Setting the Stage
We spent much of last week’s class time discussing the Soviet people’s expectation for social and political reform following the end of The Great Patriotic War. Russian citizens felt they had proven their loyalty to Stalin and the party through their immense sacrifice during the war. Instead of overseeing reform, Stalin choose to quell the peoples desire by tightening his control of the media and state apparatuses. While it is well known that Stalin’s Successors continued using political purges and the secret police to cement their power, the Soviet Union may have missed the opportunity to experience liberal reform immediately falling his death.
Stalin’s Death and The Struggle for Power
Stalin died in 1953 leaving behind a three way power struggle to determine his successor.(Freeze pg 409) The hopeful candidates included; ” Georgii Malenkov (Stalin’s heir apparent) as chairman of the Council of Ministers, Lavrentii Beria as head of the ministry of Interior (reorganized to include the Ministry of State Security), and Viacheslav Molotov as Foreign Minister.” (Freeze pg 409)
(Left to Right Molotov/Malenkov/Beria)
The above three men were the only individuals who had the distinct honor of speaking at Stalin’s Funeral. (Freeze pg 409) Below is a video of Beria’s Speech at the funeral.
Shortly after Stalin’s funeral, Malenkov resigned as ranking secretary in the Central Committee and assumed leadership of the state apparatus, due to an incident with Pravada, effectively making Beria the most likely successor.
Beria’s Push for Reform
Immediately following Stalin’s death, Beria spoke strongly of implementing liberal reforms in the Soviet Union. The Following Quote from the Freeze text outlines Beria’s intended reforms, ” he (Beria) not only spoke of the need to protect civil rights but even arranged an amnesty on 27 March that released many prisoners (too many common criminals, in Khrushchev’s view)… Beria also shifted the GULAG from his own domain and later proposed that I be liquidated in view of its economic inefficiency and lack of prospects . He also exposed some major fabrications in late Stalinism, most notably the Doctors plot.” (Freeze pg 410)
The Adversaries Plot and Beria’s Execution
Beria’s aggressive push for liberal reform threatened many high ranking party members. His adversaries, most notably Malenkov and Khrushchev, called a meeting of the Presidium. The Presidium members unanimously voted for immediate dismissal and arrest of Beria on 26 June 1953. Soon after Beria’s arrest, there was a plenum of the Central Committee to discuss ‘criminal anti-party and anti state activates’ committed by Beria. Both Malenkov and Khrushchev spoke during the meeting and condemned Beria’s actions. The Following Video show footage of Malenkov’s speech.
Six Months after Malenkov and Khrushchev’s speeches, Beria and five of his followers were tried, found guilty and shot. (Freeze pg 411)
A Missed Opportunity or Another Play for Power
It is no secret that Beria participated in and carried out heinous human rights violations during his time as head of the Secret police. Beria even played a major role in facilitating Stalin’s great purges. His prior actions call into question his true intention for taking a hard stance on liberal reform following Stalin’s death. Was Beria simply trying to gain the support of the common people to further solidify his party power, did he want to repent for his crimes and bring about positive change, or did he see the path the USSR was on and realized only liberal reforms could create long term political stability? It is truly impossible to know Beria’s reasoning for his change of heart. Still, one has to wonder, had Beria solidified party and implemented his reforms how would the course of USSR history changed.
All other sources are in-text citations