Isaac Deutscher 1954

Beria’s Trial: The Old Show?

Source: The Reporter, 2 February 1954. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The strangest aspect of Lavrenti Beria’s downfall was the silence that attended it. Between 26 June 1953, when Beria was denounced before a secret session of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, and 23 December 1953, when he faced a firing squad, there was only one flurry of official excitement over his case. On 10 July the world first learned about Beria’s downfall, and during the following two or three days meetings throughout the Soviet Union passed ready-made resolutions condemning the ‘traitor’. Then the ripple of ‘popular anger’ faded. No new revelations followed. There were no demands for severe punishment, no torrent of abuse, no cries of ‘Shoot the mad dog!’ – none of the mechanical crescendo of fury and terror that filled Moscow’s air long before each of the great purge trials of the 1930s. It would have been difficult to guess in the fall of 1953 that one of the triumvirs who had spoken over Stalin’s bier in March was waiting to be tried for his life.

Suddenly, on 17 December, the State Prosecutor published a summary of the indictment of Beria and his six co-defendants. Next day it was revealed that a court presided over by Marshal IS Konev had been convened for Beria’s trial. Its proceedings, held in camera, lasted less than a week; on 23 December seven death sentences were handed down; on the same day the executioners went to work. Again only a ripple of emotion was noticeable; the following morning leading articles in Soviet newspapers dealt with such routine matters as the work and welfare of Soviet agricultural students.

This almost indecent affectation of phlegm of course concealed an intense struggle over great issues of policy and personal rivalry for power – a struggle that could scarcely have been concluded on 23 December.

The Judges: In the 1 September 1953 issue of The Reporter, I described the coalition of interests and groups which, in my view, had brought about Beria’s downfall soon after the anti-Soviet revolt of 16-17 June in East Germany: ‘Soldier, policeman, and Stalinist stalwart’, I said, had joined hands against Beria, who ‘in the last period of his activity... represented the curious paradox of a semi-liberal police chief in a totalitarian state.’ Influential army leaders saw a dangerous ‘security risk’ in Beria’s quasi-liberal policy, which, among other things, favoured a higher degree of autonomy for the outlying Soviet Republics and possibly also for the People’s Democracies. The party stalwarts were shocked by the haste with which Beria (or Malenkov and Beria) had interred the trappings of the Stalin cult along with its idol.

Beria’s former subordinates in the secret police had not forgiven him their humiliation in the notorious ‘affair of the nine doctors’. In January the secret police had uncovered a ‘medical plot’ by nine Kremlin physicians, most of them Jewish, who were charged with being instrumental in the deaths of, among others, Politburo member Andrei Zhdanov. The resulting furore had built up into a wave of Soviet anti-Semitism. In April, a month after Stalin’s death, Beria suddenly vindicated the doctors by announcing that their confessions had been obtained illegally and by demoting and arresting Deputy Chief Riumin and other former leaders of the Ministry of State Security for their part in the case.

During the Beria trial, representatives of this coalition of interests occupied the bench of the Supreme Court. The body that tried Beria was no regular judicial assembly, nor was it a court-martial. It was a political tribunal par excellence, which the Supreme Soviet had specially appointed for this occasion.

The Beria trial was the first case on record in which a Red Army Marshal presided over a predominantly civilian court. In 1937 Marshal Voroshilov conducted the trial of Marshal Tukhachevsky and other Red Army ‘traitors’, but this was strictly a military tribunal. Beria, although a Marshal of State Security, was not tried as a soldier.

Beside Marshal Konev sat General KS Moskalenko. The party bosses on the bench were NM Shvernik and NA Mikhailov. Shvernik, at present leader of the trade unions, was demoted after Stalin’s death from the office of President of the Soviet Union by Beria and Malenkov. He now had his revenge; and in part he probably also revenged himself for the insulted Stalin cult. Shvernik, one of the most faithful Stalinists, had been more responsible than anyone else for transforming the trade unions into rigidly disciplined agencies of the Stalinist state. Mikhailov is the boss of the party’s Moscow organisation. It is worth noting that neither Mikhailov nor Shvernik belongs to the first rank of party leaders, and that although the army was represented by one of its brilliant and most famous Marshals, the party was content to send second-raters.

Finally, the political police sent only one man, KF Lunev, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, to testify against their former chief and his assistants. Two or three other judges were representatives of the regular Soviet Supreme Court.

The Judged: If we turn from the judges’ bench, so spectacularly dominated by Marshal Konev’s imposing figure, to the men in the dock, we are struck by another unprecedented feature of the trial. No group like this one ever appeared before any of the treason courts of the 1930s. Beria’s six co-defendants were:

Vsevolod Merkulov: chief of State Security throughout the Second World War, in recent years Minister of State Control.

