Death of a Dictator

“The last look was full of horror before death”: how Stalin died

Witnesses indicate that the “leader of the peoples” avoided medical examinations, and in the post-war years he turned into a “tired old man”

March 5, 2023 at 12:50 pm 

Author:Mikhail Diunov

Photo: Fedor Kislov/TASS
Secretary of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin

The almighty ruler of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, died on March 5, 1953 at 21:50 at a dacha near Moscow. About how the last years passed and the circumstances of the life of the “leader of the peoples” that could bring his death closer – in the material

Stalin broke through to supreme power after the death of Lenin. From the very beginning of his career, he did not enjoy any special influence in the party, nor great prestige among the old Bolsheviks. The Georgian revolutionary entered the first Soviet government as a commissar for nationalities, in fact, according to the “national quota” characteristic of the Bolsheviks, who could not put a Russian party member in charge of the national policy. After all, Lenin constantly suspected Russians, even communists, of great-power chauvinism. His party comrades could not get rid of the accusations of pursuing imperial politics. Thus, the staunch Bolshevik Georgian Sergo Ordzhonikidze received from Lenin the epithet “Great Russian gibberish.”

Entering on the sidelines in the number of the highest ruling stratum of the Soviet state, Stalin slowly moved to the top. He earned prestige by participating in the Civil War, acquiring allies and attracting supporters. When, in 1922, due to the serious illness of Lenin, who was slowly losing his mind as a result of a series of strokes, Stalin took the post of General Secretary of the CPSU (b), no one thought that this purely technical position of the head of the party office apparatus would open the way for Stalin to power.

But, as it turned out, control over the appointments of all party leaders in a country where everything was in the power of the single ruling Bolshevik party is the surest way to win in the fight against much more powerful competitors. Thus, Stalin marginalized political life and then destroyed Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin and other Soviet leaders. With the help of cunning hardware intrigues, the bureaucrat defeated the politicians and stood at the head of the USSR.

Already in the late 1920s, Stalin’s power was absolute. The country developed a personality cult of the leader, who was given almost divine honors.

Photo: RIA NovostiMay 1, 1922 on Red Square. 
From right to left – Mikhail Tomsky, Lev Kamenev, through one – Leon Trotsky, Mikhail Lashevich

The health of the leader surrenders

After the end of the Second World War, Stalin strongly surrendered. The tension of the war years had an effect, when in the first years after the German attack on the USSR there was a risk of losing everything. The Wehrmacht stood near Moscow, German troops reached the Volga. Stalin worked 12-16 hours a day. Often he worked at night, having a habit of finishing the working day with a plentiful Caucasian feast with close associates, which lasted until the morning. Throughout his life, Stalin smoked a lot, did not refuse regular use of wine, preferred not too healthy Georgian cuisine, replete with meat, fatty foods. Of course, there was no talk of any useful physical activity or sports. Yes, and then medicine could only offer the patient regular walks in the fresh air and adherence to the daily routine, which the constantly busy Stalin never did.

After the war, Stalin suffered two strokes, but each time he recovered and continued to work. At the end of 1952, at the 19th Congress of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks (then the party was renamed the CPSU), the permanent leader asked for his resignation, speaking of his advanced age, fatigue and health problems. Stalin did not even begin to read the report at the congress, entrusting it to Grigory Malenkov. But the leader’s comrades-in-arms, intimidated by decades of terror, began to assure Stalin that the country would perish, that no one but him could cope with the leadership of the party and the Soviet Union.

Stalin stayed. It is difficult to say whether the request for resignation was probing the environment in search of disloyal ones. But it should be noted that when in the late USSR the seriously ill Leonid Brezhnev asked to be allowed to rest, the party environment in the same way forced the elderly general secretary to remain in power.

General Pavel Sudoplatov, who delivered a report to Stalin a few days before his death, recalled:

I saw a tired old man. Stalin has changed a lot. His hair had thinned a lot, and although he had always spoken slowly, he now clearly pronounced the words as if through force, and the pauses between words became longer. Apparently, the rumors about two strokes were true: he suffered one after the Yalta Conference, and the other on the eve of his seventieth birthday, in 1949.

