The Death of Josef Stalin
March 5th 1953
Mid-February Stalin left for his ‘dacha’, holiday home, just outside Moscow. He was growing old and weary. He was 74 and had been leader of the Soviet Union from the mid 1920s. Already he had voiced the possibility of retiring from the leadership of his party. The other membersof the Central Committee of the Communist Party, fearing for their lives, immediately dissuaded him of this opinion.
He had been drinking with friends from the politburo - Lavrenty Beria, Nikita Khrushchev, Nikolai Bulganin and Georgi Malenkov. The next day, March 1st, there was no sound or movement from within the rooms where he slept. Late in the evening a guard and a maid ventured in and found him lying on the floor. He was making strange, incoherent sounds and had wet himself. Malenkov was called and he contacted the others. They went back to Kuntsevo, where Stalin’s dacha was, but were told that Stalin was now asleep and was not presentable. They went back to Moscow totally unaware of the seriousness of Stalin’s health. Doctors were not called until the following day with the leader paralysed and speechless. A massive stroke was diagnosed. The other Politburo members then returned to the dacha and were unsure of what to do. Rumours were rife that one of them had contrived to kill Stalin and they now lived in fear of what might happen next.
At 9.50pm on March 5th Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, said that her father’s eyes opened with ‘a terrible look – either mad or angry and full of fear of his death.’ He raised his left hand and died. The death was announced to the Russian public the following day with appeals for calm. His funeral took place in Red Square on March 9th with a crowd so massive that some were crushed to death. Stalin’s body was then embalmed and put on display with Lenin’s in what was now re-named the Lenin-Stalin Mausoleum. Politically the drama was to begin. Malenkov was to take over but a serious power struggle in the Kremlin forced him to resign in February 1955 when Khrushchev took over, Beria having already been executed as a traitor in December 1953. An attempted coup in 1957 resulted in a standoff with Khrushchev which he lost and he was fired from the Politburo and later on from the Communist Party. He was sent into exile where he became manager of a hydro-electric plant in Kazakhstan. He died in January 1988, aged 86, a reader in the Russian Orthodox Church and choir member in the local church.
The story of the death of Stalin has been subjected to conspiracy theorists as well.
On the night in question, when the Politburo members had feasted and watched a film at his home and had gone home in the early hours, he gave the unusual order for the guards to retire for the night and for him not to be disturbed. For a man so conscious and obsessed with his own personal security this seemed an odd and an out character decision.
Edward Radzinski, a Russian historian, tracked down one of the guards, Pyotr Lozgachev. The latter confirmed that the order given to the guards to retire to bed early had not in fact been given by Stalin but by the chief guard, a man called Khrustalev. Lozgachev said that usually Stalin would keep the guards up very late and that this order was very odd. He continued that at 6.30pm the following day a light came on in Stalin’s rooms and he was sent in to see what was going on. Terrified he asked the leader, “What’s wrong Comrade Stalin?” He made a noise like “Dz dz” and his pocket watch was on the floor alongside a copy of Pravda. The call to the fellow top brass of the Politburo was made but the length of time they took to respond and call for a doctor that made Radzinzki suspicious. His opinion is that Khrustalev injected poison into Stalin under the orders of Lavrenty Beria, chief of the KGB. Why would he want to do this? He maintains that Stalin wanted World War 3 and the Russian people and country were not ready for it. Radzinski continues; “All the people who surrounded Stalin understood that Stalin wanted war - the future World War III - and he decided to prepare the country for this war. He said: we have the opportunity to create a communist Europe but we have to hurry. But Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov and every normal person understood it was terrible to begin a war against America because the country [Russia] had no economy. It wasn't a poor but a super-poor country which was destroyed by the German invasion, a country which had no resources but only nuclear weapons. It was the reason for his anti-Semitic campaign, it was a provocation. He wanted an answer from America. And Beria knew Stalin had planned on 5 March to begin the deportation of Jewish people from Moscow."
Stalin’s death, like his life, is mired in controversy and mystery. A man responsible for the death of millions died a sad, lonely and feeble man.