Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Was Beria a “Liberal” on the Nationality Question?

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 4 –Stalin’s notorious secret police chief Lavrenty Beria’s actions toward Ukrainians in general and Western Ukrainians in particular show that within the limits of the late Stalinist period, he was a reformer or even “liberal” on the nationality question, according to a provocative new article by Ukrainian political scientist and historian Kost’ Bondarenko.
In the latest issue of “Profil’,” Bondarenko says that the archives show Beria played a different role in the Ukraine that most Ukrainians believe: the worst repressions there took place before he arrived, he in fact amnestied some in the Ukrainian Partisan Army, and he used Ukrainians as his personal guards in the last years of his life (www.nr2.ru/189320.html).
On the one hand, such actions help to explain the otherwise hyperbolic charges Nikita Khrushchev brought against Beria that the NKVD chief was working with foreign intelligence services planned to hand over sections of the USSR to the West in order to justify his arrest and execution.
And on the other, they are consistent with reports about Beria’s actions at the 19th Party Congress in 1952 when again within the conventions of the time he appealed to non-Russians and his moves to set the groundwork for the restoration of the independence of the three Baltic countries to undercut NATO and promote détente.
If Beria’s efforts in these two directions are more or less well-known – the first was the subject of a close study by American specialist Charles W. Fairbanks more than 30 years ago and the latter has been discussed in the Estonian media over the last several years – Bondarenko’s discussion of the NKVD chief’s actions in Ukraine break new ground.
Drawing on archival and memoir literature, Bondarenko rests his argument on three intriguing points. First, he notes, Beria was not responsible for the worst repressions in the Ukrainian SSR; those were over before he arrived on the scene. And in fact, he can be given some credit for limiting them.
Second, Beria not only extended amnesty to some Ukrainian Partisan Army participants but moved administratively against officials who opposed his doing so, a remarkable record given Stalin’s proclivity for clean sweeps against any and all groups the Kremlin had decided were its enemies.
And third – and this is the most intriguing of Bondarenko’s evidence – at the very end of his life, Beria used Western Ukrainians as his personal guard, a choice that undoubtedly reflected his feelings about whom he could trust and a decision that helps to explain some of the cloudier aspects of the so-called Mingrelian affair.
According to the Ukrainian writer, Beria feared that after the inclusion of Western Ukraine into the Soviet Union as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, “it would be difficult” to hold Ukraine within the USSR unless Moscow were willing to make certain “concessions to Ukrainians in the sphere of nationality policy.”
In Bondarenko’s version, Beria believed that using repression alone would “not lead to anything good,” because “after a generation, the children of UPA [Ukrainian Partisan Army] fighters would” simply resume the cause of their fathers, something that the secret police head feared might become even more threatening of Moscow’s interests.
To avoid that outcome, Bondarenko says, Beria initiated “several amnesties” for UPA militants, removed those in the organs who opposed his more careful policies, and even conducted “secret” talks with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), none of which was “a joke” during that period of Stalinist repression.
But intriguingly, the Ukrainian historian reports that “during the last months of his life, Beria trusted only Ukrainians. All his personal guard, the Ukrainian historian says, consisted of Ukrainians who had been mobilized in the Western oblasts of Ukraine” and thus presumably had been the beneficiaries of his more “liberal” approach there.
“Beria paid for his tendency toward liberal reforms and for liberalism on the nationality question” in particular after Stalin died, the Ukrainian historian says, because the NKVD chief had lost the struggle for power to Nikita Khrushchev who was particularly well-informed about what had been taking place in his native republic.
Bondarenko’s conclusions are certain to be challenged. They involve the darkest periods of Soviet history, one when the lack of sources opens the way for inventive arguments. But they do shed light on a major theme in Russian history – the secret policeman as reformer, who acts in “liberal” ways not from conviction but because he understands the dangers of doing otherwise.

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