The Alt-Alt-History: Nelson Mandela and Lavrenti Beria

In retrospect, history is a series of what-ifs, branching out from key points from what did happen to the unknown possibilities of what never happened. Alternative history explores that. One of the great questions of recent decades—simple because it involves one man and his fate—was, “what would have happened if Nelson Mandela had survived his captivity?” His death in the early 1960s, during his confinement at the Robben Island prison, has intrigued historians. Had he survived, the consensus view is that he would have been released in the early 1970s as a goodwill gesture, after renouncing violence. Most likely, he would have survived after his release as a minor figure, respected but mostly forgotten, visited primarily by foreign college students and displaced by a new generation of activists.

Other more radical views assign a greater role to Mandela in freedom. Students of missed opportunities wonder that the easing of the Cold War through the 1950s and early 1960s might have led the South African government to release Mandela or not even imprison him, once the country was not seen as a pawn caught between the USSR and the United States. In this highly speculative scenario, productive negotiations between Soviet premier and former secret-police chief Lavrenti Beria and U.S. President Richard Nixon de-escalated tensions at flash points worldwide, especially South Africa, Viet Nam and Cuba. Nixon, known as a hardline Cold Warrior while Vice President, nevertheless saw potential in a working relationship with Beria, the sinister NKVD chief who nonetheless embraced policies of economic and (within limits) political reform immediately after Joseph Stalin’s death in March 1953. As President, Nixon engaged Beria in negotiations following their famous “rumpus-room debate” in Moscow in 1959, where they spent hours playing billiards in a mock-up of a typical U.S. basement-level entertainment center.

Showing realpolitik at its highest global level, Nixon and Beria worked out understandings that supported a withdrawal of Soviet forces from much of Eastern Europe (East Germany a notable exception) and economic reforms and legalization of opposition parties, coupled with U.S. agreement to not reflexively oppose national liberation movements as harbingers of communist rule. The tectonic shifts in global politics simultaneously removed Soviet financing of South African communist movements and U.S. support for apartheid policies as a bulwark against communism. Suddenly without support on both sides due to Nixon and Beria (who wanted to put finances into rebuilding the USSR), the South African government and the African National Congress would have found a rapprochement mirroring U.S.-Soviet relations. In the turn of phrase popularized by The New Yorker’s diplomatic correspondent, John F. Kennedy, “Trust but verify.”

In this line of reasoning, Mandela would have been released from prison to assume a place as an influential statesman, perhaps even president, of a post-apartheid South Africa. Would Mandela have been able to dampen the potential for violence and take the first steps toward building a multiracial society? Would the country have stood as a role model for other African nations emerging from colonial rule? Mandela might have joined Richard Nixon and Lavrenti Beria among the leaders who reshaped the 1960s following the decisive end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, we will never know what history had in store for Nelson Mandela.

The analyses of the passing of Nelson Mandela reflected on his life’s accomplishments refracted through views of his politics, economics, militancy, place in the great game of the Cold War, whether he was an anti-semite or a philo-semite, and role in moving South Africa beyond apartheid. I don’t have anything original to say about any of this. What does strike me about Mandela is the sheer improbability that lived long enough to leave prison after 27 years AND immediately resumed political life. Twenty-seven years; In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Dr. Alexandre Manette spent a mere 18 years as a prisoner in the Bastille. Mandela entered prison in his early 40s and left in his early 70s. For a U.S. frame of reference, imagine Richard Nixon retiring after his loss in the election of 1960, then returning to win the presidency against Bill Clinton in 1992; that’s a long time.

The path of one man over a great stretch of time reminds me of alt-history, a form of fiction I like that takes a change in history, often a minor event, and traces the impact of it. Prison, release and a return to life, in Dickens’ phrase, sounds far more unlikely than the alternative I sketched above. But that’s how Mandela bent history to his purposes, refusing to submit, remaining alive and leaving his own mark on the world.

