On March 1, 1953, after an all-night dinner with heavy drinking among four of the highest Russian government officials, the 74 year-old Joseph Stalin collapsed at his house. Later he was found unconscious on the floor, yet no doctors were summoned until the next morning. Four days later, he was reported to have died of a stroke. The official story was that he had been drunk at dinner, his companions assumed that he had fallen out of bed, and that the autopsy showed that he had died of a hemorrhage into his brain.
His last supper was with four members of his Politburo. All eventually became Prime Minister of Russia. The Chief of Secret Police, Lavrenti Beria, was the interim successor who, by the end of the year, was killed by a firing squad. Georgi M. Malenkov took over as his successor, Nikolai Bulganin became Prime Minister in 1955 and Nikita S. Khrushchev became Prime Minister in 1958.
The medical account of Joseph Stalin's death, presented to the Communist Party Central Committee in June 1953, reported that he became ill in the early hours of March 2, a full day after he apparently suffered a stroke. The official autopsy report was hidden for the next 60 years, but after the collapse of the USSR, the full report was released (Surg Neurol Int, 2015; 6: 128). It showed that one guard reported that Beria had called shortly after Stalin was found lying on the floor, and the guard was ordered to say nothing about Stalin's illness. The autopsy showed that he had far more than just a brain stroke. A stroke usually means that a person has bleeding just into his brain, but Stalin had extensive hemorrhaging throughout his entire body — into his stomach, skin and other organs such as his liver and gut. Just before he died, he was vomiting large amounts of blood from his stomach. His Politburo colleagues had denied him medical help in the first hours of his illness, when he could possibly have been saved if he had had a stroke.
The Path to Becoming a Ruthless Killer
Stalin was born Isoeb Dzhugashvili in 1878 in Georgia, part of the old Russian empire. His father was a drunk who beat him mercilessly and his mother was a religious washerwoman. Russian was not his native language, so he had to learn it in a school run by the Orthodox Church. He spoke Russian all his life with a Georgian accent. He first studied to be a priest at Tiflis Theological Seminary, but became enamored with the social revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx and joined the militant Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin. At age 23 (1912), he was appointed by Lenin to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and changed his name to Stalin, which meant "man of steel". He was imprisoned in Siberia and at age 28, he escaped from exile and became an active force to overthrow the democratic government that had replaced the rule of the czar and became Commissar for Nationalities.
In 1922, Lenin had a stroke after having surgery to remove a bullet from his neck from a failed assassination attempt four years earlier, and he retired. In March 1923, Lenin suffered another stroke and died in January 1924. The two leading candidates to replace him, Stalin and Trotsky, had many disagreements, but Stalin took charge and appointed himself Secretary General of the Central Committee. He sent Trotsky into exile in Mexico, where he was assassinated. During Stalin's regime, more than 20 million of his people died of starvation or were executed, including his own Georgian people who had rebelled against him.
During World War II he was a very strong leader against Hitler, and demanded that the Russian people suffer death over capitulation or retreat. After Germany’s surrender in 1945, Stalin put almost all of Eastern Europe under Russian rule and suppressed all dissent with executions or exile to the Gulag Archipelago labor camps. During his 30 years of ruling Russia, he repeatedly invented countless enemies and had them killed.
Theories on Why He Had to Die
One book, Stalin’s Last Crime, claims that a study of long-secret Soviet records supports the theory that to prevent a war with the United States, Stalin was poisoned with warfarin, a tasteless and colorless blood thinner that is used as rat poison. Other doctors agree with this conclusion. Strokes do not cause bleeding into every tissue in a person's body. A single high dose of warfarin was the most likely cause of the diffuse bleeding into his brain, stomach, gut, lungs, and skin.
• At that time, Russia was preparing to accuse the United States of a plot to destroy much of Moscow with a new nuclear weapon, then to launch an invasion of Soviet territory along the Chinese border. The Soviet military was preparing to attack the Pacific coast of the United States.
• In January 1953, a few months prior to his death, Stalin invented “the Doctors’ Plot,” claiming that under the United States' secret direction, nine Kremlin doctors, six of whom were Jewish, planned to kill top Communist leaders (BMJ, 2002 Dec 21; 325(7378): 1487–1489). He claimed that the doctors were already poisoning Russian children by injecting them with diphtheria and killing infants in hospital wards. In February 1953 he ordered construction of four giant prison camps in Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Arctic north. On March 1, 1953, two weeks after the camps were ordered built and two weeks before the accused doctors were to go on trial, Stalin died of the supposed “brain hemorrhage.” One month later after Stalin's death, the doctors previously accused of trying to kill him were exonerated and the case against them was called an invention of the secret police. No doctors were deported to Siberia or the other eastern prisons.
• Eight years before his death, Stalin was incapacitated with either a heart attack or a series of strokes.
• In his last year, Stalin usually stayed up most of his nights and didn't get out of bed until noon each day. He expected his Politburo members to do the same.
• A world-famous psychiatrist, Vladimir Bekhterev, examined Stalin and described him as ill and perhaps even paranoid. Bekhterev died shortly afterwards, most likely poisoned by Stalin.
• A year before Stalin's death his personal physician, Vladimer Vinogradov, noticed a marked change in Stalin's mental health and suggested that Stalin take things more easily. Stalin had him arrested.
• In the months before his death, Stalin had several blackouts and losses of memory.
Leading a powerful country takes so much work, time, effort and risks of death that people who become such leaders often are driven by inner needs that dominate their very beings. Stalin was such a person whose need to lead superseded his respect for the lives and function of the people he ruled. In a new movie, The Death of Stalin, director Armando Iannucci ("Veep") draws on the stranger-than-fiction real-life events surrounding Stalin’s death to create a dark comedy. Watch it and judge for yourself.
December 18, 1878 – March 5, 1953