Photo: Fedor Kislov / RIA NovostiJoseph Stalin, Semyon Budyonny (in the foreground), Lavrenty Beria, Nikolai Bulganin (in the background), Anastas Mikoyan (third from left in the last row) are heading to Red Square for the parade in honor of the Tanker’s Day

The fight against cosmopolitanism

The last years of Stalin’s life were filled with many events. It seemed that the head of the Soviet Union wanted to finally make the most serious changes in the life of the country. This time was remembered by contemporaries as the beginning of new repressions. But if earlier they were carried out en masse, covering hundreds of thousands of people, now they have become “pinpoint”, affecting only a small part of Soviet society, mainly the elite, the top cultural figures, scientists, military and bureaucrats.

The victory in the war led to a significant increase in mass patriotism. The Russian people were allowed to be proud of their history, they were allowed to remember the great heroes of previous eras, the great princes, tsars, emperors, generals. Figures of the past have ceased to be painted exclusively in black paint as “minions of the reactionary autocracy.”

But the awakening of the national feeling of the Russian majority was completely unprofitable for the Communist Party, whose ideology was based on “proletarian internationalism”, in the past of which there were Lenin’s calls to “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”, and the shameful Brest capitulation to Germany on the verge of its defeat in the First world war. Therefore, since 1947, the state policy of “fighting cosmopolitanism” was launched. This led to the emergence of a very strange form of “Soviet patriotism”, which bizarrely combined the desire to find the priorities of the peoples of the USSR in all branches of culture and science, with a selective approach to the history of Russia.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a series of political trials of the “Leningrad case” destroyed many leading Russian party and Soviet workers. It was a preemptive strike associated with the emergence after the war of the so-called “Russian Party”, an informal association, which included high-ranking supporters of equalizing the rights of the RSFSR with other union republics, the creation of the Communist Party of Russia with its Central Committee and other governing bodies. But the USSR was built on Lenin’s words: “Internationalism on the part of an oppressor or so-called “great” nation (although great only in its violence, great only in the way that the slander is great) should consist not only in observing the formal equality of nations, but also in such inequality which would compensate on the part of the oppressor nation, the great nation, then the inequality

That is, there could be no equality between Russia and the republics, proposals to get rid of such an ideology were considered unimaginable heresy and threatened the power of the communists.

Photo: Anatoly Garanin / RIA NovostiFestive demonstration of workers on Red Square on November 7, 1950. 

Russia is the birthplace of elephants

The books of that time abounded with stories about how tsarist oppressed workers created works of art or made inventions, in defiance of the authorities of the Russian kingdom or the Russian Empire. In the past, it was proposed to focus on the highly controversial figure of the first tsar, Ivan the Terrible, whom Stalin liked very much for his decisiveness in the fight against the boyar elite, and the great reformer Peter I, who was described by propaganda as the predecessor of the Bolsheviks.

Otherwise, the history of Russia was presented rather gloomy. The early Romanovs were portrayed as weak rulers, under whom there were almost continuous popular riots and uprisings. The 18th century became the era of temporary workers, the then achievements of Russia were simply hushed up. Even the golden age of Catherine II was shown as the heyday of serfdom, when, again, despite the “inert tsarism”, several wars were won. The name of an outstanding figure of that era, the founder of Novorossia, Prince Grigory Potemkin, was ordered to be forgotten, recalling only in the context of a foreign fake about the “Potemkin villages”. The 19th century suffered the most. “The gendarme of Europe” Nicholas I, “the hypocrite and persecutor of the People’s Will” Alexander II, the “strangler of freedom” Alexander III, the “talentless and weak” Nicholas II. Such patterns were spelled out once and for all in Soviet textbooks,

Together with such a conception of understanding history, the struggle against cosmopolitanism meant the most resolute condemnation of “groveling before the West.” And there was a very good political reason for that. Several million Soviet people visited Europe at the end of the war, seeing with their own eyes that the working people there do not at all groan under the yoke of capital, but live much more prosperously than the citizens of the USSR. The huge flow of trophy property that poured into the USSR amazed at the quality of the imported goods. It was then that a strong conviction developed among the people: foreign means the best, doubts arose that the Soviet regime was as good as propaganda says. The party leadership was well aware that this was destroying the ideological stamina of Soviet citizens, and they tried to take appropriate propaganda measures. Which, however, helped very little.

