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How Beriya and Mikoyan saved the senior management of the diamond mine

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The diamond industry of the USSR and the Russian Federation has a relatively short history, but it has become overgrown with fantastic legends that greatly distort the essence of events and motives of the people who took part in it. One of these fairytales is the story about the letter written by M. F. Shestopalov to I. V. Stalin in July 1946. Here is the typical quotation from a geological (!) journal: “In summer 1946, M. F. Shestopalov, a seasoned geologist, wrote a letter to I. V. Stalin about the need to make the diamond prospecting more intensive. He was invited to Moscow to make a report. After the report, I. V. Stalin called the ministers in charge of this field to account and said: “You say that we should curtail the diamond prospecting but an ordinary engineer knows where diamonds can be found!” For about twenty years, this tall tale has been circling around the pages of journals, monographies and theses being added by surprising ‘details’, and many authors are serious when stating that Shestopalov's letter had given an impulse for the development of both the diamond geology and the diamond industry on the whole, and even was a reason and the basis for the landmark Decree of the Council of Ministers of the USSR No. 1978-832ss dated September 07, 1946 “On the development of the national diamond industry”.

The real history of events taking place in summer 1946 in the diamond industry is dramatic and has little to do with the rosy phantasies of the today’s historians and publicists about the geologist full of initiative, wise leader and dumb ministers.

In July 1946, Мikhail Shestopalov was not an 'ordinary engineer’ but the director of the Teplogorsky diamond mine – the only diamond mining operation in the USSR at that time. And at least four Union ministers knew him as the director of the mine: Pyotr Lomako, the minister of the non-ferrous metallurgy of the USSR (Teplogorsky mine belonged to this ministry); Sergey Kruglov, minister of the Internal affairs of the USSR, who was preparing to accept the diamond industry to his ministry from the Ministry of the non-ferrous metallurgy; Ilya Malyshev, minister of geology of the USSR, and Lev Mekhlis, Minister of the state control of the USSR. The acquaintance with the latter had an adverse impact on Shestopalov's fate.

The Ministry of the state control of the USSR is an institution that was overlooked and got undeservedly little attention of the contemporary historians. This government department had the authorities to conduct an inspection of any administrative entity, including the Ministry of Defence, State Security Ministry and Ministry of the Internal Affairs. More than that, the Minister of the State Control could dismiss any official by his order and take him to court. In fact, it was Stalin’s personal ‘Investigative Committee’. It was headed by colonel-general Lev Mekhlis, whom even Stalin called a ‘dreadful person’ behind his back. Yes, Mekhlis was cruel and many ruined lives were his guilt. However, he had one positive feature – he did not tell lies. He could sentence a person to death for the wrongdoings that should not be punished by so severe penalties. But there were no doubts that wrongdoings took place and they were clearly proved with supporting evidence. Mekhlis neither garbled evidence, nor forge documents. That is why Stalin believed him. In spring 1946, Stalin encharged the Ministry of the State Control with a task of carrying out an inspection of the diamond industry. The State Planning Committee of the USSR and five ministries worked on their proposals to the draft-decree “On the development of the national diamond industry”. It was necessary to know in details what they were going to develop. Mekhlis started the inspection with the Teplogorsky diamond mine.

Extract from the Certificate of Inspection: “Shestopalov M.F. was dismissed from office of the director of Teplogorsky diamond mine and brought to trial due to jobbery, squandering of the goods from the gold buying-up fund and false reporting of the mined bulk, which resulted in a significant financial damage to the State… the minister of the non-ferrous metallurgy of the USSR Comrade Lomako P.F. was acquainted with materials of the inspection of the Teplogorsky mine by Sychyov, the chief Inspector of the Minister of the state control of the USSR, who also agreed with the contemplated conclusions regarding the dismissal of the director of Teplogorsky diamond mine from office and bringing him to trial… Prior to appointment of Shestopalov as the director of the Teplogorsky mine of the Glavzoloto (Chief Department of the Gold and Platinum Industry) in April 1943, he worked as the Head of the Ural diamond expedition. By order of comrade Malyshev, the Chairman of the Committee on Geology under the USSR Council of People's Commissars, No. 66 dated March 6, 1943, Shestopalov was dismissed due to ‘failure to deliver proper management of the expedition… Signature – А. Paveliev, Collegium Member of the Ministry of the state control of the Union of SSR”.

So, Shestopalov was incriminated an abuse of official capacity, theft and sabotage. The significant damage was caused to the State. In 1946, people were put up against the wall even for less grave crimes.

When Mekhlis received the dossier on the Teplogorsky mine, he addressed to Lomako. The response of this ‘soldier of the party’ was in the spirit of the epoch – the mine’s management should be shot. After the talk with Lomako, on July 16, 1946, Mekhlis issued Order of the Ministry of the state control of the USSR No. 620. According to the Order, Shestopalov lost all the authorities and became a person under investigation. Taking into account the grave accusation, the probability of a soon execution by a firing squad was very high. He had nothing to lose and Shestopalov took a decision – on July 23, he wrote a letter to Stalin ‘On the Issue of the Diamond Mining in the USSR’. He wrote a letter making a gross insubordination – he sent it over the head of his own minister, without informing the investigative agencies. This, certainly, is a gesture expressive of despair and his hope to use the last cast. The letter was classified as secret and sent to Moscow via the security office of the Teplogorsky mine.

In the letter, there was neither mentioning about the inspection by the Ministry of the State Control, nor any request to protect him. There was an insightful analysis of the diamond market and a number of sensible suggestions on the restructuring of the diamond industry. The content the letter showed that its author was an excellent expert in diamonds, one of the best in the country. And this was the case. That was what he was looking at.

