Biographies & Memoirs


Beria: Potentate, Husband, Father, Lover, Killer, Rapist

On 6 August 1945, America dropped its Bomb on Hiroshima. Stalin did not wish to miss out on the spoils, sending his armies against Japan, but the destruction of Hiroshima made a far greater impact than Truman’s warning. Svetlana visited Kuntsevo that day: “Everyone was busy and paid no attention to me,” she grumbled. “War is barbaric,” reflected Stalin, “but using the A-bomb is a superbarbarity. And there was no need to use it. Japan was already doomed!” He had no doubt that Hiroshima was aimed at himself: “A-bomb blackmail is American policy.”

Next day, Stalin held a series of meetings at Kuntsevo with Beria and the scientists. “Hiroshima has shaken the whole world. The balance has been destroyed,” he told them. “That cannot be.” Now Stalin understood that the project was the most important in his world; code-named “Task Number One,” it was to be run “on a Russian scale” by Beria’s

“Special Committee” that functioned like an “Atomic Politburo.” The scientists had to be coaxed and threatened. Prizes and luxuries were vital: “Surely it’s possible to ensure that several thousand people can live very well . . . and better than well.” Stalin was “bored” by the science but treated Kurchatov kindly: “If a child doesn’t cry, the mother does not know what she needs. Ask for whatever you like. You won’t be refused.”1

Beria threw himself into Task Number One as if his life depended on it—which it did. The project was on a truly Soviet scale, with Beria managing between 330,000 and 460,000 people and 10,000 technicians. Beria was the pre-eminent Terror entrepreneur, telling one of his managers, “You’re a good worker but if you’d served six years in the camps, you’d work even better.” He controlled his scientists in the sharashki, special prisons for technical experts, described by Solzhenitsyn in The First Circle: when one expert suggested he might work better if he was free, Beria scoffed, “Certainly. But it would be risky. The traffic in the streets is crazy and you might get run over.”

Yet he could also be “ingratiating,” asking the physicist Andrei Sakharov charmingly, “Is there anything you want to ask me?” His handshake, “plump, moist and deathly cold,” reminded Sakharov of death itself: “Don’t forget we’ve plenty of room in our prisons!” His name was enough to terrify most people: “Just one remark like ‘Beria has ordered’ worked absolutely without fail,” remembered Mikoyan. When he called Vyshinsky, he “leapt out of his chair respectfully” and “cringed like a servant before a master.”

Task Number One, like all Beria’s projects, functioned “as smoothly and reliably as a Swiss clock.” Kurchatov thought Beria himself “unusually energetic.” But he also won the scientists’ loyalty by protecting them, appealing to Stalin who agreed: “Leave them in peace. We can always shoot them later.” Mephistophelian brutality, Swiss precision and indefatigable energy were the hallmarks of Beria who was “incredibly clever . . . an unusual man and also a great criminal.”

Beria was one of the few Stalinists who instinctively understood American dynamism: when Sakharov asked why their projects so “lag behind the U.S.A.,” only Beria would have answered like an IBM manager: “we lack R and D.” But the scientific complexities completely foxed Beria himself and his chief manager, Vannikov, the ex-Armaments boss. “They’re speaking while I blink,” admitted Vannikov. “The words sound Russian but I’m hearing them for the first time.” As for Beria, one scientist joked to Sakharov: “Even Lavrenti Pavlovich knows what mesons are.” His solution was high-handed arrogance and the threat: “If this is misinformation, I’ll put you in the dungeon!”

This fusion of Beria’s bludgeon and Kurchatov’s mesons led to some bombastic rows. In November 1945, Pyotr Kapitsa, one of the most brilliant Soviet scientists, complained to Stalin that Beria and the others behaved “like supermen.” Kapitsa reported his argument with Beria: “I told him straight, ‘You don’t understand physics.’ ” Beria “replied that I knew nothing about people.” Beria had “the conductor’s baton” but the conductor “ought not only to wave the baton but also understand the score.” Beria did not understand the science. Kapitsa suggested that he should study physics and shrewdly ended his letter: “I wish Comrade Beria to be acquainted with this letter for it is not a denunciation but useful criticism. I would have told him all this myself but it’s a great deal of trouble to get to see him.” Stalin told Beria that he had to get on with the scientists.

