In This Review

Beria: Stalin's First Lieutenant
Beria: Stalin's First Lieutenant
By Amy Knight
Princeton University Press, 1993, 294 pp

Knight, a long-time student of the Soviet KGB, has written a full political biography of Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's fellow Georgian, whom he put in charge of the NKVD at the close of its murderous rampage in the late 1930s. There he remained through the war and the postwar purges, until Stalin's successors shot him in the summer of 1953. Although without the benefit of KGB archives, which remain closed to scholars, Knight has pieced together as much as one can say about this unsavory, albeit cunning and capable, hangman. Her focus is less on the man than on the intersection between his career and the cruel doings of the regime's political watchdogs. Because Beria started early, one gets a good historical picture of the organization's development in the Caucasus in the 1920s and in the country at large from the 1930s on. Before his career and life ended, Beria came to defend a number of important liberalizing policies toward Soviet nationalities, the German question, and more. All of this Knight ably recounts, but without shedding much light on the reason for it.