Photo: RIA NovostiResidents of the liberated Sofia welcome the soldiers of the Red Army. 
World War II (1939-1945)

Doctors case

Another problem was the distrust of the Soviet leadership towards the Jews, who were the sixth largest national minority, but at the same time very widely represented in the culture, science, medicine and economy of the USSR. In 1948, Israel emerged as the nation-state of the Jewish people. And this means that the Jews have the opportunity to be loyal not only to the Soviet Union, but also to their own state. This prospect greatly frightened Stalin. In the USSR, they started talking about the threat of Zionism, which they began to compare with fascism. And since there was no more trust in Soviet Jews, purges began, informal restrictions were introduced on education and high positions. The apotheosis of this strange form of “Soviet anti-Semitism” was the “Doctors’ Plot”, which stretched from 1952 until Stalin’s death.

In August 1948, an extremely dark story took place related to a medical error in the diagnosis of one of Stalin’s closest associates, Andrei Zhdanov. An employee of the Kremlin Hospital, Lydia Timashuk, drew attention to the fact that venerable doctors misdiagnosed Zhdanov and use treatment that is contraindicated in this case. But she was silenced and soon removed from the Kremlin structures altogether. However, Zhdanov soon died. Timashuk’s letter lay in the archive for several years, but in the summer of 1952 it was discovered by employees of the Ministry of State Security and used to discredit Jews, especially since there were a lot of them among the Kremlin (and not only) doctors. The newspapers began to write about “wrecking doctors”, “killers in white coats”, emphasizing in every possible way the Jewish names of the accused.

Beginning with the era of perestroika, rumors began to circulate that Stalin, following the results of the “doctors’ case”, planned to arrange the deportation of Jews. Fortunately for them, back in 1934, the Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobidzhan was allocated in the Far East. But there is no real evidence for such plans. Therefore, most likely, the goal of the doctors’ case was to intimidate the Jews, a visible warning – what could happen in case of disloyal behavior towards the Soviet authorities.

Photo: Reproduction of TASS NewsreelsChairman of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR Andrey Zhdanov

Stalin at the Near Dacha

On February 28, Stalin met with his inner circle in the Kremlin. In the evening, after watching a film in the special hall, which Stalin loved very much, he went to the Near Dacha together with Lavrenty Beria, Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov and Nikolai Bulganin, in fact, then the entire ruling elite of the USSR gathered at the dacha. Dinner dragged on until the morning, several bottles of Georgian young wine “Madzhari” were drunk. At 4 o’clock the guests departed, and Stalin went to bed. The next day, the security of the dacha, knowing about the habits of the leader, who could sleep until noon after a long night feast, did not bother Stalin for a long time. After all, he did not like it terribly when they interfered with him. It is known that at 18 o’clock the light came on in the office. But Stalin still did not call anyone.

All his life, Stalin was suspicious of doctors. In 1952, taking advantage of the “case of doctors”, he almost completely refused the help of doctors, switching to self-treatment with folk methods. Despite the categorical ban due to chronic hypertension, Stalin began to go to the bathhouse, which he became addicted to during his exile in Siberia. The last time he visited the steam room just a day before the stroke, which could not but provoke an attack of the disease. When the leader complained of weakness and dizziness, the servants offered to turn to specialists, but Stalin invariably explained this with old age and categorically refused to be treated.

At about 10 pm, the guards became worried. One of them decided to go into the office, where he found Stalin lying on the floor. His wrist watch stopped showing 18:30, just then the leader fell and lost consciousness. Stalin was dragged to the sofa, after which he fell asleep. The emergency was reported to the Minister of State Security Semyon Ignatiev, but he was appointed quite recently, was afraid to take responsibility for further actions and redirected decision-making to the members of the Presidium of the Central Committee of Beria and Malenkov, while the head of government Bulganin (formally the second person in the country after Stalin) nothing was reported.