Mandela’s alt-alt-history, as I think of it, leads me to think about other crinkles in time. I’ve read big ideas of alt-history, typically wars going in new directions: the South winning the Civil War, the Germans winning World War II (as in Robert Harris’ novel Fatherland) and the three volume series starting with Without Warning by John Birmingham, after a mysterious energy wave wipes out most of North America just before the 2003 Iraq War started).

One great what-if involved the change of leadership in the USSR following the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953. Long ailing, Stalin was preparing a pogrom against Russian Jews when he had a stroke that went untreated, with the doctors supposedly held off by his secret police chief and vice premier, Lavrenti Beria. As Stalin lay dying in his country hours, Beria was alternately obsequious and jubilant, and historians have speculated that he might have given Stalin more than a gentle shove into the next world. In any case, Beria immediately grabbed the spotlight among surviving leaders and positioned himself to become the premier. The plans for the pogrom immediately ended, as did Stalin’s plans to execute his remaining inner circle. According to Wikipedia, Beria had big ambitions:

Based on Beria’s own statements, other leaders suspected that in the wake of the uprising, he might be willing to trade the reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War for massive aid from the United States, as had been received in World War II. The cost of the war still weighed heavily on the Soviet economy. Beria craved the vast financial resources that another (more sustained) relationship with the United States could provide. He had already argued for “de-Bolshevization” of Soviet foreign policy (though he still favored traditional terror methods as necessary to control domestic power). For example, Beria gave Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania serious prospects of national autonomy, possibly similarly to other Soviet satellite states in Europe.

Those plans never reached fruition. The worst among  Soviet leaders all drowning in blood, the rapist and torturer Beria and his security forces were rightly feared by Nikita Khrushchev, Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgi Malenkov and others.

On 26 June 1953, Beria was arrested and held in an undisclosed location near Moscow. Accounts of Beria’s fall vary considerably. By the most likely account, Khrushchev prepared an elaborate ambush, convening a meeting of the Presidium on 26 June, where he suddenly launched a scathing attack on Beria, accusing him of being a traitor and spy in the pay of British intelligence. Beria was taken completely by surprise. He asked, “What’s going on, Nikita Sergeyevich? Why are you picking fleas in my trousers?” Molotov and others quickly spoke against Beria one after the other, followed by a motion by Khrushchev for his instant dismissal. When Beria finally realized what was happening and plaintively appealed to Malenkov to speak for him, his old friend and crony silently hung his head and refused to meet his gaze. Malenkov pressed a button on his desk as the pre-arranged signal to Marshal Georgy Zhukov and a group of armed officers in a nearby room. They burst in and arrested Beria.

Beria had plenty of time to reflect on the fruits of his past deeds and onrushing fate before his December 1953 trial. He was tried and convicted with other leaders of what was then called the MVD (previously the NKVD, later the KGB, now the FSB). He enjoyed the same degree of consideration and mercy he showed others:

Beria and all the other defendants were sentenced to death. When the death sentence was passed, Beria pleaded on his knees for mercy before collapsing to the floor and wailing and crying energetically, but to no avail: the other six defendants were executed by firing squad on 23 December 1953, the same day as the trial, while Beria was fatally shot through the forehead by General Batitsky after the latter stuffed a rag into Beria’s mouth to silence his bawling. The body of Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria was subsequently cremated and buried around Moscow’s forest.

If the alt-alt-history had played out, would Beria have been a sort of proto-Mikhail Gorbachev, or more so, ditching the rigidity and suspicions of Stalinism for some more tolerant approach? Would he have worked through and eased the pent-up anger that, in the late 1980s, unleashed revolutions that swept Eastern Europe? Would he have used the Red Army to suppress rebellions, as happened in 1953 in East Germany, 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia? Or would the internal contradictions of communism have led to the same dead end other Soviet leaders failed to fix, because they were unfixable? Would he have been more coolly rational and informed than Khrushchev and focused on the USSR’s post-war rebuilding rather than endless global intrigues in support of communism? Nobody knows what the alt-history had in store for Lavrenti Beria.

Fortunately, we do know that the alt-alt history did indeed come true for Nelson Mandela, who emerged to life and left a world made better for his improbable survival and leadership.

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