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Rofer on The Fall of Beria and Putin’s Vanishing Act

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Lavrenty Beria (center) 

Russian President and brazen strongman Vladimir Putin reappeared Monday, looking wan and a little uncomfortable for the cameras, but jesting at the mad swirl of internet rumors sparked by his extended absence from public view. One of the rumors, which may have been true, was that Putin was engaged in a power struggle with his own siloviki inner circle unhappy with Western sanctions placed on Russia.  Many commentators could not help but recall similar incidents from the Soviet past and friend of ZP, Cheryl Rofer had an excellent post featuring one of the most sinister figures in Russian history, Stalin’s fearsome secret police chief, NKVD boss, Lavrenty Beria:

A Soviet Coup – The Fall of Lavrenty Beria 

….As Putin moves toward more authoritarian rule, we can expect to hear rumors whenever he goes out of sight for more than a couple of days. Both wishful thinking and the real possibility that some in his government are unhappy with his actions will continue to mix in the question of a coup. And anyone over 60 years of age is a candidate for sudden death or stroke.

Boris Nemtsov’s death, among other things, may have caused concern among various members of Russia’s elite that they are vulnerable or may have set off a fight between the FSB and Chechen politicians and security services. Nemtsov was one of Boris Yeltsin’s potential successors, along with Putin in the late 1990s. Putin has not been kind to his political rivals, but Nemtsov is the first to be murdered. And it is not clear who murdered him; the FSB and Chechen authorities are seriously arguing about this. Fear of being killed, however, is a powerful motivator toward a coup.

The situation more and more resembles the undertainties of the Soviet Union as Putin consolidates power. Succession in the Soviet Union was a vexed question, but is nominally by popular election in post-Soviet Russia, not yet fully normalized. Putin has played fast and loose with elections, first as Yeltsin’s handpicked successor and later with his tradeoff with Dmitry Medvedev as Prime Minister and President.

If Putin were seriously ill or dead, or if a coup seized power, we would not hear about it immediately. Nobody in the Russian government takes stability for granted – instability is one of Putin’s great fears – so those in power would want to project continuity, that nothing is wrong, until the change can be introduced smoothly.

In today’s world of social media and a somewhat more open Russia, suppressing that kind of news will be more difficult to do than after Stalin’s stroke, but, given all that we do not know about the Kremlin’s current activities, suppressing that information for at least a week or two seems entirely possible.

Stalin succeeded Lenin, with some question as to Lenin’s intentions, in the 1920s. He then set about consolidating his power and eliminating rivals. Stalin died of a stroke in March 1953. What happened next got complicated. This description is condensed from Mark Kramer’s “Leadership Succession and Political Violence in the USSR Following Stalin’s Death,”Chapter 4 in Political Violence: Belief, Behavior and Legitimation, Paul Hollander, ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

As is the case in Putin’s Russia, no single person was obviously Stalin’s successor. A group of high-ranking men took over immediately after his death in what they called “collective leadership,” within which an extreme power struggle took place. Lavrenty Beria was one of those men. He had been Stalin’s hit man and thus perceived by the others as the most dangerous. His removal suggests how a coup might take place against Putin.

Cheryl nails a key problem of stability in Putin’s post-Soviet Russia.

Like the USSR, there is no accepted de jure process for removing an incapable or dangerous ruler other than natural causes. unlike the old Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia is a hollowed out state. The USSR had a Politburo, Presidium and a Central Committee – an intact senior leadership cadre on standby in case a General-secretary were to die. The succession structure around Putin is sketchy at best and thus while the regime is outwardly strong, in reality this vulnerability renders it dangerously fragile – too much so for the Earth’s other nuclear superpower state.

….Stalin suffered a stroke on March 2 and died on March 5. His death was publicly announced on March 7. Even before the stroke, potential successors began maneuvering. By March 3, they agreed on the immediate post-Stalin government: Georgii Malenkov would be head of government, with Vyacheslav Molotov as foreign minister, and Beria in charge of state security. Ten of Stalin’s favorites were added to the Communist Party Presidium, including Nikita Khrushchev. Malenkov, Beria, and Khrushchev were designated to oversee Stalin’s documents and personal papers. All this was approved by the Communist Party’s high officials.

