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Lavrentii Beria, (1899 - 1953)


Lavrentii Beria, (1899 - 1953)
Lavrentii Beria was one of the cruelest leaders in a regime known for its brutality. He first reached a position of power by working his way up the police organization in the Soviet republic of Georgia. In 1938, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin summoned him to Moscow to work as the deputy to the chief of the Soviet secret police (NKVD). Within months the chief had disappeared and Beria had replaced him. During the purges of the 1930s, many Soviet leaders issued lists of people they wanted arrested and shot, but Beria may have been the only one who personally got involved in torturing his victims. His cruelty also included rape. He was known to have teenage girls picked off the streets and delivered to his office.

Beria's control of the police made him an extremely effective if ruthless administrator. As one of his colleagues remembered, an order from Beria was a matter of life and death. So it's an indication of the importance Stalin gave to the Soviet atomic bomb program that he appointed Beria to head it on August 7, 1945, the day after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Beria was incredibly suspicious of just about everyone. He distrusted both the espionage information collected by his intelligence network and also what the Soviet scientists working on the bomb project told him. A few days after his scientists started up their first reactor, Beria came to see the machine in operation. But even with the galvanometer running off the scale, Beria was totally unimpressed. "Is that all?" he wanted to know. He then asked to approach the reactor. When Kurchatov told him that was too dangerous, Beria's distrust increased.

After the Soviet scientists succeeded in testing their first atomic device in August 1949, a secret decree granted honors to the leaders of the project. In deciding who was to receive which award, Beria is said to have adopted a simple principle: Those who would have been shot had the bomb been a failure were to become Heroes of Socialist Labor; those who would have received maximum prison terms were to be given the less prestigious award, the Order of Lenin.

After Stalin died in March 1953, a power struggle broke out in Moscow. Several Soviet leaders were worried that Beria was hoping to become as powerful as Stalin had been. And so in July of that year, Nikita Khrushchev arranged to have him arrested, denouncing him as an agent of international imperialism. Beria was tried in secret and found guilty. A Soviet general executed him in his underground cell, and according to a witness Beria crawled on his knees begging for mercy.
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