From the afterword of Hard to be a God:

On the advice of I. A. Efremov, we renamed the Minister of the Defense of the Crown Don Reba (he had previously been Don Rebia—an overly simple anagram, in the opinion of Ivan Antonovich.)

-- 2015 translation

While I enjoy anagram puzzles, I wasn't even going to attempt one in not only a foreign language but a less familiar alphabet, so I remained puzzled about what anagram this was referring to, until @Gilles pointed out in chat that of course Rebia (Ре́бия) would have been an anagram of Beria (Бе́рия), the most famous and long-standing chief of the Soviet secret police. The reference is clear: Don Reba is also a chief of secret police, also ruthlessly responsible for the detection and punishment of thousands of so-called traitors.

Other than the name, what similarities can be drawn between the character of Don Reb(i)a and the real-world figure of Beria? I'm interested to see how far the comparison goes, and how clear it is from the text of the novel, without using anagram games, that Don Reba was based on Beria.

  • I omitted most of personal comparisons, because to be honest I couldn't find any that would satisfy me as "oh, a contemporary reader would see the character description - which is actually quite extensive - and think 'Beria' from that".
    – DVK
    Apr 9, 2017 at 13:58

1 Answer 1


SPOILERS AHEAD! This answer may contain spoilers including hints to the major plot points of the book; sprinkled all over.

References: all Beria facts below are basically from Russian Beria Wiki page unless otherwise stated.

  1. First, political parallels.

    • Don Reba's role in the state.

      His role in the book was described by many as "the grey cardinal" - basically, the Armand Jean du Plessis (more well known as Cardinal Richelieu) of Arkanar. Beria played a similar role for Stalin (with the difference that Stalin wasn't merely a puppet of his but an owner, unlike both Arkanar monarch and Luis XIII).

      Ironically, my own analogy was rejected by none other than Anton/Rumata, who explicitly thought that Reba was NOT Richelieu equivalent like Rumata's boss Don Kondor thought:

      Дон Рэба для него — это что-то вроде герцога Ришелье, умный и дальновидный политик, защищающий абсолютизм от феодальной вольницы. Один я на всей планете вижу страшную тень, наползающую на страну, но как раз я и не могу понять, чья это тень и зачем… И где уж мне убедить его, когда он вот-вот, по глазам видно, пошлет меня на Землю лечиться.

      For him, Don Reba is something like the Duke of Richelieu, a shrewd and farsighted politician, defending absolutism from feudal excesses. I’m the only one on this whole planet who’s aware of the terrible shadow creeping over the country, but even I can’t figure out whose shadow it is or where it’s coming from. And how can I possibly convince him, when I can see in his eyes that he’s almost ready to send me back to Earth for treatment?
      Hard to Be a God, Gollancz, chapter 1.

      Additionally, Boris Strugatsky in offline interview also indicated that "for realz", Anton was also wrong - Don Reba wasn't a grey cardinal, but in reality, a very well masked agent of the Order:

      По замыслу авторов, дон Рэба – профессиональный агент влияния и политический диверсант Ордена, великолепно замаскировавшийся под хитроумного придворного интригана и серого (во всех смыслах) кардинала. Ему удалось обмануть всех, в том числе и нашего Антона-Румату, который при всех его статях все-таки дилетант-самоучка, не лишенный известных талантов, но начисто лишенный серьезной практики. Так что пресловутая «серость» дона Рэбы существует, скорее, в воображении Руматы, обиженных придворных, а так же – авторов (естественно глядящих на мир глазами своего героя). (Source)

    • Don Reba's official position in the state

      Don Reba was the security minister (his official title was министра охраны короны/Minister for Crown's Safety). Beria was, of course, head of NKVD, the predecessor of KGB. Both were in charge of finding out everything about everyone in the state in the name of state security.

      Орел наш, благородный дон Рэба озабочен знать, что говорят и думают подданные короля.

      Our eagle, the noble Don Reba, is interested in what the king’s subjects say and think.

    • Oppressor-in-chief

      As such, Don Reba was in charge of oppressing all enemies of the state, like Beria who was officially accused of helping Stalin organize 30s repressions

      (ironically, Beria likely wasn't actually as guilty as many others, as he only took his position in 1938 after main repressions ended - I covered that a couple of bullets below).

    • Coup and taking power.

      Don Reba organized a palace coup, killing the king, and becoming the leader of the Arkanar.

      Beria was accused of the same by Khruschyov's cabal.

      Ironically, later historical revelations revealed that it was a trumped-up charge used as an excuse to get rid of him since everyone else in Central Committee was afraid of him.

      • On a related note, regarding Beria's arrest....

        About that "agent of influence" thing mentioned in the very first section: as we recall from history, Beria was accused of and executed for being British spy and agent of influence (Arkady Strugatsky actually mentioned "laughing about that fact" in one of his letters when he was 20, sadly I don't have a link to the book citing that).

        And while we the readers don't see it from the text (but can make a guess as some readers did, that Reba is way way too good given the outcomes compared to how we see him via Rumata's eyes); the quote from the BNS interview at the end of last bullet confirms that "Agent of influence for the Order" is exactly how the authors saw the character.

    • "The Doctor's Plot" - parallel #1 - persecuting doctors via accusations of poisoning

      Don Reba tried to do that with doctors in Arkanar, except Rumata interfered:

      Лейб-знахарь Тата вместе с пятью другими лейб-знахарями оказался вдруг отравителем, злоумышлявшим по наущению герцога Ируканского против особы короля, под пыткой признался во всем и был повешен на Королевской площади.

