Alan Williams’ novel The Beria Papers was my chosen novel for the Christmas period. First published in 1973 the author chose the infamous chief of the Soviet Secret Police Laventy Beria as his subject for what would prove to be the precursor to the remarkable Hitler Diaries published in a similar manner some ten years later.
Blending well documented facts about Beria’s sordid personal life with assumptions about his political viewpoints and aspirations, Williams produced an intriguing novel for the most part. Fans of Stalin-era Soviet history will be comforted with the level of research shown by the author, himself a veteran Cold War journalist who covered Hungary in ’56 as well as Vietnam, Northern Ireland and Algeria through its most turbulent periods,
The story follows two journalists and a female translator as they embark on a complex hoax of forging Beria’s secret diaries in order to embezzle a large American publisher. Forging documents or diaries is not a far-fetched idea but to imagine someone of Beria’s stature and position committing such treasonable opinions to paper seems a fantasy too far even for a novel. Had they stuck with Beria’s renown for raping and sexually assaulting women and particularly young girls the ‘diaries’ and indeed the novel might have been more believable. But Williams manages to convey enough of both Beria the man and the world of Stalin’s inner sanctum to stick with it.
The sexual relationship between the two journalists and the translator is preposterous as is the claim in the diaries that Beria had poisoned Stalin to death but by then I was already invested enough to know what happens as the KGB and CIA rush to find the three who have fled across Europe and into Africa. The outcome is hardly surprising given the stakes but the journey and the tradecraft involved is an interesting reminder of the world of espionage during the early 70s. More interesting still is the life of Beria, a butcher of men and rapist of women whose subsequent demise on the orders of Khrushchev following Stalin’s death benefitting of one of the most hated figures in Soviet history. Williams succeeds in describing how a madman such as Beria could exist within the Soviet high command given the paranoia which engulfed his leader. How many died or were sent to the Gulag’s on Beria’s orders will never be truly known but if ever a man deserved ‘stitching up’ with a fake diary then he must surely qualify.