Very suspicious DeathIf we can believe the four wily men who inherited his vast power, Stalin, supreme dictator of the Soviet Union and puppet master of all of Eastern Europe, suffered a fatal stroke while brooding alone in a sparely furnished room. He lay stricken and unconscious for untold hours because his bodyguard, family, and government associates were too terrified, after 27 years of his ironfisted rule, to knock on the door.
If true, this sordid, pitiable demise contrasted dramatically with the career of a man who delighted in ordering the torture and execution of his most loyal followers. At least 30 million, and possibly double that amount, were shot, hanged, starved, beaten, or drugged to death because of his insane fear of opposition. Millions were enslaved in cruel concentration camps and forced to work for the state. Uncounted tens of millions in the Ukraine died when he forced farmers to join his collectives and send their produce elsewhere. On the more personal level, he was amused by inviting an old colleague to dinner, flying into a carefully rehearsed rage, and ordering the hapless, bewildered victim of his sadistic cruelty to the execution chamber. It is said that he once left a Bolshoi Ballet performance of Swan Lake at intermission, drove over to Red Square's Lubyanka Prison to shoot some former loyalists in the head, and returned to the theater for the second act.
By early 1953, when Stalin was 73 years old, these paranoid tendencies and unpredictable explosions were increasing in virulence. "Fear and hatred of the old tyrant," according to U.S. Ambassador George Kennan, was "so thick in the air that you could almost smell it." In January a woman working as a secret agent for Lavrenti Beria, head of the State Security Service, accused Stalin's personal physician of involvement in a so-called "doctors' plot" to kill important military leaders by means of "faulty treatment." Eight other top physicians were imprisoned, most of them Jewish. Perhaps in anticipation of a pogrom, Stalin began to fan the flames of anti-Semitism.
The preceding fall, the 19th Congress of the Communist Party had, for the first time, defied the tyrant's will, if only in minor ways. Scheming surreptitiously behind the scenes, Stalin was apparently planning to purge the old guard communists and install new men loyal only to him. The dictator's plans were intently watched by the quartet nearest him: Beria, Defense Minister Nikolai Bulganin, Deputy Prime Minister (and designated successor) Georgi Malenkov, and Nikita Khrushchev, head of the powerful Moscow city and regional party committees. Communist leaders no less entrenched than they had previously vanished without warning under the capricious reign of "Uncle Joe."
A Drinking Party, Then SilenceNot long before his death, Stalin suddenly banished his private secretary, for decades his alter ego in all matters large and small. On February 15, his chief bodyguard succumbed to what an official announcement called a "premature death" -no doubt a euphemism for execution. Stalin's physician still languished behind bars. Meanwhile, rumors that the great man was ill had been circulating among the Moscow elite since December; but his daughter, Svetlana, was unable to get through to him, despite numerous frantic attempts. Months earlier she had seen him dwindling from the effects of arteriosclerosis.
On March 2, Stalin may have suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, but the news was suppressed by the fearful band of would-be successors. The day before, according to Khrushchev, Stalin had invited his four cohorts to his dacha or summer house, in Kunzevo for a night of drinking and crude storytelling. The party broke up in the wee hours, and Stalin went to bed alone. After three in the morning of March 3, the frightened bodyguards reported to the revelers that the Soviet chieftain had not appeared for about 24 hours. When they dared to enter his heavily armored inner sanctum, they found him lying prostrate on a rug, fully dressed.
Apparently surprised and alarmed, Malenkov Khrushchev, Bulganin, and the coldly efficient Beria raced over from their separate dachas to find Stalin placed upon a simple couch, abnormally still. Eventually doctors were alerted, and the four colleagues, plus other members of the ruling Presidium, took turns overseeing the dictator's treatment in pairs while, presumably, making plans for the uncertain future.
A Tense VigilKhrushchev and the others were seen red-eyed with weeping during the ensuing days, but Beria's behavior was startling. Occasionally, his stricken leader's eyes would flicker open, and the dreaded security chief would profess his concern and affection. But when Stalin seemed to sink into his coma again, Beria horrified the others by insulting and ridiculing his old mentor. What did this bode for the others? Since 1938, Beria had headed the secret police, the true source of Stalin's omnipotence.
