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1953 - Stalin's Death

In Czechoslovakia a purge began in 1949 of nationalist deviationists among the Slovak Communists. Nationalism, at any rate against the Soviet Union, was something of which Czech Communists seemed incapable. On the other hand several leading Czech Communists were Jews, and as the anti-Semitic campaign gathered momentum in the Soviet Union in 1951, it was extended to Czechoslovakia. In November the General Secretary of the Party, Rudolf Slansky, a Jew, was arrested. A year later he was the chief figure in a treason trial which incongruously grouped together a number of Czech Jewish Communists and the Slovak " nationalist" Communist Vladimir Clementis. This bore all the marks of a new Great Purge, like that of 1987-1938 associated with the name of the former police boss Yezhov.

On 13 January 1953 TASS announced that a cabal of Jewish doctors had murdered high Soviet officials, including Zhdanov, by medical means. Western historians speculate that the disclosure of this "doctors' plot" may have been a prelude to an intended purge directed against Malenkov, Molotov, and secret police chief Lavrenty Beria. That the Kremlin hospital could have been so successfully infiltrated constituted a grievous lapse of security — at best, Beria had failed woefully. Panic radiated from Moscow across the country’s eleven time zones — if today Jews were murdering Russians in the Kremlin, then absolutely anything could happen tomorrow.

When Stalin decided to resolve the Soviet Union's "Jewish problem," it made perfect sense to open the campaign with a show trial against a group of (mainly Jewish) doctors who were often branded "Zionists" or agents of the "Joint" (an international Jewish charitable organization). A propaganda offensive accompanied the plans to deport - "for their own good" - the Jewish population. In February 1953, Stalin ordered construction of four new giant prison camps.

The first two months of 1953 are the murkiest time in all Soviet Russia’s never overly transparent history.

For weeks in early 1953, Joseph Stalin had been plagued with dizzy spells and high blood pressure. His personal physician, Professor V. N. Vinogradov had advised that Stalin step down as head of the government for health reasons. That was not what Stalin wanted to hear from the good doctor. Soon the professor would pay for this temerity and indiscretion with his arrest and alleged involvement in the infamous Doctor's Plot (dyelo vrachey).

According to Dmitri Volkogonov in Stalin — Triumph and Tragedy (1991), the night before Stalin became ill, he inquired from Beria about the status of the case against the doctors and specifically about the interrogation of Professor Vinogradov. Minister of State Security Lavrenti Beria replied, “Apart from his other unfavorable qualities, the professor has a long tongue. He has told one of the doctors in his clinic that Comrade Stalin has already had several dangerous hypertonic episodes.” Stalin responded, “Right, what do you propose to do now? Have the doctors confessed? Tell [Semyon D.] Ignatiev [Minister of the MGB security organ] that if he doesn’t get full confessions out of them, we’ll reduce his height by a head.” Beria reassured Stalin, “They’ll confess".

Of the various versions, one lively account of his death was the following (it comes from the Soviet Ambassador to Warsaw, Panteleimon Ponomarenko, himself a ranking member of the Central Committee) :

". . . Stalin summoned the members of the Communist party's Presidium to the Kremlin late in February 1953, shortly after the revelation of the "doctors' plot" against top Soviet leaders. At this conference ... he announced his plan to send all Russian Jews to Birobidzhan, in the Jewish autonomous area nearly 3,800 miles east of Moscow. Stalin explained that he was taking the action because of the "Zionist and imperialist" plot against the Soviet Union and himself.

... a heavy silence fell until Lazar M. Kaganovich, the "only Jewish member," hesitantly asked if the measure included every single Jew in the country. Stalin replied that a "certain selection" would be made, after which Mr. Kaganovich said no more. . . .

Vyacheslav M. Molotov . . . suggested in a "trembling" voice that the measure would have a "deplorable" effect on world opinion. . . . as Stalin was about to reprimand Mr. Molotov, Marshal Voroshilov rose, threw his Communist party card on the table and cried: "If such a step is taken, I would be ashamed to remain a member of our party, which will be completely dishonored!"

An enraged Stalin . . . then ... shouted into Marshal Voroshilov's face: "Comrade Kliment! It is I who will decide when you no longer have the right to keep your membership card!" Then, with the meeting in an uproar, Stalin fell to the floor. " He did not regain consciousness, and died a few days later.