V Dekanozov: officer of the political police, for a time assigned to diplomatic missions, more recently Georgia’s Minister of Internal Affairs.

Pavel Meshili: also of the secret police, recently Minister of Internal Affairs in the Ukraine.

Bogdan Kobulov: former Deputy Minister of State Security, recently Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs.

S Goglidze: Under Secretary in the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

LE Vlodzimirsky: head of the Investigation Department under Beria.

The group, then, consisted exclusively of policemen. It did not include a single civilian or a single official of any other branch of government. When Genrikh Yagoda, one of Beria’s predecessors at the head of the political police, was tried in 1938, he was the only police chief among twenty-one party leaders, propagandists, administrators, scholars and other defendants. This time the directors of the drama apparently were determined to present the trial in such a way that it should sink into popular memory and enter the textbooks as ‘the trial of the secret police’.

Unlike Yagoda, Beria was tried in camera. This could scarcely have been due to the necessity for protecting important state secrets, because in a trial carefully planned and rehearsed beforehand, as the trials of the old Bolsheviks were, such secrets can be excellently protected even in public proceedings. Why, then, was Beria’s trial conducted behind closed doors? There are two possible explanations. Either Beria and his friends refused to confess the most important crimes (a hint to this effect can indeed be read into the official summary of the trial) or the stage directors wanted to be careful not to reproduce the set spectacle of the 1930s, with its interminable, nightmarish confessions from the dock. Thus, although the charges levelled against Beria were based on the old Stalinist models, the conduct of the trial was not.

The Judgement: The indictment depicted an amalgam of crimes, some plausible and others altogether fantastic. Beria, it was alleged, had been guilty of terroristic acts, of unscrupulously climbing over corpses, and of trying to place his police above party and government; he had been a foreign spy and a traitor almost from boyhood; he had worked for Georgian and Azerbaijani nationalists and Mensheviks; he had done his utmost to wreck his country’s economy and to restore capitalism. Briefly, he was a ‘contemptible Judas’. Yet even the ritualistic list of crimes was not what it used to be. In the old days a Bukharin, a Radek or a Yagoda was forced to confess that he had been caught red-handed preparing to assassinate Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich and the whole Politburo. This time there was no such talk. Nor were there the usual charges concerning ‘wreckers’ who had poisoned wells, contaminated food and sabotaged coal mines. Perhaps the stage directors were uncertain as to whether these demonological additions would spoil the show, and also as to whether, after an interval of fifteen years, the Soviet public was still capable of accepting such balderdash.

Outside the courtroom there was the same air of caution and uncertainty about the production. The whole affair received relatively little space in the newspapers. The routine public meetings were not worked up to a pitch of hysteria; and their resolutions, although demanding ‘exemplary punishment for the outcasts’, nevertheless lacked that peculiar hoarse bloodthirstiness that they had when Andrei Vyshinsky, as chief prosecutor, set the tone.

There was, furthermore, no trace of that peculiar obsession with denunciation that used to keep the Stalinist propagandists on the subjects of Bukharinism and Trotskyism even when they were discussing astronomy, an event a thousand years old, or a hope a thousand years ahead of their time. The condemnations of Beria were shamefacedly laconic, and the propagandists seemed only too anxious to have done with them.

That Same Old Black Magic? What, then, was the meaning of the Beria trial, and what is likely to be its effect? Nothing would be easier than to answer that the trial was an incident in a personal power struggle, in which, like Stalin before him, Malenkov or Khrushchev is attempting gradually to eliminate all his rivals. This goes without saying, and it does not go very far. Beria’s trial demonstrated that although Stalin’s successors might in their competition for power be trying to apply all the witchcraft the master taught them, it has so far proved to be beyond their ability.

This is not to say that the Beria trial failed to impress the Soviet mind and imagination. On the contrary, its impact was probably quite strong; but it was so only to the extent to which the trial was unlike the old Stalinist routines. To the popular imagination two figures stood out as the protagonists: Konev and Beria. And to the popular understanding the trial must have looked like a duel between army and political police; it was the army rather than the Presidium or the Secretariat of the party that played the role of dragon slayer.

The leadership of the political police took part in the trial for the purpose of avenging itself on its former chief, who had ‘betrayed’ and humiliated it. It destroyed the ex-chief, but did not regain much of its former power and status. It was outdone and once again humiliated, this time by the army. After so many demotions and purges, after so many plots and counterplots, and finally after seven of their ex-chiefs have been sentenced and shot within one afternoon, the political police no longer retain their old, infallible striking power. Their organisation is now the army’s humble subordinate.

