Beria served in a wide range of positions in the Soviet and regional governments as well as in the Red Army during the 1920s. In 1934 his loyalty and talents were rewarded when he was named a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). In the mid-1930s Stalin began his purges of the CPSU and military leadership. Genrikh Yagoda was Stalin's primary manager of the purges. Yagoda's excessive zeal and desire to please Stalin resulted in the trials and deaths of thousands, and by the end of the decade Soviet leadership ranks had been greatly depleted. Stalin replaced Yagoda with Beria in August 1938, and Yagoda subsequently disappeared. Beria corrected some of the abuses of the purges and, in doing so, enhanced Stalin's public reputation. By March 1939 Beria had become a member of Stalin's innermost circle.
Beginning in 1938, Beria served Stalin as commissar of internal affairs, a post he held until 1941, and then as general commissar of state security from 1941 to 1953. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Beria further consolidated his powers and became responsible for Stalin's brutal scorched-earth policy as Soviet troops retreated in the face of the German onslaught. During World War II Beria also conducted a reign of terror within the Soviet Union in the name of national security. His distrustful nature was quickly transformed into paranoia, and he lacked even the slightest scintilla of mercy. During the last days of the war, Stalin's recognition of Beria's efficiency and loyalty was manifested when he was assigned to lead the Soviet Union's atomic bomb program.
As the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States became more entrenched, Beria drove his atomic scientists relentlessly for progress, and the first successful Soviet detonation of an atomic weapon occurred in August 1949. In addition to his leadership on the atomic bomb project, Beria reorganized the domestic and foreign intelligence services of the Soviet Union, assisted in creating a Soviet spy network in the United States and other Allied nations, and supported anti-imperialist activities in the developing world. The aging Stalin rewarded Beria by bringing him ever closer to the center of power.
After Stalin's death in March 1953, Georgy M. Malenkov named Beria deputy premier of the Soviet Union. Beria's tenure in that position was exceedingly brief, however. Other Soviet leaders saw him as a great threat and a distinct liability for any post-Stalinist government. Beria personally controlled an armed force of 1.5 million men equipped with tanks, artillery, and aircraft. In July 1953, on the orders of Nikita Khrushchev, Beria was arrested and accused of being a spy and an imperialist. He was neither but was secretly tried nevertheless. Found guilty, Beria was probably shot to death in his jail cell in Moscow on 23 December 1953.
William T. Walker
Knight, Amy W. Beria, Stalin's First Lieutenant. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.; Stickle, D. M., ed. The Beria Affair: The Secret Transcripts of the Meetings Signalling the End of Stalinism. Translated by Jeanne Farrow. Comack, NY: Nova Science, 1992.; Wittlin, Tadeusz. Commissar: The Life and Death of Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria. New York: Macmillan, 1972.