Stalin collapsed on March 1, 1953, and was found unconscious in his dacha, soaked in his own urine, Stalin remained unconscious until he died on March 5. He didn't receive immediate medical care because Stalin's advisers at first thought he was drunk and would regain consciousness. He was on the floor and they brought him up on the sofa. Vladimir Shamberg, a close friend of Svetlana, Stalin's daughter, later said "I believe I was the first person she saw after her father's death, and she never spoke about something fishy," he said. Shamberg said he believes Stalin's advisers failed to get him immediate medical care because they were afraid of the consequences, not because they wanted him dead. "They thought if he regained consciousness and saw the doctors, he would suspect a plot and have them all executed," said Shamberg, adding that Stalin eventually received treatment from a major in his guard who happened to be a veterinarian.

On 04 March 1953 Radio Moscow announced that Stalin was in critical condition as a result of a stroke on the night of 1-2 March. Bulletins were couched in pessimistic terms. They carefully outlined tbe nature of Stalin's, illness and meticulously described the measures being taken by the 'doctors who were treating him. These play-by-play accounts revealed concern lest listeners interpret this news as meaning that either the old "doctor wreckers," or a group of new ones, had succeeded in shortening Stalin's life. The eight doctorb in attendance were under the supervision of a new Minister of Health, Tretyakov.

Although there appeared to be nothing unnatural in the death of a 73-year-old man, the news spread rapidly that Stalin had been killed by his closest collaborators.

Perhaps Stalin was not murdered, but there was a motivation to letting him die. Stalin was planning a major purge in which most of his advisers would be swept aside. Between March 2 and 5, when Stalin died, members of his inner circle were dividing the spoils of power. According to Svetlana, Stalin's daughter, “Father's death was slow and difficult…. His face became dark and different… his features were becoming unrecognizable…. The death agony was terrible. It choked him slowly as we watched… At the last moment he suddenly opened his eyes. It was a horrible look — either mad, or angry and full of fear of death…. Suddenly he raised his left hand and sort of either pointed up somewhere, or shook his finger at us all… The next moment his soul, after one last effort, broke away from his body.”

On 4 March 1953 Radio Moscow announced that Stalin was in critical condition as a result of a stroke on the night of 1-2 March. Bulletins were couched in pessimistic terms. They carefully outlined the nature of Stalin's, illness and meticulously described the measures being taken by the 'doctors who were treating him. These play-by-play accounts revealed concern lest listeners interpret this news as meaning that either the old "doctor wreckers," or a group of new ones, had succeeded in shortening Stalin's life. The eight doctors in attendance were under the supervision of a new Minister of Health, Tretyakov. In any case, when Stalin died on March 5, 1953 (under circumstances that are still unclear), his inner circle, which had feared him for years, secretly rejoiced.

News regarding Stalin’s death broke in on the population of the Soviet-Union through different channels. Soldiers learned about the state of emergency a little earlier than the rest of the people; they were informed via their special radio channel, just like like the employees of the State Security Service. The majority of the population, however, was listening to the radio news on March 5, in the second half of the day, when “some news of importance from the part of the government” were transmitted. Witnesses give different particulars about the exact time – statements vary from 2 pm to 5 pm. But the all unanimously say: this news broadcast was like a clap of thunder in the clear sky; it caused an enormous state of shock among the people. Most of the common people who heard the news, began to burst into violent sobs and did not feel embarrassment to let their tears flow freely. A great number of women fainted.

Khrushchev was listed as chairman of the Committee for organizing Stalin's funeral. On 7 March, Moscow radio announced that in order to prevent "panic and disarray," a major reorganization of the Party and Government had been made at a joint meeting of the Central Committee, the Council of Ministers and the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. A new decree clearly outlined the spheres of interest and power. Malenkov became Premier (Chairman of the Council of Ministers); Beria, Molotov, Bulganin, and Kaganovich became first Deputy Premiers. In addition, Beria returned to direct control of the security' forces by becoming Minister of Internal Affaire (MVD), with which was combined the Ministry of State Security (MGB); Molotov returned to direct leadership in Foreign Affairs; Bulganln took over as Minister of War. Voroshilov was given the honor of titular head of state. He was "recommended" to become Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Khrushchev was "to concentrate on his work in the Central Committee". Brezhnev was relieved as Secretary and transferred to the post of head of the Political Department of the Navy.

When Stalin died, therefore, it was necessary to fill the tremendous void with secondary figures. 'All of the important ones were apparently employed to fill the breach, at least as a holding operation, to calm the people and keep them under control until a more permanent setup could be worked out. A despotism can be ruled only by a despot and history is strewn with unsuccessful efforts to replace a tyrant with a committee.

On 4 April 1953, Pravda carried a prominent statement by Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's infamous head of secret police, exonerating nine Soviet doctors (seven of them Jews) who had previously been accused of "wrecking, espionage and terrorist activities against the active leaders of the Soviet Government." The Soviet people, especially its Jews, were astounded to learn that just a month after Stalin's death the new leadership now admitted that the charges had been entirely invented by Stalin and his followers. Seven of the doctors were immediately released-two had already died at the hands of their jailers.

