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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Even Beria Now Gets His Day In Court

Rehabilitation for Soviet-era crimes is a process usually associated with names like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. But recently, Russia's courts have been taking up harder and more ambiguous cases - of people with names like Beria and Stalin.

The Supreme Court, for instance, is considering a petition to clear secret police chief Lavrenty Beria - a man complicit in the deaths of millions, but who was executed in 1953 after being convicted of the unlikely charges of anti-state terrorism and treason.

Last week, the court partially rehabilitated Vassily Stalin, the dictator's son, who was imprisoned after his father died. The court has already partly cleared Viktor Abakumov, a top secret police official executed on treason charges in 1954.

These are thorny cases, say legal experts and historians, because they involve redressing injustices done to people who themselves committed monstrous injustices - but not the ones for which they were charged.

Nikita Petrov, a historian working with the human rights group Memorial, said the case of Beria - and a half-dozen of his henchmen shot along with him - presents a difficult task for the court.

"There are only two ways out of it," Petrov said. "One is to uphold the verdict and thus at least avoid political confusion caused by the thought that a person like Beria could possibly be rehabilitated.

"But choosing this way would also mean that the court would agree with the outrageous judicial mistakes conducted in 1953."

The military prosecutor's office said last week that it had recommended to the court that the convictions in the Beria case should stand - and remain secret, said Major General Valery Kondratov, who heads the military prosecutor's rehabilitation department.

"If you look broadly at the charges of terrorism that were also in the case, then that can be applicable to what these people have done," he said. "Of course, their actions are not like contemporary terrorism, but still millions of people died as a result.

He declined to give more information, saying that the case remained under its Soviet-era seal of secrecy. Neither would he identify who was petitioning to rehabilitate Beria. A decision is expected by the end of the year. The court isn't bound by the prosecutor's office recommendation.

Beria headed the secret police apparatus from 1938 until 1953, first as head of the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, and later after becoming deputy prime minister. Under his direction, the secret police carried out countless actions that in most people's book would qualify as crimes, or even genocide, including the so-called Doctor's Plot, in which Jewish doctors were arrested for supposedly plotting against Stalin, and mass deportations of entire ethnic groups from the Caucasus, in which hundreds of thousands died. The secret police also deported and executed thousands in the Baltic states after World War II.

Many of these crimes have been at least exposed and investigated by historians - but some have not. For instance, there has been no full accounting for Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, arrested by Soviet agents in 1945 in Hungary after saving more than 100,000 Jews from the Nazis by giving them false identity documents. The Soviets said Wallenberg died in a Soviet prison in 1947 - but there are reports from other prisoners who said they saw him years later.

Kondratov of the military prosecutor's rehabilitation office said it's not the job of his office to sort out history for the rest of society. They don't choose which cases will be taken up, but simply act on the petitions they get.

When Stalin died, other party leaders so feared Beria and the secret police that they had him arrested, tried and executed for things like "anti-Soviet terrorism," "state treason," and "counter-revolutionary activities." Beria was additionally accused of being a British spy. The trial lasted two days. Beria was shot half an hour after the verdict.

Also shot were six of Beria's closest allies - Vsevolod Merkulov, another former top secret police official; Vladimir Dekanozov, the interior minister of Georgia; Bogdan Kobulov, deputy interior minister; Sergei Goglidze, the head of Soviet military counter-intelligence; Pavel Meshik, interior minister of Ukraine; and Lev Vlodzimirsky, the head of the investigation department of the Interior Ministry.

Often, recent rehabilitations have been initiated by people with some connection to the convicted person. For instance, Vassily Stalin, an air force general, was cleared of the absurd charge of anti-Soviet propaganda, for which he was imprisoned from 1955 to 1962, at the petition of a Soviet air force general. The court left standing, however, Stalin's conviction for exceeding official authority by misusing budget funds for dacha-building and lavish parties.

Pyotr Krasnov, a Cossack chieftain who fought for the Whites in the Civil War and for the Germans in World War II, was the subject of a rehabilitation petition from a Cossack ataman, or leader. It was rejected.

The charge against Abakumov, the secret police official, was changed from state treason to exceeding his official powers. The real reason for his execution, according to historians, was being on the losing side of the Stalin succession struggle.

One of the petitioners in the Beria case is Rem Merkulov, 75, son of executed security official Vsevolod Merkulov. He says he believed his father had never committed any of the crimes he was executed for, but just fell the victim of the same system he had worked for since the 1930s.

"Khrushchev just decided to remove everyone who ever worked with Beria," Merkulov said. "It was possible to find compromising materials on anyone who worked in the state security system; the question was only who goes down and who remains."

Merkulov said that his father did not run to join Khrushchev's clan in time to protect himself. "Meanwhile, [Merkulov's] deputy [Ivan] Serov, who organized the deportations from the Baltics, Chechnya and the Crimea, did and stayed unharmed. In fact, he inherited my father's post after 1953," Merkulov said.

Merkulov described his father as "a calm, kind man" who saved some people from the purges. According to Merkulov, among those saved by his father from Stalin's terror were actress Lyubov Orlova and film director Lev Kuleshov.

Merkulov was disappointed by the military prosecutor's recommendation to uphold the convictions. "In all those years I haven't even had a chance to read the case materials, or at least get access to the whole verdict," Merkulov said.

Petrov agreed that the secrecy must be lifted. "The fact that the sentence and the case are still protected by state secret status is simply illegal in the eyes of the current law. Nothing connected to crimes can be secret. It is a violation of the openness of justice," he said.

Petrov said the difficulty of reviewing cases like Beria's are caused by the major failure of Soviet and post-Soviet authorities in Russia to come up with a judicial formula on the whole regime since 1917.

"Before anything can be decided on who is guilty of what and when, we have to have a strong legal frame for the whole span of history. And, of course, no secrecy should be allowed in these matters," Petrov said.