The letter came to Moscow but not directly to Stalin. The first place in Moscow where the letters came was the Lavrenty Beriya’s secretariat, the letter had No. LB-16471. Today it is not possible to understand who, how and why changed the route of the letter. At that time, Beriya was the most powerful Deputy of Stalin, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers. Beriya had no direct relation to the diamond industry, he was a Member of the Political Bureau and supervised the power ministries, as well and the Chairman of the Special Committee on the development of the atomic weapons. People in the industry and in the national security environment knew very well that Beriya appreciated very much the professionalism and promoted and protected the competent professionals. It was also no secret that Beriya did not like Mekhlis and considered him a narrow-minded person. May be, Shestopalov’s letter came to Beriya by chance or some friend helped this to happen. Anyway, the fortune smiled upon Shestopalov.

To find out what Shestopalov was and what the core of the matter was, two hours were enough for Beriya. Then he had a choice either to follow the ‘best’ Soviet-time traditions and ‘pass the buck’ to Mekhlis (‘he is your person under investigation - so, you should take on the case) and then Shestopalov’s fate would be sealed; or to save a knowledgeable (although, of course, guilty) professional. Beriya decided on the latter. He kept the document for two weeks and on August 6, 1946, he put his instruction on Shestopalov's letter: «Comrade Mikoyan А. I. Please review and give your draft-proposal. L. Beriya». Аnastas Mikoyan, a coordinator of the preparation of the Decree “On the development of the national diamond industry”, was a great political compromiser, Beriya’s ally in many projects and he hated Mekhlis.

On August 7, 1946, the Mikoyan’s secretariat got Shestopalov’s letter with Beriya’s instruction on it (file No. 27447). Most probably, that Beriya commented it verbally outlining the goal. Mikoyan was quick to meet Lomako. When ‘the soldier of the party’ heard Beriya’s opinion regarding Shestopalov's case, he was flexible enough and changed his attitude for an opposite one – no need to shoot anyone any more. Having counterbalanced Lomako’s influence, Mikoyan made a call to Mekhlis and - in a diplomatic manner that was typical of him – asked him to cancel Order of the Ministry of the State Control No. 620.

Mikoyan’s interference made Mekhlis furious. This ‘horn nose’ were not afraid of Beriya and considered Lomako’s attitude as a cowardly and contemptible conduct. Mekhlis wrote a letter to Mikoyan on the form of the Ministry of the State Control that is worth being cited in full:

«To: Comrade Mikoyan А. I. Hereby I send a detailed note on the issue about Shestopalov, the former director of the diamond mine. The management of the Ministry, comrades Lomako and Malinin, were informed in details, as seen from the Report attached, about the results of the inspection and the conclusions regarding Shestopalov and they agreed upon them.

Chief inspector comrade Sychyov (prior to reporting to me) sat with comrade Lomako for two hours and explained him the Certificates of 2 inspections, including those relating to Shestopalov. Comrade Lomako agreed upon the conclusions.

I personally spoke to comrade Lomako by the hot line about three orders, including that about Shestopalov. In the course of the talk, comrade Lomako was thoroughly enlightened on the subject and told me the following - word-for-word – “until 3 to 5 persons are shot, this disgrace will not stop”. I signed the order after talking to comrade Lomako. It is strange that Lomako told you that the decision on the case was made in his absence. L. Mekhlis.”

When he understood that Mekhlis would not give up, Mikoyan (most probably, with the support of the influential Beriya) decided to bring the question for the decision of Stalin, the ultimate arbitrator. In early September, 1946, some days before adopting the Decree “On the development of the national diamond industry”, A. Мikoyan, S. Kruglov (minister of the Internal affairs of the USSR), I. Malyshev (minister of geology of the USSR) and I. Аrkhipov (Lomako’s Deputy) submitted the final version of the draft–decree to Stalin. The Shestopalov’s letter was attached to the set of documents as well as the written request to cancel the order issued by Mekhlis and the task to Kruglov to settle the Shestopalov’s matter by administrative decisions. It is worth mentioning that Beriya was the Kruglov’s supervisor.

So, Stalin saw Shestopalov’s letter just two days before signing the Decree and not earlier. And, of course, the letter could not have any meaningful influence upon the development of the diamond industry. The work on the Decree had been carried out for many months by the officials of the State Planning Committee of the USSR and five republican ministries. Its draft was ready before Shestopalov wrote his letter. Shestopalov made a good document full of reasonable proposals but its role was limited to the fact that it saved its author’s life, reputation and professional life. It’s quite a bit.

The leader was quite favourable to the request of Kruglov and Mikoyan. And the last, 21st paragraph appeared in the Decree No. 1978-832ss dated September 07, 1946 “On the development of the national diamond industry”, that read:

“21. Revoke the order of the Minister of the State Control of the USSR comrade Mekhlis, No. 620 dated July 16, 1946, about the dismissal of comrade Shestopalov, the director of the Glavzoloto’s Teplogorsky mine, and bringing him to trial, and tasked the minister of the Internal Affairs of the USSR comrade Kruglov with considering this matter and settling it by an administrative decision.

Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Union of the SSR I. Stalin.”

S. Kruglov handled the situation in a rather peculiar way: he promoted Shestopalov to the grade of an Engineer-Captain of the Ministry of the Internal Affairs and appointed him the chief engineer of the ‘Uralalmaz’ complex of enterprises united with the Kus’insky correctional labour institution. And Shestopalov who had a hairbreadth escape – be prisoned or even shot down – became the head of thousands of prisoners sent to do diamond mining in the Ural area.

Sergey Goryainov, Rough&Polished

P.S. The documents cited above are available in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, F. 5446, О. 48а, D. 825.