The men had had close calls with Stalin’s purges and understood well that their positions were precarious, surrounded by rivals. The CPSU presidium rapidly adopted reforms after Stalin’s death that would make such purges less likely in the future. Malenkov delivered a speech to the Presidium in April 1953 denouncing the cult of personality without criticizing Stalin directly. Beria moved to reform the police and gulag system. Forced Russification in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states would cease. As often happens when rigid governments relax, however, social unrest increased.

Khrushchev early on, with Beria’s help, managed to oust Malenkov from the Presidium, arguing that Malenkov’s other positions were incompatible. By June, however, he had allied with Malenkov to remove Beria. They added the support of other Presidium members. They did not tell all their colleagues, however, that they planned not only to remove Beria, but also to arrest him. Beria was the most distrusted of the group, and the others were willing to see him demoted, although not all were likely to agree with his arrest. His access to Stalin’s files and his previous position meant that he had compromising information about them that could be used to bring them down. Beria was very active in other areas immediately after Stalin’s death, raising suspicions that he aspired to the top position. He replaced the top people in the MVD, the central security organization of the time, with people loyal to him.

The events of 1952-19533 are among the most murky and controversial in Soviet history and may never be fully known.

Stalin, who may have been already suffering from vascular dementia (thus aggravating his already paranoid suspicion) before his fatal stroke, was as most historians agree, preparing a new purge.  The scale of this purge is still under debate, but Stalin had already been promoting an anti-semitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” since circa 1948, when he had Molotov’s wife (who was Jewish) arrested for “treason”.  Stalin cunningly separated Beria from his day-to-day control over the security services and for good measure, also arrested Beria’s longtime rival, Abukumov, replacing him with more pliant figures. Stalin began distancing himself from his henchmen (“the Oligarchs” in Adam Ulam’s phrase) longtime cronies like Voroshilov and Poskrebyshev were sent into a disgraced semi-retirement. Formal meetings of the politburo became rare events while the presidium was enlarged with new faces while Stalin cooked up “the Leningrad affair” to end the careers and lives of some of the Party’s rising stars and “the Mingrelian Affair” to put pressure on “the Big Mingrel” himself, Lavrenty Beria.

When the “Doctor’s Plot of Kremlin doctor assassins was abruptly “uncovered” by Stalin’s pathetic puppet Ryumin, it would have been very hard for senior nomenklatura to avoid seeing the terrible danger that they all found themselves. Most of the unfortunate doctors who aere arrested by the MGB and lavishly tortured had conspicuously Jewish names. They were accused of planning to kill Comrade Stalin and having killed Zhadanov and this was all too reminiscent of the Kirov case that launched the Great Terror.

Some scholars, like Arkady Vaksberg and Edvard Radzinsky think Stalin, who had grown more intensely anti-semitic in his old age, had intended a grand pogrom of Soviet Jewry, finishing off what Hitler had begun. Walter Lefeber saw Stalin’s machinations as contest of wills between Stalin and  Malenkov over the danger of  a Cold War “capitalist encirclement” and the need to prepare in a hurry for WWIII with America. Most historians, regardless of ideological stripe, agree something quite terrible was in the offing.

Then, after ominously threatening all of his inner circle at a late night drinking session at his dacha, the dictator had a massive stroke during the night and within two days, Stalin died. Perhaps with some help from Beria.

…..A sudden rebellion in East Germany was crushed by Soviet troops on June 17, 1953, causing the plot against Beria to be put on hold temporarily. Because Beria controlled all the internal security forces, the plotters had to use the military to arrest him. General Kirill Moskalenko, the commander of the Moscow Air Defense Region, was willing to cooperate. A total of ten military men were enlisted into the plot.

