Since the Soviet Communist Party archives were opened in the late 1980s, the history of the Soviet period has undergone a radical transformation, to put it mildly. For western observers much has been confirmed, but for many Soviet readers much was, and for some still is, deeply offensive, even traumatic. But who, either in Russia or the West, can accept the transformation of Lavrenti Beria - dubbed "our Himmler" by Stalin in Roosevelt's presence - from a blood-thirsty murderer into the forerunner of Gorbachev's reforms?
Throughout this book, well translated by Brian Pearce, Beria's son Sergo, now in his 70s, argues his case in reference to every major event during his father's career, including the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb. He draws on his memory of conversations with prominent figures, some of whom feared Beria, while others came to see him as a beacon of economic, political and social reform. He ends his book by declaring that it is not his purpose to rehabilitate the memory of his father, yet he strives throughout to show that Beria was acting against his own better judgement when he carried out Stalin's murderous policies; that he harboured a desire to introduce a perestroika every bit, if not more, progressive than that attempted by Gorbachev; that he envisaged a Soviet Union in which the union of national republics would be voluntary; and that he believed that a Germany reunited with Soviet assistance would be a pro-Soviet Germany, an asset to Soviet reconstruction and modernisation.
This is not an easy thesis to accept, especially as the editor, Francois Thom, points out Sergo's mistaken evaluations of his father's actions.
One of the most notorious of these was the murder of thousands of Polish army officers at Katyn in 1940 and the Soviet Union's consistent denials of guilt, surely a devastating blow to the argument. Sergo claims that the archives show his father openly opposing Stalin's order and arguing instead for the mobilisation of the Poles on the Soviet side for imminent war against Hitler. A heated argument in the Politburo ended with Beria allegedly declaring: "Do as you wish. But I shall not carry out this decision." Thom, who worked closely with the author in the preparation of the book, tells us, however, that: "There is no trace in the available archives of the debate described here by Sergo Beria. On the contrary, the documents are crushing for Beria, since the order to shoot the Polish officers appears to have emanated from a proposal signed by him and initialled by the Politburo members." It would be idealistic to expect a wholly objective picture to emerge from a son who reveres his father's memory, but a whitewash, which this is, is unacceptable.
Nevertheless, the case merits attention. After all, once Beria had been got rid of after Stalin's death and Khrushchev became the new leader, domestic and foreign policies were reformed in a direction that could be construed as Beria-inspired: peaceful coexistence with the West, the release of political prisoners, rapprochement with the intelligentsia and restructuring of economic management. Most of these efforts would fail and ultimately lead to Khrushchev's downfall, but recognition that they were needed provides common ground between Beria and his comrade executioners. In the jockeying that accompanied Stalin's last gasp, Beria's outspoken radicalism made him the prime target. Stalin's successors used policy to secure their positions as cynically as the old master himself had done, but were sensible enough to do so only after they had secured the top job.
Although no hint of Beria's reputation as a serial sexual predator appears here, Sergo's account of Beria's domestic life, his relationship with Stalin and other leaders, and the political precepts Beria passed on to his son, is original and has an authentic ring.
The final judgement on Beria is probably that any one of Stalin's entourage could and would have done his job just as willingly. But until Stalin is posthumously brought to Russian justice - not very likely - it will be Beria and his comrades-in-terror who will bear the stigma.
Harold Shukman is an emeritus fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford.
Beria; My Father: Inside Stalin's Kremlin
Author - Sergo Beria
Editor - Francois Thom
ISBN - 0 7156 3062 8
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £25.00
Pages - 397
Translator - Brian Pearce