      The healer Tata, along with five other healers, had suddenly turned out to be poisoners who had been plotting against the king at the instigation of the Duke of Irukan. Tata had confessed to everything under torture and was hanged in the Royal Plaza.
      Ibid, chapter 5, page 117.

      Кем-то была затрачена уйма золота, чтобы помешать свершиться гневу народному в отношении богомерзких шпионов и отравителей, бывших лейб-знахарей его величества.

      Someone spent a fortune in gold to prevent the people’s wrath from being carried out against the godforsaken spies and poisoners, the former healers of His Majesty.
      Ibid, chapter 7, page 167.

      Ironically, Beria wasn't at fault for that particular rise of anti-Semitism in USSR, and furthermore, when he got elected to be a leader following Stalin's death, he stopped that effort, rehabilitated everyone arrested; and arrested and executed the man actually responsible (Beria's second in command in MGB, Ryumin). But, he is frequently blamed for that in Russia as well. Of course, Don Reba arrested Dr. Budakh, forced him to give the recipe for poison which he then used to poison the king.

      BNS actually covered this in an offline interview, openly admitting that Beria wasn't as bad as people usually blame him for, and Strugatsky brothers were as ignorant of the truth as anyone:

      Вы совершенно правы.... Берия безусловно чрезмерно демонизирован, а причины этого явления, по-моему, в плохом нашем знании собственной истории. Да и откуда нам брать информацию? ...

    • "The Doctor's Plot" - parallel #2 - death of the ruler.

      In the book, Don Reba kidnaps Doctor Budakh, forces him to give him poison, and that poison is used to kill the king via fake-Budakh.

      Это страшный человек. Это оборотень, который явился на свет только упущением божьим. Я врач, но мне не стыдно признаться, что при случае я охотно умертвил бы его. Я слыхал, что король отравлен. И теперь понимаю, чем он отравлен. (Румата насторожился.) Этот Рэба явился ко мне в камеру и потребовал, чтобы я составил для него яд, действующий в течение нескольких часов. Разумеется, я отказался. Он пригрозил мне пытками – я засмеялся ему в лицо. Тогда этот негодяй крикнул палачей, и они привели ему с улицы дюжину мальчиков и девочек не старше десяти лет. Он поставил их передо мной, раскрыл мой мешок со снадобьями и объявил, что будет пробовать на этих детях все снадобья подряд, пока не найдет нужное. Вот как был отравлен король, дон Румата.

      "This is a terrible man. A werewolf who only came into this world by an oversight of God. I’m a doctor, but I’m not ashamed to admit that if I had the chance I would have gladly put him to death. I have heard that the king was poisoned. And now I understand what he was poisoned with." Rumata pricked up his ears. "This Reba showed up in my chamber and demanded that I make up a poison for him that worked in the course of a few hours. Naturally, I refused. He threatened me with torture—I laughed in his face. Then the villain called to the torturers, and they brought in a dozen boys and girls no older than ten years of age from the street. He lined them up in front of me, opened my potion bag, and declared that he would try all the potions on those children in a row until he found the right one. That’s how the king was poisoned, Don Rumata."
      Ibid, chapter 8, page 203.

      In USSR Beria was sometimes accused of trying to kill Stalin, including by refusing medical help when Stalin was dying (I don't have a cite, this is stuff I read/heard 20 years ago).

    • Rise to power before the coup

      Don Reba, just like Beria, was a small bureaucrat who rose to power by deposing prior security chiefs (Beria famously was in charge of taking care of his predecessor, Yezhov):

      Потом тогдашний первый министр был вдруг арестован и казнен, погибли под пытками несколько одуревших от ужаса, ничего не понимающих сановников, и словно на их трупах вырос исполинским бледным грибом этот цепкий, беспощадный гений посредственности.

      Soon the then-First Minister was suddenly arrested and executed, a number of horror-stricken and bewildered officials died during torture, and this tenacious, ruthless genius of mediocrity grew like a pale fungus on their corpses.
      Ibid, chapter 3, page 85.

    • Amnesty

      Beria initiated amnesty when he came to power, for ~1.5M people. Mostly for criminals. So did Don Reba.

      – Не, – сказал другой монах. – Растлитель – тот Рудах. Его и выпустили еще ночью. Сам отец Кин его расковал и наружу вывел. А я...

      “Nah,” another monk said. “The child molester—that’s Rudach. He was already released last night. Father Kin unchained him himself and took him out. And I—”
      Ibid, chapter 8, page 196.

  1. Personal characteristics

    • Beria was an infamous womanizer. Don Reba wasn't accused of that (or pedophilia or rape, as Beria was) but he did have a new, rather less-reputable lover, Dona Okana.

      Писала дона Окана, фрейлина, новая фаворитка дона Рэбы.

      The letter was from Doña Ocana, a lady-in-waiting and the new favorite of Don Reba.

  1. Deep authorial intent.

    As discussed in my answer to "Are any of the countries in Hard to Be a God based specifically on particular real-life countries?":

    • Arkanar (especially its transition from "grey stormtroopers" to "black monks") has close parallels to Nazi Germany; and Rumata explicitly compares Holy Order to "fascist feudalism".

    • Boris Strugatsky generally considered fascism closely parallel to Stalinism; only with nation hatred replaced with class hatred.

  • But Reba eventually got "tangled in his own schemes", and you know what happened in the end. How does that translate to Beria? Apr 4, 2017 at 8:27

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