A meeting of the Presidium was scheduled for June 26. The military men were to remain concealed in the cars behind darkened windows and then enter the building through a side door left open by aides to Malenkov and Khrushchev after Malenkov transmitted an electronic signal to his chief aide who would be stationed outside the chamber where the Presidium was meeting.

Beria, as usual, arrived just before the meeting was to start. Malenkov changed the agenda to focus specifically on Beria’s activities. This was a complete surprise to Beria. Malenkov laid out Beria’s “misdeeds” and  alleged that Beria had been seeking to displace the collective leadership and to foment discord among Presidium members. He then proposed a number of possible remedies, all of which included removing Beria from the posts he held. He invited the other members of the Presidium to join in enumerating Beria’s “mistakes,” which they did. This put them on record as supporting Beria’s removal.

As Malenkov summed up the accusations, he pressed the button to alert the military, who marched into the room. He then declared that Beria “is so cunning and so dangerous that only the devil knows what he might do now. I therefore propose that we arrest him immediately.” Moskalenko brought out their guns and arrested and searched Beria.

The first public indication that something had happened to Beria was on June 28, when his name was omitted from a list of Presidium members who had attended the Bolshoi Ballet the previous evening. His arrest was announced on July 10. After a closed trial on December 10, Beria was executed on December 23. 

It is important to recall the degree to which Lavrenty Beria was dreaded and loathed by Stalin’s other associates. These were hard men, fanatical Communists, soaked in the blood of innocents up to their elbows; but the blood on Beria went right up to his chin.

Unlike the previous Soviet secret police chiefs under Stalin’s control such as the ailing Menzhinsky, the sycophantic poisoner Yagoda or the insanely murderous dwarf Yezhovwho all served short periods of time before being discarded or dying, Beria was far more than a torturer, spy or policeman to Stalin. An energetic, intelligent administrative wizard with his own power base in Transcaucasia where he reigned supreme, Beria, who Stalin called “his Himmler”, was the Oppenheimer and Groves of the Soviet atomic bomb and (like Kaganovich) Stalin’s all purpose trouble-shooter. This was the key to Beria’s long tenure. While he did not relish personally administering torture as Abakumov did, Beria did not shrink from beating recalcitrant prisoners senseless in his luxurious office. In his hours of rest and amusement, Beria was a habitual rapist and pedophile (his own wife was originally one of his victims) and an enthusiastic practitioner of vendettas. It may be surmised from Beria’s dogged retention of high positions that even Stalin himself was cautious in how he moved against his fellow Georgian protege. As senior Soviet historian General Dmitri Volkogonov wrote “All of the other members of the Politburo, including Malenkov, were afraid of this monster”.

Cheryl concludes:

This is how a coup against Putin might go: the plot is set up in extreme secrecy. Kramer notes that the ability to keep the 1953 plot secret among so many actors was remarkable. Everyone recognized the high stakes and secrecy was normal. Those circumstances would not be too different today. The confrontation would be different, but likely in a meeting that allowed the plotters to outnumber Putin. Today’s Russia no longer requires the cumbersome Soviet methods of accusation and appearance of legality.

There isn’t enough information available to speculate who might lead a coup. It could come from a more moderate faction who believe that Putin is damaging Russia with his war against Ukraine, or from a more nationalist faction who want stronger action against Ukraine and other targets. Or there may be other, less obvious motivations.

To strike the King, it must be a killing blow. Khrushchev knew that it would not be only his head on the block if he failed – Beria would torture his whole family to death or exile his children to the Kolyma or the Arctic circle to die slowly.

The Siloviki around Putin would have to roll the same iron dice.

Contextualizing the beheading of Coptic Christians in Libya

Monday, February 16th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — in real estate it’s location, location, location — in thought space it’s context, context, context ]
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Timothy Furnish offers us context for the newly released video of Islamic State beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians (screencap in upper panel, below) with two striking images of precedents, one of which I have reproduced in part (lower panel), illustrating how the Ottomans beheaded tens of thousands of Georgian Christians:

SPEC DQ christians beheaded

Furnish’s post is titled ISIS Beheadings: Hotwiring the Apocalypse One Christian Martyr At A Time.

