On This Day: The Death of Joseph Stalin

croppedstalin1943

Joseph Stalin in 1943 (via Wikipedia)

On this day, March 5, in the year 1953, Joseph Stalin, the infamous leader of the Soviet Union for over 30 years, died from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 74 years old.

There exists controversy even today about whether or not Stalin, a man feared by many and hated by more, was murdered at his Kuntsevo residence. After all, he was responsible for implementing the gulags, which saw millions of political prisoners imprisoned for hard labor.

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A Communist Party supporter cries while placing flowers of Stalin’s grave, March 5, 2016 (AP Photo)

A Communist party supporter cries while placing flowers on Stalin’s grave in Red Square to mark the 63th anniversary of his death.

(AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

To settle this controversy, I’ll quote, in full, a paper I wrote in my senior year of college, which examined several sources and witnesses to his demise. In summary, motives aside, there is no direct evidence of foul play.

The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, was the man who led the Soviet Union through the Second World War. Born in 1879 in the village of Gori, in modern day eastern Georgia, his reputation as the supposed hero of the Soviet Union towards the middle of the twentieth century was slowly degrading. Around 10:00 PM on March 2, 1953, Joseph Stalin, seventy-four years of age, was found laying on the ground in his residence home in Kuntsevo, unable to speak and cold to the touch. Three days later, at 9:50 PM on March 5, 1953, he died. Was the seventy-four year old tyrant – a man who did have medical troubles in the previous decade of his life – die of unexpected causes, complicated from a brain hemorrhage or stroke? Or was he murdered – by poison, specifically – by those who detested his policies? If he was indeed murdered, then who killed him? Proof for either case is essential, as it can change how the chief minds of the Kremlin and the Soviet government viewed their leader during the so-called “Great Patriotic War.”

It is necessary to note that “no two accounts of his death correspond,”[1] which leads to a much harder investigation. These discrepancies may simply be due to different perspective of events, bad memory, or some sort of conspiracy to hide what actually happened. However, what we can determine is the following. On Sunday March 1, 1953, Stalin was “pretty drunk… [and] in pretty high spirits” after having dinner at his residence home in the Kuntsevo District, Moscow in the presence of Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrentiy Beria, Georgy Malenkov, and Nikolai Bulganin, all high-ranking officials in the Soviet government.[2] This occurred around 4:00 AM, although Khrushchev recalled that dinner lasted until “five or six in the morning.”[3] He further stated that “[Stalin] didn’t show the slightest sign that anything was wrong with him physically.”[4] The five men arrived there the day before, in February 28.

After 4:00 AM, Stalin, with his guards, escorted the four men to their limousines. Soon after, he told Colonel Ivan Khrustalev, one of the dacha guards, “I’m going to sleep…You can take a nap too. I won’t be calling you.”[5] There was no activity for another fourteen hours. Normally, Stalin would give his first orders of the day between 10:00 and 11:00 AM.[6] According to Pyotr Lozgachev, assistant to the commandant of the dacha,

“At 10:00 a.m. there was ‘no movement’ in his rooms… 11:00 a.m came, then 12:00 and still no movement. It began to seem strange…1:00 p.m. came – and there was still no movement. We began to be alarmed. 3:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m. – no movement… I was sitting there with [Mikhail] Starostin [the senior member of Stalin’s bodyguard] and he said: ‘There’s something wrong, what shall we do?’ We wondered whether to go in there … 8:00 p.m., still nothing. We didn’t know what to do. 9:00 p.m., no movement. 10:00 p.m. still nothing.”[7]

It is important to note that, by “no movement,” Lozgachev referred to both telephone calls and physical movement. There was a “special signaling system” of sensors within all of Stalin’s rooms, including springs within cushions of the furnishing and on the doors between rooms, which would tell the guards exactly where the dictator resided.[8]

Perhaps due to Zhores and Roy Medvedev’s editing of Lozgachev’s testimony, the above quote gives the impression that nothing whatsoever happened all day, until 10 that night. This impression is not entirely accurate. There was one small instance of movement within the bedroom.  At 6:00[9] or 6:30 PM[10], a light switch in Stalin’s bedroom turned on. This prompted Lozgachev to say, “Thank God…everything’s all right.” [11] However, no call came. Scared to interrupt, the guards did not enter the room.

