From International Socialism, No.67, March 1974, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Commissar: The Life and Death of Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria
Angus and Robertson, £3.95.
ANYONE who wants to understand the monstrosity that was Stalin’s Russia will find this work useless. It is a blend of the author’s own fanciful imagination (which is allowed full flight for 500 pages) interlaced with the occasional verifiable detail. Wittlin’s explanation and story line is a simple, common and totally reactionary one.
According to him, Lavrenty Beria, the head of the secret police who was even to outlive Stalin and who presided over Stalin’s terror, had a bitter and twisted mind. In fact, it all started at school:
‘Knowing that he was unpopular he was possessed by a feeling of being rejected by society as an unpleasant, short, and ugly being ... In revenge Lavrenty wanted to show them that he was not a mere nobody who could be ignored, but was an individual who must be respected and should be feared.’
What better star for such a man to hitch his wagon to than the victorious Bolshevik Party (Beria did not join the party till after the October Revolution), and in particular the grey rising star of Joseph Stalin?
Work in the internal police system suited Beria down to the ground. He was able to work out his frustrations against intellectuals and the rich who’d always scorned him before. He could even work out his sexual whims in the torture chambers.
A life of servility and orthodoxy brought Beria all he’d ever dreamed of. It was Beria who re-wrote the history of the Bolshevik organisation in Transcaucasia to redress the balance in previous accounts and memoirs which had ‘underestimated the role of Comrade Stalin’ in the area. In 1949, on Stalin’s 70th birthday, Beria ordered a slide of Stalin to be projected on a cloud over the Kremlin and Red Square. The rewards were great: a network of luxurious villas throughout the Soviet Union, a kidnapped wife, KGB officials whisking young girls from the schoolgates of Moscow to Beria’s office in the Lubyanka, and – of course – ‘power’.
Fascinating as all this may be to some – and much of it would make a passable script for a ‘B’ grade sex and violence film-it tells us nothing. The terror and oppression of Beria’s Russia cannot be understood as the realisation of the childhood fantasises of a nasty man. No doubt Stalin’s Russia mobilised the perversions and slavishness of men such as Beria. But there’s more to it than that.
The terror obliterated finally the gains and achievements of the Russian workers’ revolution. Underpinning the destruction of all that remained of workers’ power, it annihilated the old cadres of the Bolshevik Party (almost all of Lenin’s 1917 Central Committee, for example). Whatever his personal characteristics, Beria can only be understood as a gravedigger of workers’ Power in Russia. The politics and power of the period can only be comprehended in the context of the establishment of a new class power in Russia, not in terms of the excesses of this or that perverted personality.
Last updated on 1.1.2008