Beria summoned Kapitsa who amazingly refused him: “If you want to speak to me, then come to the Institute.” Beria ate humble pie and took a hunting rifle as a peace offering. But Kapitsa refused to help anymore.

Stalin meanwhile wrote him a note: “I have received all your letters . . . There is much that is instructive and I’m thinking of meeting you sometime . . .” But he never did.2

Beria was at the centre not only of Stalin’s political world but also of his private one. Now their families almost merged in a Georgian dynastic alliance. Svetlana, still suffering from the end of her first love affair with Kapler, spent much time at Beria’s houses with his wife, Nina, blond, beautiful (though with stocky legs), and a qualified scientist from an aristocratic family who also managed to be a traditional Georgian housewife. Stalin still treated her paternally even as he began to loathe Beria himself. “Stalin asked Nina to look after Svetlana because she had no mother,” said Beria’s daughter-in-law.

Beria always craved athletic women, haunting the locker rooms of Soviet swimmers and basketball players. Nina herself was something of an Amazon, always exercising, playing tennis with bodyguards, cycling on a tandem. Beria was, like many a womanizer, a very jealous husband and the bodyguards were the only men allowed close to her. Beria lived in some style: he divided his grand town mansion into offices and private rooms on one side, and apartments for his wife and family on the other. His wife and son mainly lived at his “sumptuous, immense” white dacha at Sosnovka near Barvikha, which “was in Jugend style, lots of glass and stone, like art deco with a terrace and lots of guards around,” as well as pet bear cubs and foxes.239 Yet Nina kept it “cosy” and it was always littered with English and German magazines and books. On holidays in the south, Beria, who was a trained architect, designed his own dacha at Gagra close to Stalin’s. The Master often invited over the Berias, who brought along their son Sergo.

By the end of the war, the balding broad-faced Beria with his swollen, moist lips and the cloudy brown eyes, was “ugly, flabby and unhealthy-looking with a greyish-yellow complexion.” The life of a Stalinist magnate was not a healthy one. No one worked harder than the “inhumanly energetic” Beria, but he still played volleyball every weekend with Nina and his team of bodyguards: “Even though he was so unfit, he was amazingly fast on his feet.” In common with other human predators, Beria became a vegetarian, eating “grass” and Georgian dishes but only rarely meat. He came home at weekends, practised shooting his pistol in the garden, watched a movie in his cinema and then drove off again.

Dressing like a southern winegrower, Beria hated uniforms, only sporting his Marshal’s uniform during 1945: usually he wore a polo-neck sweater, a light jacket, baggy trousers and a floppy hat. Beria was cleverer, brasher and more ambitious than the other magnates and he could not resist letting them know it. He teased Khrushchev about his looks and his womanizing, saying, “Look at Nikita, he’s nothing much to look at but what a ladykiller!,” tormented Andreyev about his illnesses, Voroshilov about his stupidity, Malenkov about his flabbiness and he told Kobulov that he dressed like Göring. No one ever forgot any of Beria’s wisecracks. Nina begged him to be more circumspect: “she hated his way of wounding people,” wrote their son. His own courtiers, who “idealized him,” met like modern corporate directors at his box at the Dynamo football stadium. The major organizations had their own football teams—Beria’s MVD had Dynamo, the trade unions had Spartak. The competition was so vicious that in 1942 Beria had the successful manager of the Spartak team, Nikolai Starostin, arrested and sent into exile. An invitation to watch a game in Beria’s box for a young Chekist meant entering his circle.

An inventory of his desk after his later arrest revealed his interests: power, terror and sex. In his office, Beria kept blackjack clubs for torturing people and the array of female underwear, sex toys and pornography that seemed to be obligatory for secret-police chiefs. He was found to be keeping eleven pairs of silk stockings, eleven silk bodices, seven silk nighties, female sports outfits, the equivalent of Soviet cheerleaders’ costumes, blouses, silk scarves, countless obscene love letters and a “large quantity of items of male debauchery.”

