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The Death of Stalin

Historical Myths

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The Myth:
Stalin, the Russian dictator whose actions killed millions of people, died peacefully in his bed.

The Truth:
Stalin suffered a major stroke on March 1st 1953 but treatment was delayed from reaching him as a direct result of his actions over the previous decades. He slowly died over the course of the next few days, apparently in agony, finally expiring on March 5th of a brain haemorrhage. He was in bed.

Is it a Myth?
The myth of Stalin’s death is often given by people wishing to point out how Stalin seemed to escape all legal and moral punishment for his many crimes: where fellow dictator Mussolini was shot by partisans and Hitler was forced to kill himself, Stalin lived out his natural life. There’s little doubt that Stalin’s rule – his forced industrialisation, his famine causing collectivisation, his paranoid purges – killed, according to many estimates, between ten and twenty million people, and he did most probably die of natural causes (see below), so the basic point still stands, but it isn’t strictly true to say he died peacefully, or that his death was unaffected by the brutality of his policies.

Stalin Collapses:
Stalin had suffered a series of minor strokes before 1953 and was generally in declining health. On the night of February 28th he watched a film at the Kremlin, then returned to his dacha, where he met with several prominent subordinates including Beria, head of the NKVD (secret police) and Khrushchev, who would eventually succeed Stalin. They left at 4:00 am, with no suggestion that Stalin was in poor health. Stalin then went to bed, but only after saying the guards could go off duty and that they weren’t to wake him.

Stalin would usually alert his guards before 10:00 am and ask for tea, but no communication came. The guards grew worried, but were forbidden from waking Stalin and could only wait: there was no one in the Dacha who could counter Stalin’s orders. A light came on in the room around 18:30, but still no call. Eventually, plucking up the courage to go in and using the arrived post as an excuse, a guard entered the room at 22:00 and found Stalin lying on the floor in a pool of urine. He was helpless and unable to speak, and his broken watch showed he had fallen at 18:30.

A Delay in Treatment:
The guards felt they didn’t have the right authority to call for a doctor – indeed many of Stalin’s doctors were the target of a new purge – so instead they called the Minister of State Security. He also felt he didn’t have the right powers and called Beria. Exactly what happened next is still not fully understood, but Beria and other leading Russians delayed acting, possibly because they wanted Stalin to die and not include them in the forthcoming purge, possibly because they were scared of seeming to infringe on Stalin’s powers should he recover. They only called for doctors sometime between 7:00 and 10:00 the next day after first travelling to the Dacha themselves.

The doctors found Stalin partially paralysed, breathing with difficulty and vomiting blood. They feared the worst but were unsure. The best doctors in Russia, those which had been treating Stalin, had recently been arrested as part of the forthcoming purge and were in prison. Representatives of the doctors who were free and had seen Stalin went to the prisons to ask for the old doctors’ opinions, who confirmed the initial, negative, diagnoses. Stalin struggled on for several days, eventually dying at 21:50 on March 5th. His daughter said about the event: “The death agony was terrible. He literally choked to death as we watched.” (Conquest, Stalin: Breaker of Nations, p. 312)

Was Stalin Murdered?:
It is unclear whether Stalin would have been saved if medical help had arrived shortly after his stroke, partly because the autopsy report has never been found (although it is believed he suffered a brain haemorrhage which spread). This missing report, and the actions of Beria during Stalin’s fatal illness, have led some to raise the possibility that Stalin was deliberately killed by those afraid he was about to purge them (indeed, there is a report saying Beria claimed responsibility for the death). There is no concrete evidence for this theory, but enough plausibility for historians to mention it in their texts.

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