When Joseph Stalin wanted a new leader for the Soviet secret police (NKVD) in 1938, he turned to Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, a man he favorably compared to Heinrich Himmler , head of Adolf Hitler’s dreaded SS. In time, Beria became widely known as a sadist who raped young women and personally beat up suspects; in top Soviet circles, getting arrested and beaten came to be called “having coffee with Beria.”
Like Stalin, Beria was born in Georgia. He joined the Bolsheviks around the time of the Russian Revolution and, after the Russian civil war , began working for the secret police, rising through the ranks until Stalin brought him to Moscow to head the NKVD. There he was responsible for all police activity within the Soviet Union. He maintained a vast spy network abroad; carried out purges against the political, military, and cultural elites in the conquered lands of eastern Europe; and ordered the executions of suspected spies, draft dodgers, and deserters. He also had hundreds of thousands of people Stalin thought suspect, including ethnic minorities like Chechens , Kalmucks , and Crimean Tatars , arrested and deported.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Beria became a member of the State Defense Committee (GKO), a powerful war cabinet that oversaw the work of all government and military organizations involved in the war effort. He supervised internal security as well as foreign intelligence and counterintelligence. His officers protected important people and facilities, guarded and administered prison camps, enforced army discipline and prevented desertions, and pressed citizens of “liberated” areas into military service. They also frequently arrested and intimidated members of the Soviet High Command. When the war ended, Stalin put Beria in charge of the USSR atomic bomb program. By 1949, the USSR had developed the bomb.
After Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchëv and members of the Party Central Committee engineered Beria’s arrest and had him executed in December 1953.