Despite his mountainous workload, Beria found time for a Draculean sex life that combined love, rape and perversity in almost equal measure. The war had given him the opportunity to engage in a life of sexual brigandage even more intense and reckless than that enjoyed by his predecessors in the job. The secret-police chiefs always had the greatest sexual licence: only Smersh watched Beria; otherwise he could do whatever he wanted. It was once thought Beria’s seductions and rapes were exaggerated but the opening of the archives of his own interrogation, as well as the evidence of witnesses and even those who were raped by him, reveals a sexual predator who used his power to indulge himself in obsessive depravity. It is often impossible to differentiate between women he seduced who went to him to plead for loved ones—and those women he simply kidnapped and raped. Yet mothers often pimped their daughters in return for limousines and privileges. Beria himself could also be a gentleman, treating some mistresses so kindly that they never criticized him even when he had been exposed.240 He combined seduction with espionage: he seduced a willing female friend of Kira Alliluyeva’s by saying, “What lovely cherry lips you have! A figure like Venus!” Afterwards, he quizzed her on her circle, recruiting her to spy on the Alliluyevs.

He was a familiar sight in Moscow as he cruised the streets in his armoured Packard and sent his Caucasian bodyguards Colonels Sarkisov and Nadaraia to procure women for him. The colonels were not always happy with their role—indeed, Sarkisov kept a record of Beria’s perversions with which to denounce him to Stalin. The girls were usually taken to the town house where a Georgian feast and wine awaited them in a caricature of Caucasian chivalry. One of the colonels always proffered a bouquet of flowers on the way home. If they resisted, they were likely to get arrested. The film star Zoya Fyodorovna was picked up by these Chekists at a time when she was still breastfeeding her baby. Taken to a party where there were no other guests, she was joined by Beria whom she begged to let her go as her breasts were painful. “Beria was furious.” The officer who was taking her home mistakenly handed her a bouquet at the door. When Beria saw, he shouted: “It’s a wreath not a bouquet. May they rot on your grave!” She was arrested afterwards.

The film actress Tatiana Okunevskaya was even less lucky: at the end of the war, Beria invited her to perform for the Politburo. Instead they went to a dacha. Beria plied her with drink, “virtually pouring the wine into my lap. He ate greedily, tearing at the food with his hands, chattering away.” Then “he undresses, rolls around, eyes ogling, an ugly, shapeless toad. ‘Scream or not, doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘Think and behave accordingly.’ ” Beria softened her up by promising to release her beloved father and grandmother from prison and then raped her. He knew very well both had already been executed. She too was arrested soon afterwards and sentenced to solitary confinement. Felling trees in the Siberian taiga, she was saved, like so many others, by the kindness of ordinary people.

These women were just the tip of a degenerate iceberg. Beria’s priapic energy was as frenzied and indefatigable as his bureaucratic drive. “I caught syphilis during the war, in 1943 I think, and I had treatment,” he later confessed. After the war, it was Vlasik and Poskrebyshev, who, remembering Bronka, told Stalin about the syphilis. Lists were already a Stalinist obsession so this sex addict felt compelled to keep a record of his conquests. His colonels kept the score; some say the list numbered thirty-nine, others seventy-nine: “Most of those women were my mistresses,” he admitted. Beria ordered Sarkisov to destroy the list which he did but being a Chekist, the bodyguard kept a copy, later used against his master . . .

Some mistresses, like “Sophia” and “Maya,” a student at the Institute of Foreign Relations, inconveniently became pregnant. Once again, Colonels Sarkisov and Nadaraia were called upon to arrange abortions at the MVD’s Medical Department—and when a child was born, the colonels placed it in an orphanage.241

Beria was also notorious among the magnates themselves: Stalin himself tolerated the peccadilloes of his potentates as long as they were politically reliable. During the war, when Beria was running half the economy, and Stalin was informed of his priapism, but answered indulgently, “Comrade Beria is tired and overworked.” But the less he trusted Beria, the less tolerant he became. Once, hearing that Svetlana was at Beria’s house, Stalin panicked, rang and told her to leave at once. “I don’t trust Beria.” Whether this referred to his sexuality or to his politics is not clear. When Beria told Poskrebyshev that his daughter was as pretty as her mother, the chef de cabinet told her, “Never accept a lift from Beria.” Voroshilov’s daughter-in-law was followed by Beria’s car all the way back to the Kremlin. Voroshilov’s wife was terrified: “It’s Beria! Say nothing! Don’t tell a soul!”

