The tragic Polish plane crash near Smolensk, Russia last Saturday echoes one of Beria’s great crimes – the liquidation of the Polish elite early in World War II.
Stalin needed Lavrentry Beria, and Beria mirrored Stalin. He was Stalin’s butcher for almost 15 years. Stalin ran through a number of secret police chiefs before Beria rose to the top. His predecessors, Yagoda and Yerzov, were executed.
Stalin did not initiate the secret police or terror. The Cheka and terror began under Lenin. Both Trotsky and Stalin were ardent believers and practitioners of terror during the Russian Civil War.
But Stalin carried it to extremes, being exceeded only by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge decades later in Cambodia.
Stalin may have been paranoid, but paranoia served a purpose to him. The dead do not pose a threat. Hence the purges, show trials, and coerced confessions. The dead may not pose a threat, but their sons and daughters might. Hence the family members and often friends, acquaintances, associates, and colleagues also had to be liquidated.
Bullets were a cheap way of buying peace.
Out of the milieu of the purges and Stalin’s kleptocrats arose Beria, the smartest and cunningest of all. Beria was simply the best. He could drink with the best. All were wastrels, fawning sycophants, and butchers (Khrushchev for example was the butcher of the Ukraine), but Beria outshone them all.
He got the job done.
Threats were to be eliminated. Perceived threats were to be eliminated. Potential perceived threats were to be similarly eliminated, both internally and externally.
Beria endeared himself to Stalin by arranging the assassination of Trotsky at his villa in Mexico on August 20, 1940. He marshaled the Soviet industrial effort during the war, moving the factories 1,000 miles to the east to escape the invading German armies. He delivered the secrets of the Bomb to Stalin.
And that brings us to the Katyn Forest and the tragedy of Poland.
History tells us that Poland’s Tragedy is that it is stuck between Germany and Russia, and only infrequently rose to military preeminence.
Germany and Russia entered into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact on August 24, 1939. A secret codicil to the Pact divided Poland between Germany and Russia.
The Nazis invaded Poland from the west on September 1, 1939, formally triggering World War II. Stalin invaded Poland from the east on September 17, 1939. Poland was doomed.
Stalin’s position in invading foreign lands was to minimize any risk. Deportations and executions were the norm. Beria took credit for deporting 1,500,000 people during the war.
Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania were conquered with the populations being deported and the leaders executed. The Soviets deported the Chechens to Siberia and Kazakhstan in 1944, with ¼ to ½ of the Chechens dying. The Chechens were rehabilitated in 1956 and allowed to return to their North Caucasus homeland in 1957. We know how well that is working out today.
Poland, poor Poland, was not spared the Beria treatment. About 8,000 Polish military officers, ranging from generals and admirals to non-coms, were seized by the Russians. An additional 14,000 Poles, the political leadership, the intelligentsia, the professors, police officers, doctors, lawyers, priests, public servants, and others were also held by the Russians.
An order was signed by all members of the Politburo on March 5, 1940 directing the execution of the prisoners. (Stalin liked to have the Politburo members sign many of these orders because then their hands were also dirty and they became willing complicitors).
The executions began on April 4, 1940 and extended for 28 nights. Only a few of the 22,000 survived the massacres. The killings occurred in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk and in some prisons.
Another 320,000 Poles were deported to the Soviet Union.
The Germans discovered the Katyn Massacre in 1943 and widely publicized the atrocities.
The Soviets denied all, but the truth could not be suppressed. Finally, under Glasnost Premier Gorbachev allowed the truth to out.
Russia has recently been making amends for the Katyn massacre. It’s not always easy for a country to confront the horrors of its past. For example, Germany had to confront the Holocaust, but Japan still has difficulty dealing with the Rape of Nanking or the Korean comfort girls.
The current Russian leadership is to be commended for attempting rapprochement with Poland over Katyn. The Russians can no more undo Katyn than the Germans the Holocaust (Auschwitz and many of the other concentration camps were also in Poland), but they can learn from the past and move forward.
And hence the double tragedy of Katyn. The President of Poland, his wife, the entire military leadership, political leaders and the political opposition, Solidarity veterans, intellectuals, artists, were on the plane to Smolensk to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Katyn Massacre with the Russians.
Dead, all dead, and apparently the Russians are not at fault this time.
The cold dead hand of Beria, or at least his ashes, induced human error on the part of the pilots or others on the Russian built plane.
A true tragedy.
And what happened to Beria?
Stalin died on March 5, 1953, perhaps of a cerebral hemorrhage, the official cause of death, or perhaps, depending on whose memories or memoirs, of poisoning by Beria. Either way the death was initially convenient to Beria and others of the inner circle because Stalin was preparing a new round of terror and purges. Many of them knew they were to be among the victims.
Beria’s fortunes did not last. He was arrested on June 26, and executed on December 22. His body was cremated, so no shrine could ever be built of him. His family was exiled, but survived. His end marked the end of the terror for Stalin’s successors stopped killing their defeated rivals, and instead pensioned them off.
Loving history, I read a fascinating book 35 years ago, Commissar by Thaddeus Wittlin (Macmillan Company 1972), a biography of Beria based on what was then known and rumored about him, including that he was a pedophile of young girls).
Last year I read an even more fascinating book, based on archival records and memoirs, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Alfred A. Knopf 2003), which completes the picture