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I am saddened to say that this is indeed part of the history of Islamic relations with Christianity.

I am happy to add, however, that it is not the whole story. In the upper panel, below, you see Muslim and Christian at a very different form of battle, as found in the Book of Games, Chess, dice and boards, 1282, in the library of the monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial:

SPEC DQ chess and krishna

Religious tolerance in Islam is illustrated as found today in India, in this picture of a Muslim mother in full niqab taking her son, dressed as the Hindu deity Krishna, to a festival — very probably the Janmashtami or birthday celebration of the child-god (lower panel, above).

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It will be interesting to see how President Sisi repsonds to this murderous IS attack on Egyptian citizens.

Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
  

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!

In good, really good company

Friday, January 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameronmildly NSFW if your office can’t handle Leonardo, which IMNSHO we should be able to manage now in this 21st century CE — and besides, it’s the weekend ]
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Well, we here at Zenpundit have a particular interest in creative thinking, and this last evening I unexpectedly found myself in excellent creative company…

…in a months-old blog-post by an old friend, an astrophysicist by profession who goes by the name Cygnus on the web — presumably after the constellation that harbors Deneb, and also Kepler-22b, the “first known transiting planet to orbit within the habitable zone of a Sun-like star” (WikiP, since I know no better). Cygnus means “swan” in Greek, and Zeus became a swan for his own imperious purposes when he saw LedaHelen of Troy being one of their offspring (see eggs in Da Vinci‘s image below), with the Trojan War ensuing.


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Here’s then, is the A-Z of creative folk, as Cygnus pulled it together last April as part of an “A-Z- Challenge” — I’m honored and awed to be named in the company of such as Andre Breton, Donald Knuth, George Carlin, Octavia Butler, Samuel R Delany, Dame Frances Yates and the rest:

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For April 2013, my theme for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge was “An A to Z of Masters of the Imagination that You Oughtta Know About.”  In other words, on each day I profiled a person whose brains were just overflowing with weirdness and creativity.  Here’s a list of the posts:

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So that’s Cygnus’ list — quite a dinner party! You’ll recognise some members of your own constellation of creatives here, perhaps — feast on some of those you’re not yet familar with! Cygnus blogs about games and such at Servitor Ludi.

As for me, I’ll simply offer you William Bulter Yeats‘ great poem Leda and the Swan, to celebrate the company I just found myself in, and close out a memorable evening:

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                 Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Making Historical Analogies about 1914

Friday, January 10th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The Independent has a short, quasi-sensationalist, article featuring historian Margaret MacMillan discussing what is likely to become the first pop academic cottage industry of 2014….making historical analogies about 1914 and World War I! MacMillan is a senior scholar of international relations and administrator at Oxford ( where she is Warden of St Antony’s College)  with a wide range of research interests, including the First World War on which she has published two books.  I am just going to excerpt and comment on the historical analogies MacMillan made – or at least the ones filtered by the reporter and editor – she’s more eloquent in her own writing where each of these points are treated at greater length:

Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian 

Professor Margaret MacMillan, of the University of Cambridge, argues that the Middle East could be viewed as the modern-day equivalent of this turbulent region. A nuclear arms race that would be likely to start if Iran developed a bomb “would make for a very dangerous world indeed, which could lead to a recreation of the kind of tinderbox that exploded in the Balkans 100 years ago – only this time with mushroom clouds,”

…..While history does not repeat itself precisely, the Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then,” she says. “A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients. 

Several comments here. There is a similarity in that like the unstable Balkan states of the early 20th century, many of the Mideastern countries are young, autocratic, states with ancient cultures that are relatively weak  and measure their full independence from imperial rule only in decades.  The Mideast is also like the Balkans, divided internally along ethnic, tribal, religious, sectarian and linguistic lines.