The leaders’ wives hated Beria. “How can you work with such a man?” Ashken Mikoyan asked her husband.

“Be quiet,” Mikoyan would reply, but Ashken would not go to functions if Beria was likely to be present: “Say I’ve a headache!”

Beria’s wife Nina told Svetlana and other friends that she “was terribly unhappy. Lavrenti’s never home. I’m always alone.” But her daughter-in-law remembers that “she never stopped loving Beria.” She knew that he had other women “but she took a tolerant Georgian view of this.” When he came home for the weekend, “she spent hours having manicures and putting on makeup. She lived downstairs in her own room but when he came home, she moved upstairs to share his bed.” They “sat cosily by the fire, watching Western films, usually about cowboys and Mexican banditos. His favourite was Viva Villa! about Pancho Villa. They chatted lovingly in Mingrelian.” Nina never believed the scale of his exploits: “When would Lavrenti have found time to make these hordes of women his mistresses? He spent all day and night at work” so she presumed these women must have been his “secret agents.”3 But gruesome new evidence suggests Beria really was a Soviet Bluebeard.242

Sergo Beria, now twenty-one, named after Ordzhonikidze, had been at School No. 175 with Svetlana Stalin, Martha Peshkova and most of the élite children. As a father, Beria was absent much of the time but he was enormously proud of Sergo. Theirs was a typically formal relationship between a Bolshevik and his son. “If Sergo wanted to talk to his father,” recalled his wife, “Lavrenti would say, ‘Come and see me in the office.’ ” Like Malenkov and most of the other leaders, Beria was determined that his son should not go into politics.

Like all Politburo parents, he encouraged him to become a scientist: Colonel Beria rose to prominence in military technology as head of the sprawling missile Design Bureau Number One. Sergo had grown up around Stalin, and Beria therefore could not prevent the Generalissimo inviting him to the wartime conferences.

Sergo was intelligent, cultured and, according to Martha Peshkova, Svetlana Stalin’s best friend, “so beautifully handsome that he was like a dream—all the girls were in love with him.” In 1944, Svetlana fell for him too, a fact that she leaves out of both her memoirs and her interviews. When Sergo wrote his own memoirs and claimed this was so, many historians disbelieved it. Yet Svetlana wanted to marry him, an ambition she never gave up even when he himself married someone else. When he was in Sverdlovsk during the war, Svetlana got her brother to fly her there. After the Kapler affair, this crush worried the Berias: “Don’t you realize what you’re doing?” Nina Beria told Svetlana. “If your father finds out about this, he’ll skin Sergo alive.”

Stalin wanted her to marry one of his potentate’s sons, specifying to Svetlana that she should marry either Yury Zhdanov, Sergo Beria or Stepan Mikoyan. But this honour appalled Beria.

“That would be terrible,” he said to Mikoyan. Even though Stalin had shown interest in the idea, both knew that he would actually “interpret this as an attempt to worm your way into his family,” as Beria told Sergo.

Svetlana was determined to marry Sergo but the Berias put a firm stop to it. As she obliquely admitted: “I wanted to marry someone when I was a young girl . . . But his parents would not accept me because of who I am. It was a very painful blow.”4

Worse was to follow: Martha Peshkova was now “as pretty and plump as a quail” and seemed to exist in a “warm scented cloud of strange attraction”: it was, recalled Gulia Djugashvili, “difficult to have Martha as a friend.” Martha’s boyfriend was Rem Merkulov, the son of the MGB boss. Perhaps, having grown up around Yagoda, she had a taste for Cheka princelings because she now fell in love with Sergo Beria whom she married soon afterwards. The Berias did not have a big wedding: “it was not the style of the time,” says Martha. Beria told Sergo that Stalin would not approve of “your getting connected with that family”—the Gorkys. Sure enough, Stalin invited Sergo to Kuntsevo: “Gorky himself wasn’t bad but what a lot of anti-Soviet people he had around him. Don’t fall under your wife’s influence,” warned Stalin, always suspicious of wives.

“But she’s quite non-political,” answered Sergo.

“I know. But I regard this marriage as a disloyal act on your part . . . not to me, but to the Soviet State. Was it . . . forced on you by your father?” He accused Beria of making connections with the “oppositionist intelligentsia.” Instead Sergo blamed Svetlana for introducing him to Martha.

