Joseph Stalin died 5 March 1953, aged 73, a victim of his own power. So frightened were his staff, that having suffered a stroke he was left to fester for hours before anyone plucked up the courage to check on him.
“I don’t even trust myself.”
In his latter years Stalin’s health had deteriorated and towards the end of 1952 he suffered several blackouts and losses of memory. His sense of paranoia had reached absurd proportions. “I’m finished”, he said in his final days, “I don’t even trust myself.”
Stalin was almost nocturnal, often going to bed in the early hours, obliging his Politburo colleagues to do likewise, and rising around noon. But on 1 March 1953, there was no sign of life all day at the great man’s dacha. His personal staff although increasingly concerned were too fearful to check up on him. Finally, at 11 p.m. they did.
They found Stalin lying on the floor, unconscious and his pyjama bottoms soaked in urine. They rang Lavrentii Beria, Stalin’s Chief of Police, who arrived and bellowed at the staff, “Can’t you see Comrade Stalin is deeply asleep. Get out of here and don’t wake him up.”
But Stalin had suffered a severe stroke. Finally, next morning, on Beria’s orders, a team of doctors arrived, but by then Stalin had been left unattended for twelve hours since the stroke.
Stalin had become distrusting of doctors and had had most of his personal physicians arrested. So the doctors now on the scene examined their patient in extreme nervousness. They asked Beria’s permission before proceeding with each part of the examination, even asking authorization to unbutton Stalin’s shirt. They wrote a detailed report, summarising, “The patient’s condition is extremely serious.”
Cold compresses were applied, leeches placed behind the ears, various injections made, and medical staff placed on constant watch. Stalin’s colleagues also stayed: Beria, Khrushchev, Molotov and others, pacing the anterooms worried whether their boss would ever wake up and probably more worried that he should wake up and their actions would have to be accounted for.
Stalin’s son, Vasili, appeared briefly, screaming at Beria and the others, “You bastards, you’re killing my father.”
By 5 March, Stalin’s condition had worsened. His breathing had become erratic, his pulse and heartbeat weak, his complexion extremely pale.
The last moments
Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, described in almost religious terms, the last moments: “He suddenly opened his eyes and looked at everyone in the room. It was a terrible gaze, mad or maybe furious and full of fear of death… Then something incomprehensible and frightening happened. … He suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something above and bringing down a curse on us all. … The next moment, after a final effort, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh.”
Despite injections of adrenalin and the application of artificial respiration, at 21.50 Stalin was declared dead.
Everyone present knelt down and kissed the old man’s hand.
The beaming Chief of Secret Police
Beria could not hide his glee and, having made sure the old man was really dead, spat on the body and bounced out of the dacha “beaming”, according to Khrushchev. Stalin had not named or recommended a successor and Beria felt this was his moment. The fight to succeed Stalin had begun.
Read about the Cold War, see The Cold War: History In An Hour.
Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.