At 10:00[12] or 10:30 PM[13], the Central Committee mail arrived, and Lazgachev had the excuse to see the dictator. He saw “a terrible picture:” Stalin laying in his pajama pants and undershirt. He could only make a single noise – “dzhh” – and could not speak. He was cold to the touch, and his clothes were soaked in urine. He soon appeared to fall asleep, and Lazgachev used this opportunity to call guards Mikhail Starostin and Matrena Butuzova. Lazgachev “didn’t leave the Boss’s side” after moving him to a couch, and Starostin called MGB (the Ministerstvo Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, the Ministry for State Security and the precursor to the KGB) Minister Semyon Ignatiev. Ignatiev “was too frightened to decide anything. He had the power to call doctors himself but he had to act carefully. He ordered Starostin to call Beria and Malenkov.”[14] Initially failing, Beria finally answered the phone an hour later (at around 11 PM), and, when hearing what happened, only said, “Don’t tell anybody about Comrade Stalin’s illness…and don’t call.”[15]

Beria and Malenkov arrived at the dacha at 3:00 AM, the morning of March 2. This was around four hours after Starostin first called them. Both men “acted in character:” Beria was pompous (and possibly drunk), Malenkov nervous.[16] When asked what was wrong with Stalin, Beria immediately snapped back, “The Boss is obviously sleeping peacefully…Don’t bother us, don’t cause a panic and don’t disturb Comrade Stalin” and immediately left the house, along with Malenkov.

The doctors did not arrive until 7:00 AM[17], although one account gives the time between 8:30 and 9:00 AM.[18] The team was lead by Professor Lukomsky, the chief doctor of the Ministry of Health, and they immediately and unanimously diagnosed Stalin with a “massive cerebral haemorrhage in the left side of the brain caused by high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis.”[19]

They also determined that “involuntary urination had occurred,” due to still being in his urine soaked clothes, and his blood pressure was dangerously high for a man his age, at 190/110, at 78 beats per minute.[20] The doctors then gave Stalin injections of hypertonic microenema, which consisted of magnesium,[21] along with several leeches,[22] which would both, in one way or another, help keep a steady heart rate.

Stalin did not regain consciousness. When it was shown that he was incapacitated, Beria “‘spewed forth hatred of Stalin’ but whenever his eyelids flickered or his eyes opened, Beria, terrified that he would recover, ‘knelt and kissed his hand’ like an Oriental vizier at a Sultan’s bedside.”[23] However, Stalin ultimately did not regain consciousness, or least enough to communicate clearly.

On March 5, at 9:50 PM,[24] Stalin eventually died – by choking on his own fluid. “His face was discolored,” wrote Svetlana, Stalin’s youngest child and only daughter, who was twenty-seven years old. “He literally choked to death as we watched. The death agony was terrible…At the last minute, he opened his eyes. It was a terrible look, either mad or angry and full of the fear of death.”[25] The official communiqué reported to the public, declaring “The heart of the comrade-in-arms and the brilliant continuer of the work of Lenin, of the wise leader and teacher of the Communist party and the Soviet people – Joseph Vissarionovich STALIN – has ceased to beat.”[26] At around the same time of newspapers reporting a cerebral hemorrhage as the cause of death, Stalin’s son, Vasily, ran into his father’s room shouting “They’ve killed my father, the bastards!”[27] However, no more is said of this episode by any source, and may have been due to either hysteria or denial.

What we know of Stalin’s health is primarily during the post-war years. Even then, it is difficult to determine the leader’s state of health in specific instances. “[In] 1952, Stalin ordered all his medical records to be destroyed, evidently determined to make sure that no one had access to objective data about his physical condition.”[28] However, we can determine various health related hobbies prior to 1952 and their potential effects on Stalin’s health. For example, he was a heavy smoker for much of his adult life. “A chain smoker, Stalin held his cigarette in his right hand and gestured with his ride hand only.”[29] There is a “strong” correlation between smoking and cerebral hemorrhage.[30] Additionally, he did have a series of minor strokes after the war, and a serious heart attack during October of 1945.[31] Therefore, we do know that Stalin was not in the best of health post-1945, from his respiratory to his cardiovascular systems. This ill health does indeed include minor strokes. If one has had a stroke in the past, there is a higher risk of developing another, more deadlier kind.[32] Consequently, it is not unwise to say that, medically, Stalin had a higher risk of having a fatal stroke.