Some hypothesized that Lavrenti Beria feared that Stalin intended to proceed not only with the conspiracy against the Jewish doctors, but also against some of the members of his inner circle, particularly Beria himself. Reportedly, according to Molotov, Beria later claimed that the inner circle should thank him, with the words, “I did him in,” Beria boasted to Molotov, “I saved all of you!” Some suspect that Beria [with the complicity of Khrushchev] had slipped warfarin, a transparent crystalline substance widely used as rat poison, into Stalin's wine. Warfarin could have produced both the hemorrhagic stroke, and the bleeding disorder affecting multiple organs, which bleeding is otherwise inexplicable.

The political memoirs of Vyacheslav Molotov, published in 1993, claimed that Beria had boasted to Molotov that he poisoned Stalin: "I took him out." Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that Beria had, immediately after the stroke, gone about "spewing hatred against [Stalin] and mocking him", and then, when Stalin showed signs of consciousness, dropped to his knees and kissed his hand. When Stalin fell unconscious again, Beria immediately stood and spat.

That Stalin's killer Khrushchev was a close friend of Beria, is spoken of by many independent sources. For example, the bodyguard of Stalin recalled how Beria and Khrushchev were playing skittles at Stalin's dacha, while good-naturedly calling each other by their nicknames invented by them. This behavior is indicative of long-term friendly relations between Khrushchev and Beria. Unreconstructed Stalinists clima that " Khrushchev arranged the murder of one of the most outstanding statesmen, not only the USSR but also Russia since ancient times."

Probably all the members of the Presidium of the CC CPSU were suspicions that the death of Stalin was not clean, but Stalin's death had been very beneficial to all partocracy. Advocates of the removal of the party from the government were deprived of a powerful leader like Stalin. Without Stalin they could restore the power of the party, that is, partocrats power in its entirety. And that is why even prominent partocrats (such as Molotov and Kaganovich) pretended that they believe in the naturalness of Stalin's death.

Scholars gathered for a roundtable discussion at the US Library of Congress in 2003, on the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death. The roundtable participants spent time debating the cause of Stalin's death. The conclusion? He succumbed to natural causes. Panel participants agreed Stalin probably was not murdered.

Sergei Khrushchev said, emphatically, "No, he was not poisoned." He argued that Stalin did not taste any food unless his closest advisers, including Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev, tried the food first. Also, Stalin was tightly guarded. "I don't see any technical possibility for murder," Khrushchev said.

A member of the audience, Vladimir Shamberg, described himself as a close friend of Svetlana, Stalin's daughter. "I believe I was the first person she saw after her father's death, and she never spoke about something fishy," he said. Shamberg said he believes Stalin's advisers failed to get him immediate medical care because they were afraid of the consequences, not because they wanted him dead. "They thought if he regained consciousness and saw the doctors, he would suspect a plot and have them all executed," said Shamberg.

When asked about television programming in the 1950s, Rod Serling often said that during that time television was an exclusive medium. In the earliest days of the medium the vast majority of viewers were well to do and well educated. Programming was specifically tailored for this small, early-adopter audience. There are few better examples of this than "Playhouse 90" and few better examples of Playhouse 90 than "The plot to kill Stalin" [Original air date: 25 September 1958]. Well written with stunning performances by an "A" list cast, the viewing experience is brisk and engaging.

It was proclaimed to be the most accurate account of Stalin’s last days (actually about his last four months) possible from the sources available in the West. The teleplay relates a conspiracy to overthrough Stalin by Beria, Khruschev and Malenkov [ie, the triumvirate that initially succeeded Stalin]. In the midst of a confrontation with is collaborators turned traitors, Stalin has a stroke, one of the other commissars gets a glass of water to revive him — and Khrushchev kicks it away and says to let the old man die on the floor. Overall, the production is quite decent, and Oskar Homolka's portrayal of Khrushchev as a boorish peasant is rather vivid. Historians may quible with plot details [his collaborators called him The Boss, not the Old Man], but the general premise that the Kremlin leadership was a pack of wolves trapped in a delicate balance of kill or be killed rings true.

The Soviet Government showed its displeasure at this production by shutting down the CBS News Bureau in Moscow. From then on, other Western News Bureaus in Moscow. were circumspect in their reporting on the USSR. For some strange reason the suggestion that Stalin was assassinated was the more of less forgottne, until the ex-Communist exile Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov argued this point in 1975.




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