firmer the assurances of unity and solidarity.

Every ruling class needs unity of governmental will. Just this is lacking in totalitarian Russia. The disintegration of power which occurred when Stalin died is intolerable and dangerous and cannot be hidden by the present fiction of “collective leadership.” Within the regime, a clash of personalities goes on that is governed by the lure of absolute personal power and reinforced by the pressure of conflicting social forces and interests. From without, the regime is menaced by elemental and powerful forces that rise to the surface at the slightest sign of weakness and threaten to tear the whole system apart. The purge of Beria and the June days in Berlin are the first bitter fruits of the new “collective leadership.” We can be sure they will not be the last.

* * *


1. Dekanozov’s official biography is of sufficient interest to warrant a thumbnail sketch. It shows the impossibility of disentangling the police from any other apparatus in totalitarian Russia. Until 1939 he was Deputy Premier of Georgia. In June 1939 he was named as Molotov’s deputy in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A year later Dekanozov appeared in Lithuania as supreme Russian gauleiter after that country had been taken over by Russian troops. Six months before Germany invaded Russia, he became Soviet ambassador to that country. In 1943 he was named envoy to Bulgaria. After the war, he was once more installed as Molotov’s deputy, and stayed there until Beria summoned him for the all-important job of reconstructing the latter’s apparatus in Georgia. Judging by Dekanozov’s career, who always functioned as a police agent for Beria, one is tempted to define Russia as a country where paranoia has been perfected as a social system.

2. Zodelava, formerly first secretary of the YCL was made deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers. Baramija, formerly second secretary of the Communist Party was made Minister of Agricultural Requisitions. Rapava, formerly Minister of Justice, made Minister of State Control.

3. The charge of “Russifying” the Western, non-Russian Ukraine, while silence is maintained about the Russian Ukraine raises a political question of foreign policy. Is the Kremlin preparing to return to Germany, the eastern areas given to Poland, and preparing to share with Poland the administration of an “independent Western Ukraine?” This is only a political speculation, but why, then condemn Melnikov for abuses in one part of the Ukraine and not the other.

4. This explains the recall of General Chuikov and his replacement by an obscure Ukrainian general. Chuikov was saved the humiliation of being blamed for past Kremlin errors. Protocol demanded that a war-time hero Chuikov be spared the humiliation of the demotion implied in being subordinated to his former aide, Semyenov, who was now Supreme Civilian Commissioner.

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Last updated on 21 February 2019