On March 4, Stalin suddenly woke up. As a nurse fed him with a spoon, he weakly pointed to a picture on the wall of a lamb, like him, being fed milk by a young woman. Soon, he fell into the death throes of suffocation, stared angrily at his huddled followers, then died. Beria sped back to the center of power in Moscow.
Earlier that day, 800 million people throughout the Soviet empire had learned for the first time, along with the rest of the astonished world, that Stalin was seriously ill. As if to forestall suspicion, the physicians released an unusually complete explanation of the attack and its accompanying complications. Finally, on March 6, the government radio announced that Stalin's heart had stopped beating at 10:10 the night before. A full autopsy report was read to suggest that everything possible had been done in the face of the "irreversible character of the illness."
By four in the afternoon, the body reposed in state on a huge bank of fresh flowers in the Hall of Columns of the House of the Trade Unions. Seemingly all of Moscow filed by to pay respects, perhaps 5 million in the next three days. Tragically, many were killed or seriously wounded when nervous generals trying to control the crowds gave orders that crushed the mourners against iron bars on ground-floor windows.
On March 9 all other activities in the Soviet Union were suspended for the greatest funeral service of the 20th century. Delegations filled Red Square, heads of state attended, and Stalin's successors acted as pallbearers. Communism's "Little Father" was placed alongside the founder of the Soviet state in Lenin's tomb.
Disturbing DiscrepanciesThe first official announcement of Stalin's fatal illness claimed that he had been stricken in his Moscow apartment. If true, how did he get back to Kunzevo, 48 miles away? Why did the official version say the attack occurred early on Monday morning, when Khrushchev and others would report the approximate time as Sunday evening, or even sometime Sunday morning? And why would the deposed Khrushchev offer a different twist in his Reminiscences years later, revealing that he and his three companions did not see Stalin or call a doctor when they first rushed to the dictator's dacha? Instead, they went home and waited until Malenkov called hours later with the news that Stalin definitely was seriously ill.
Days before his death, as he chatted with an Indian diplomat, Stalin idly drew sketches of snarling wolves. "Peasants know how to handle wolves," he said grimly. "They exterminate them."
Was Stalin preparing a counterattack? According to his pattern, the "doctors' plot" could have been a pretext for revenge. The scenario would have the tortured prisoners "confess" to being tools of higher-ups. Stalin's recent flare-ups of anger at Beria might have indicated that the secret police chief was in danger.
Whatever actually happened, Beria's ecstatic relief at the dictator's death and naked grab for power survived only briefly. In June he was arrested and publicly denounced as a traitor. Malenkov, who succeeded Stalin as head of both the government and the Communist Party, joined with the rest of the Presidium in denouncing and purging Beria, the genius of terrorism.
Beria was probably executed after a secret trial in December, shot to death on the spot as soon as the verdict was rendered. The Moscow grapevine soon hummed with the previously unspeakable: tales of the dead henchman's rapes of children, orgies with kidnapped young women, drunken debauches at his sylvan estate in the country.
End of an EraOther changes were in the wind. By September, Khrushchev had taken the party chair from Malenkov; and in 1955 Bulganin assumed the office of prime minister, forcing Stalin's first deputy into virtual exile as head of a power station in the provinces. For the first time in a generation, leadership shifts did not necessarily cause an ousted chieftain his life.
Much more earthshaking, however, was the rapid turn away from Stalin's famous "cult of personality." Within two weeks of his funeral, the official press was no longer quoting and praising him ad nauseam. The "Stalinist Constitution" became the "Soviet Constitution." Even the word "Stalinist" was dropped from the official Russian dictionary. Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper, announced that the "doctors' plot" had never existed. Khrushchev publicly revealed that Stalin's mismanagement had left the legacy of a serious agricultural crisis.
Finally, in February 1956, the new leader of the Soviet Union delivered his famous "secret speech" to the 20th Party Congress, explicitly detailing the barbarous horrors of his predecessor's reign and formally announcing an end to state terrorism as a domestic political tool. As for the enemies in the West, Khrushchev began a reversal of Stalin's implacably hostile foreign policy. His new doctrine was heralded throughout the world as "peaceful coexistence."