Photo: Reproduction of TASS NewsreelsChairman of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR Andrey Zhdanov

Death of a leader

On the night of March 2, Beria and Malenkov arrived at the Near Dacha, and soon the rest of the leaders of the USSR arrived there. Stalin slept on the couch. For several hours, the country’s leadership could not decide what to do. Those present were afraid that Stalin would wake up, that everything that was happening would turn out to be a slight ailment or even a test, specially played out in order to identify those who would begin to rush to power, sensing the weakness of the leader. Finally, we decided to call the doctors, who arrived in the morning at about 8 o’clock. Cardiologist Professor Pavel Lukomsky diagnosed a severe form of stroke and prescribed treatment, although it quickly became clear that Stalin was dying. However, the doctors were tasked with extending the life of the leader so that the remaining party bosses could agree on further actions.

The hopeless struggle for life continued for four days. Stalin did not regain consciousness. The daughter of the Soviet ruler, Svetlana Stalin, who was present at the Middle Dacha, described it this way:

The agony was terrible. She strangled him in front of everyone. At some point, I don’t know if it was really so, but it seemed so – apparently, at the last minute, he suddenly opened his eyes and looked around at everyone who was standing around. It was a terrible look, either insane or angry and full of horror before death and before the unfamiliar faces of the doctors who bent over him. This look went around everyone in a fraction of a minute. And then — it was incomprehensible and terrible, I still don’t understand, but I can’t forget — then he suddenly raised his left hand (which was moving) upwards and either pointed it somewhere upwards, or threatened all of us. The gesture was incomprehensible, but threatening, and it is not known to whom and what it referred to … In the next moment, the soul, having made the last effort, escaped from the body.

It happened on the evening of March 5th.

For several days, the news about the leader’s condition was hidden from the people. The news of Stalin’s illness was published only on March 4. The Soviet people were told about the stroke, partial paralysis, and Cheyne-Stokes intermittent breathing. Most of the people heard the last term for the first time. It seemed to everyone that behind the sophisticated medical terms the authorities wanted to hide the truth about the real state of affairs. Finally, only on March 6 was an official announcement of Stalin’s death made. Mourning was declared in the USSR, to which the countries of the socialist bloc joined.

Photo: Dmitry Chernov / RIA NovostiThe funeral of the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR and Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin


In the last three decades, many rumors have spread that Stalin was assassinated. But the facts show us otherwise. Firstly, the unhealthy lifestyle of the leader steadily brought his death closer. A visit to a hot bath and the wine drunk before the stroke contributed to a sharp rise in pressure, which led to a stroke. Even the choice of Madjari wine could be fatal – Stalin preferred it in recent years, believing that young wine is almost harmless. In fact, a high content of unfermented wort, according to doctors, can lead to a sharp increase in pressure.

Secondly, as is known from the medical picture of a stroke, there is a chance to save the patient’s life only with very quick assistance. Stalin, after the blow, first lay in the office for 3.5 hours, and then waited another 9 hours for the doctors to arrive. After 12.5 hours, some rescue measures were already in vain. And, thirdly, the security system installed in Stalin’s residences did not allow him to be poisoned (which was also rumored), since food and drink were repeatedly checked. Of course, for most of the “junior leaders” the death of the “master” was beneficial. But none of them, even Beria, had the opportunity to pour poison. Of course, one can accuse Beria and Malenkov of not providing assistance and wasting time, but when they arrived at the Middle Dacha on the night of March 2, even urgent intervention would not have helped.

On March 9, 1953, the funeral of the leader of the USSR took place in Moscow. The embalmed body was installed in the mausoleum on Red Square, which became known as the Lenin-Stalin Mausoleum. During the funeral ceremony, the movement of those wishing to say goodbye to the leader of the crowds was organized very badly. In the ensuing stampede, more than a hundred people died, more than two hundred were injured.

Photo: RIA NovostiMuscovites on Red Square on the day of the funeral of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin on March 9, 1953

In 1961, as a result of the policy of combating the personality cult of Stalin, the body of the leader was taken out of the mausoleum at night and buried near the Kremlin wall. There still stands a modest monument, probably the most famous ruler of the Soviet Union.tags

Joseph Stalin story death USSR


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