The differences though, are substantial. The world may be more polycentric now than in 1954 or 1994 but the relative and absolute preponderance of American power versus all possible rivals, even while war-weary and economically dolorous, is not comparable to Great Britain’s position in 1914.  The outside great powers MacMillan points to are far from co-equal and there is no alliance system today that would guarantee escalation of a local conflict to a general war. Unlike Russia facing Austria-Hungary over Serbia there is no chance that Iran or Russia would court a full-scale war with the United States over Syria.

On the negative side of the ledger, the real problem  is not possible imperial conquest but the danger of regional collapse. “Toxic nationalism” is less the problem than the fact that the scale of a Mideastern Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict is so enormous, as are the implications . Nothing in the Balkans after the turn of the century compares to Syria, then Iraq and then other states sliding into a Muslim version of the Thirty Year’s War. An arc of failed states from Beirut to Islamabad is likelier than, say, a new Persian empire run by Tehran’s mullahs.

Modern-day Islamist terrorists mirror the revolutionary communists and anarchists who carried out a string of assassinations in the name of a philosophy that sanctioned murder to achieve their vision of a better world

Agree here. The analogy between 21st revolutionary Islamists and the 19th century revolutionary anarchists is sound.

And in 1914, Germany was a rising force that sought to challenge the pre-eminent power of the time, the UK. Today, the growing power of China is perceived as a threat by some in the US.

Transitions from one world power to another are always seen as dangerous times. In the late 1920s, the US drew up plans for a war with the British Empire that would have seen the invasion of Canada, partly because it was assumed conflict would break out as America took over as the world’s main superpower.

Imperial Germany’s growing power was less troublesome to Edwardian British statesmen than the strategic error of the Kaiser and von Tirpitz to pursue a naval arms race with Great Britain that did not give Germany’even the ability to break a naval blockade but needlessly antagonized the British with an existential threat that pushed London into the French camp.

As to military plans for invading Canada (or anywhere else), the job of military planning staffs are to create war plans to cover hypothetical contingencies so that if a crisis breaks out, there is at least a feasible starting point on the drawing board from which to begin organizing a campaign. This is what staff officers do be they American, French, Russian, German, Chinese and even British. This is not to be taken as serious evidence that the Coolidge or Hoover administrations were hatching schemes to occupy Quebec.

More importantly, nuclear weapons create an impediment to Sino-American rivalry ending in an “August 1914″ moment ( though not, arguably, an accidental or peripheral clash at sea or a nasty proxy conflict). Even bullying Japan ultimately carries a risk that at a certain point, the Japanese will get fed-up with Beijing, decide they need parity with China, and become a nuclear weapons state.

Professor MacMillan, whose book The War That Ended Peace was published last year, said right-wing and nationalist sentiments were rising across the world and had also been a factor before the First World War

In China and Japan, patriotic passions have been inflamed by the dispute over a string of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. “Increased Chinese military spending and the build-up of its naval capacity suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the US as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the two countries in that region,” she writes in her essay. “The Wall Street Journal has authoritative reports that the Pentagon is preparing war plans against China – just in case.” 

“It is tempting – and sobering –to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and England a century ago,” Professor MacMillan writes. She points to the growing disquiet in the US over Chinese investment in America while “the Chinese complain that the US treats them as a second-rate power”.

The “dispute” of the Senkakus has been intentionally and wholly created by Beijing in much the same way Chinese leaders had PLA troops provocatively infringe on Indian territory, claim the South China Sea as sovereign territory and bully ships of all nearby nations other than Russia in international or foreign national waters. This is, as Edward Luttwak recently pointed out, not an especially smart execution of strategy. China’s recent burst of nationalistic bluffing, intimidation and paranoia about encirclement are working along the path of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another similarity highlighted by the historian is the belief that a full-scale war between the major powers is unthinkable after such a prolonged period of peace. “Now, as then, the march of globalisation has lulled us into a false sense of safety,” she says. “The 100th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.

Agree that globalization is no guarantee against human folly, ambition or the caprice of chance.

What are your thoughts?


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