But is not the party also at the army’s mercy?

Malenkov, Khrushchev and Molotov could hardly have wished to bring about such a state of affairs. Yet, engrossed in their personal rivalry, they may have let loose forces stronger than themselves. Immediately after Stalin’s death, Beria weakened, almost crippled, the secret police. Striving to eliminate him, his rivals went on tearing it to pieces. Much as they may need the secret police for their survival, it is as its tamers that they are still courting popularity. During Beria’s trial Pravda intimated, in that Aesopian language which Soviet citizens understand so well, that the present party leaders had already succeeded where Stalin had always failed, namely in bringing arbitrary police rule to an end. This is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the current reaction against Stalinism – the true sign of the times – that every leader of a group or faction, every pretender to power, must now, even despite himself, pose as a ‘liberaliser’.

There are further indications of the extent to which Stalin’s successors act under this compulsion. The verdict on Beria has by implication renewed the charges against the Kremlin doctors whom Beria had rehabilitated. By implication the verdict rehabilitates also Riumin and the other officials of State Security whom Beria arrested for concocting the doctors’ plot. It is on the court record that after Stalin’s death Beria ‘shielded and protected foreign spies’ and ‘persecuted honest officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs who had refused to carry out his criminal instructions’. Curiously enough, the names of those ‘honest officials’ are not mentioned; but it is a safe bet that Riumin is the most important among them. The court record explains why Riumin was demoted last April: he refused to carry out Beria’s instructions ‘designed to shield foreign spies and terrorists’. We also know who those spies and terrorists were: the ‘white-coated assassins’ – the Kremlin doctors.

All this has been quite distinctly implied in the verdict on Beria, in the prosecutor’s statements, and in Soviet press comment. Yet so far nobody has gone beyond hint and allusion. The Kremlin doctors have not yet been dragged back to the dock. Their prosecutors have not yet been openly rehabilitated. This may still happen; the wonder is that it has not happened yet.

The Doctors: Back in the Dock? The political police chiefs must have demanded full rehabilitation for Riumin and his associates, a step that would inevitably lead to the re-indictment of the Kremlin doctors. But so far the army leaders and the party stalwarts alike have seemed reluctant to take this step. They know that the damage Beria inflicted on the political police is up to a point irretrievable. If the people were to be told that the doctors were guilty after all, this would too plainly look like a whitewashing job. Malenkov, Molotov and Khrushchev endorsed Beria’s disclosures about the doctors when he made them. If they were now to allow Riumin’s rehabilitation, they would thereby begin writing their own indictments. The only prudent course for the party, then, is to keep the political police in their place and keep them quiet.

Malenkov, Molotov and Khrushchev must put up with the new prominence of the army leaders, because they could not have risked a fight against Beria without the army’s assured backing. But the old party secretaries cannot relish their dependence on the marshals. To re-establish political balance they must try to keep the marshals, too, in their place. If the marshals resist, a head-on collision is inevitable. The question is whether this collision will develop before the rivalry between the party leaders has been resolved and before the new Leader has emerged.

Stalin himself was never placed in such a quandary. In the days of his rise to power the army was never quite so prominent. When he risked the conflict with Tukhachevsky he already held all the machinery of government and all the levers of power in his exclusive and effective control. Malenkov, Khrushchev and Molotov would have to shelve their own differences and actually exercise ‘collective leadership’ in order to hold their ground jointly vis-à-vis the army. If they fail to do so, and if they try to preserve the party’s corporate predominance vis-à-vis the army and at the same time give free rein to their competition for autocratic party leadership, then the outcome of this double contest cannot be seriously in doubt. A deep cleavage in a leadership not based on a democratic rank and file is a standing invitation to the army to step in and ‘safeguard law and order’.

Thus Beria’s trial has offered a glimpse of the rivalries among his victorious enemies. Hence the caution, the speed and the secrecy with which the trial was conducted. The public was given to understand that once this purge was over, no repetition of the insanities of the Stalin era was intended. In the 1930s each trial foreshadowed its sequel. Each batch of defendants forged in the dock a heavy chain of confession and accusation to drag in the next batch. The conduct of the Beria trial was calculated on the contrary to reassure the people that this was a one-night stand, not the opening of a long run. When Beria and his associates faced the firing squad there was not a hint that other accomplices were still to be rounded up.

Yet it would be very surprising if this were indeed the end of the story. The post-Stalin era is only at its beginning. After a brief quasi-liberal spell Stalin’s successors have already tried to conjure up the spirit of the Stalin era, but they have already half-demonstrated the impossibility of this task.

Let me recapitulate the main points about the Beria trial:

Who can maintain that this was ‘only the same old show'?