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Christmas 1953: Lost Liberal Opportunities in the Soviet Union

No doubt Beria’s colleagues worried about the possibility of him replacing Stalin. From the start, Khrushchev sought to build a coalition against the security chief. However, Beria was a dangerous man to oppose and may have saved his colleagues’ lives by ending Stalin’s life. Malenkov remained an ally of Beria until the June 1953 popular uprising in East Germany, which unnerved a Kremlin leadership already unsettled by Beria’s attack on the dominance of ethnic Russians. At that point, his ideas looked potentially destabilizing for a regime still recovering from the horrors of World War II.

Indeed, it has been argued that Beria supported reform only to create chaos, thereby providing an excuse for his security forces to take control. Yet his proposals were more detailed, extensive, and far-reaching, even revolutionary. He seemed serious in wanting to end the East-West confrontation.

Thus, author Robert Service was probably correct in contending “that Khrushchev and his friends eliminated Beria as much because his proposals threatened the stability of the state order as because he was a killer-policeman. No Soviet leader until [Mikhail] Gorbachev would have as wide a reformist programme.”

None of this can minimize Beria’s extraordinarily murderous criminality. Yet imagine the early end of the German Democratic Republic. Relaxed Soviet control of Eastern Europe, forestalling the brutal suppression of Hungary’s 1956 revolution and Czechoslovakia’s 1968 Prague Spring. Imagine the Baltics able to preserve more of their independent identities and avoiding decades of suffocating Moscow-directed repression. And most important, a Kremlin engaged with, and to some extent economically dependent upon, the West.

It is difficult to imagine such a system staggering along until 1991. The Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan styled the Soviet Union, would have evolved into something less horrific, or simply collapsed, much sooner. Lives would have been saved, freedoms would have been restored, hopes would have been revived.

All because of the most unlikely of liberals, Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria.

It was not to be. It took another surprising liberal in charge of a much weaker Soviet Union to trigger, largely inadvertently, the process of disintegration. Which resulted in the joyous Christmas of 1991, with the final lowering of the Soviet flag over the Kremlin. After 74 bloody, brutal, horrible, evil years the disastrous Bolshevik experiment finally was over.