“You never breathed a word of it to Svetlana,” Stalin replied. “She told me herself.” Then he smiled at Sergo: “Don’t take any notice, old people are always peevish . . . As for Marfochka, I saw her grow up.”

Martha moved into the Berias’ dacha where she got to know, and love, the most infamous man of his time.243 Beria could not have been kinder to her: “I was very fond of him. He was very cheerful and very funny, always singing the Mexican song, ‘La Paloma,’ and telling comical anecdotes of his life” such as how he lost his virginity in Romania, getting entangled in the woman’s voluminous pantaloons. He claimed that as a Herculean baby, he was found crawling in the garden holding a snake in his hands. On Sundays, his only rest day, he and Nina slept late and then played Martha and Sergo at volleyball, each assisted by the bodyguards. When Martha gave Beria his first grandchild, “he couldn’t have been sweeter, spending hours sitting by the cradle just looking at her. In the morning, he’d have the baby brought into his and Nina’s room where he’d sit her between them and just smile at her.” He was so indulgent of the child that “he let her put her whole hands into her birthday cakes.”

Martha was less keen on Nina. Her mother-in-law turned out to be as despotic in the house as her father-in-law was out. Nina was lonely and Martha soon found she was seeing more of her mother-in-law than her husband. She wanted them to set up their own home but Nina told her, “If you mention that again, you’ll find yourself very far from your children.”

Beria, says Martha, was “the cleverest person around Stalin. In a way, I’m sorry for him because it was his fate to be there at that time. In another era, he would have been so different. If he’d been born in America, he would have risen to something like Chairman of General Motors.” She was sure he was never a real Communist: he once amazed her when he was playing with his granddaughter. “This girl,” he said, “will be tutored at home and then she’s going to Oxford University!” No other Politburo member would have said such a thing.5

Svetlana Stalin rebounded from Sergo into an unsuitable marriage. At Vasily’s apartment in the House on the Embankment, Svetlana met Grisha Morozov, who served in the war in the traffic police. “A friendship developed,” recalls Svetlana, but “I wasn’t in love with him.” However, he was in love with her. Stalin was dubious about Morozov, another Jew: after Kapler, he began to feel these Jews were worming their way into his family. But Svetlana was attracted to their warmth and culture, so Stalin said, “It’s spring . . . You want to get married. To hell with you. Do what you like.”

“I just wanted to get over the rejection,” explained Svetlana years later, “so we married but under other circumstances, it wasn’t my choice. My first husband was a very good person who always loved me.” There was no ceremony: they just went to the register office where the official looked at her passport and asked: “Does your papa know?”

Marrying into Stalin’s family, Morozov “instantly became rather grand,” says Leonid Redens. They quickly had their first baby—a son named Joseph, of course. Svetlana found herself unprepared for marriage: “I had a son when I was nineteen . . . My young husband was a student too. We had people to look after the baby. I had three abortions and then a very bad miscarriage.” Meanwhile Stalin refused to meet Morozov.

Svetlana was still in love with Sergo Beria. “She never forgave me for marrying him,” says Martha. Svetlana reminded Sergo that Stalin “was furious” about the marriage. She still visited Nina, her surrogate mother. Once Svetlana suggested that they remove Martha, who could take the elder daughter and then she would move in with Sergo and raise the younger one. “She’s just like her father,” Mikoyan said. “She always gets what she wants!”

However, she could also be very kind. When Yakov’s heroism in German captivity had been proven, his widow Julia was released but found that her seven-year-old daughter, Gulia, hardly knew her. Svetlana agreed to look after Gulia and one day she announced, “Today we’re going to meet Mama.” But the child was afraid of the stranger, so daily, with the most touching sensitivity, Svetlana took her to see her mother until gradually the two bonded. This had to be done surreptitiously because, while Gulia was brought up by nannies, her mother remained outside the family. Finally, Julia wrote to Stalin: “Joseph Vissarionovich, I ask you very much not to refuse my request because it’s hard to see Gulia. We live in the hope of seeing you and talking about things not put in this letter. We would like you to meet Gulia . . .” Later, thanks to Svetlana, Stalin did meet his first granddaughter. 6

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!