Genuine Desire to Reform, Or Another Play for Power

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)

1393349996-sans-titre-4 the big three(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.


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All other sources are in-text citations

8 thoughts on “Genuine Desire to Reform, Or Another Play for Power

  1. First, good job on how you organized this post and your questions. To me it seems like Beria was trying to gain popular support to keep his position since he advocated for civil rights and released prisoners, but I think the possibly that he was trying to adjust for Russia’s path makes sense to…I’d like to see how others argue that point of view.


  2. Thanks for examining this oft-overlooked piece of the leadership struggle after Stalin’s death. Isn’t it ironic that someone so closely tied to the worst excesses of the purges would be a voice for liberalization? I’ve also got to think that the others in the leadership saw Beria as a formidable opponent.


  3. This was a great post. I really liked the archive footage you used to give extra information. It is interesting to see how Stalin’s succession played out after his death. The party in fighting over the possible reforms is an interesting topic to focus on.


  4. Wonderful post that is chronologically organized for easy understanding! You did a great job of analyzing the potential reasons for Beria’s change of heart, and it is truly interesting to think of the “what ifs” and “whys” that could have altered the history of the USSR. Great post!


  5. I agree with the other- great layout on your post. I was amused to read about Beria being a proponent for liberal reform considering I wrote a post about the lengths he went to to destroy a soccer player who beat his favorite team. I’d guess that he read the moment and thought that espousing liberal reform would get him support. Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure.


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