Based on these facts, I can conclude, to the best of my ability and based solely on the evidence, that Joseph Stalin likely died from a stroke. His health was in terrible shape after the Second World War, both because of heavy smoking and a history of serious heart attacks. Furthermore, the man was seventy-four years old. The average life expectancy for the Soviet Union in the 1950s was sixty-nine years. This was, interestingly, higher than the United States during the 1950s.[33]  There is no objective evidence of any poisoning from Beria or any other subordinate. Jonathan Brent agrees with this summary.[34] While Beria certainly acted suspicious during those four days, there are no witnesses to any act of poisoning. Those who object to this conclusion may then say that Beria had the motivation to kill Stalin. Certainly, he may have had reasons to kill his superior, mainly due to increased suspicion of “Beria [being] mysteriously implicated in a ‘nationalistic plot in Mingrelia,’ a province of Georgia and Beria’s native region.”[35] However, I answer that having the motivation to kill someone is completely different from actually killing someone.

Also, it can be argued that Beria and his allies deliberately delayed medical treatment to the dying Stalin. While this may be true, proving the motive is impossible. Did they delay treatment to make the illness worsen? This is unknown, but another reason is that “[t]hey might have been uncertain as to what to do with him for fear they would be held responsible for any mistake in his treatment. If he had lived, but with paralysis, for example, they might have been charged with medical conspiracy.”[36] Furthermore, Zhores Medvedev concludes that, even if doctors arrived immediately after the discovery of the body, “earlier medical attention or attempts at life-support, then only in an experimental stage, could have prolonged the agony but would not have saved the patient.”[37] Whether or not this is true, without that “smoking gun” evidence pointing at Beria’s direct and irrefutable involvement, there can be no conclusion that Stalin was murdered, either directly or indirectly.

[1] Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime (New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 2003), 322.

[2] Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 636.

[3] Brent, Stalin’s Last Crime, 314.

[4] Brent, Stalin’s Last Crime, 314.

[5] Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, 636.

[6] Zhores A. Medvedev and Roy Aleksandrovich Medvedev, The Unknown Stalin, trans. Ellen Dahrendorf (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co., 2006), 10.

[7] Medvedev, The Unknown Stalin, 10-11.

[8] Medvedev, The Unknown Stalin, 10.

[9] Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, 637.

[10] Amy Knight, Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 177.

[11] Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, 637.

[12] Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, 638.

[13] Medvedev, The Unknown Stalin, 12.

[14] Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, 639.

[15] Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, 639.

[16] Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, 639.

[17] Brent, Stalin’s Last Crime, 318.

[18] Knight, Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant, 177-8.

[19] Medvedev, The Unknown Stalin, 178.

[20] Brent, Stalin’s Last Crime, 318.

[21] Brent, Stalin’s Last Crime, 318.

[22] Knight, Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant, 178.

[23] Brent, Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar, 643.

 [25] Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, 649.

[26] M.K. Dziewanowski, Russia in the Twentieth Century (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003), 287.

[27] Brent, Stalin’s Last Crime, 313.

[28] Medvedev, The Unknown Stalin, 6.

[29] David McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 507.

[30] J. H. Owing, ed., Trends in Smoking and Health Research (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2005), 186.

[31] Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, 532.

[32] Web MD, “Stroke-What Increases Your Risk,” Accessed September 8, 2011, http://www.webmd.com/stroke/guide/stroke-what-increases-your-risk.

[33] Phil Reeves, “Yeltsin: Healthier than the average Russian,” The Independent, September 29, 1996.

[34] Brent, Stalin’s Last Crime, 314.

[35] Dziewanowski, Russia in the Twentieth Century, 286.

[36] Knight, Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant, 179.

[37] Medvedev, The Unknown Stalin, 30.

 

 

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