The Mysterious Death of Joseph Stalin

The disturbing tale behind the death of Uncle Joe.
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The Mysterious Death of Joseph Stalin

Stalin was feeling weak on account of his unusually high blood pressure. He was also complaining of dizziness. Yet his temper was as fiery as ever on the evening of 28 February 1953.

He had invited a few of his closest comrades to his dacha at Kuntsevo, near Moscow. After a few glasses of diluted Georgian wine, he launched a blistering attack on his personal physician, who had urged him to step down as head of the government on account of his poor health.

He then extended his tirade to the prominent Moscow doctors who had recently been arrested on trumped-up charges as part of the so-called Doctors’ Plot. Stalin demanded that they make public confessions of their guilt.

Among the guests at the dacha that night was Lavrenti Beria, one of Stalin’s most loyal henchmen. He was used to the ill humour of ‘The Boss’, yet he became deeply alarmed when Stalin unexpectedly turned his fire on those who were present. He lambasted them for basking in past glories and began issuing vague yet ominous threats against them. The implication was clear: Beria and the other guests were next on his hit list.

No one was allowed to leave the dacha until Stalin had given his blessing. But he was in no hurry for them to depart. He kept up his tirade for some considerable time, drinking wine as he pressed home his attack. It was 4 a.m. on 1 March by the time he finally allowed his guests to leave.

Stalin was not left alone in the dacha. There were three duty officers in the building that night – Starostin, Tukov and Khrustalev. There was also the dacha’s deputy commandant, Peter Lozgachev. He was to be a key witness in the disturbing events that were to follow.

The official account of that night records that Stalin spoke to his guards before retiring to his room. ‘I’m going to bed,’ he told them. ‘I shouldn’t be wanting you. You can go to bed too.’

But the deputy commandant, Peter Lozgachev, later declared that he never actually heard Stalin speak those words. It was Khrustalev, one of the three guards (and a close comrade of Beria), who brought the message from Stalin. ‘Well, guys, here’s an order we’ve never been given before. The Boss said: “Go to bed, all of you, I don’t need anything. I am going to bed myself. I shouldn’t need you today.”’

Khrustalev took Stalin at his word, leaving the dacha as soon as he had passed on the message.

Stalin slept late the next morning. The clock struck eleven, then twelve, and the three men who had stayed behind at the dacha began to get concerned. Starostin turned to Lozgachev and said: ‘There’s something wrong. What shall we do?’

But there was very little they could do. Stalin had issued categor- ical orders that he was never to be disturbed when sleeping. The men were expressly forbidden from entering his room.

The guards waited many more hours until the light in Stalin’s room was finally switched on. ‘We thought, thank God, everything was OK,’ recalled Lozgachev.

Yet still there was no movement and by 11 p.m. the guards were once again concerned. When an important parcel arrived from the Central Committee, Lozgachev felt he had the excuse he needed to enter the room. ‘All right then,’ he said, ‘wish me luck, boys.’

He pushed open the door and was horrified by what he saw. Stalin was lying on the floor, soaked in urine and with his right arm outstretched. He was conscious but dazed.

‘I said to him: “Should I call a doctor?” He made some incoherent noise – like “Dz . . . Dz . . .”’

Lozgachev called Starostin and the two men lifted Stalin onto the sofa and then phoned Beria and Malenkov, a prominent Politburo member who had also been present on the previous evening.

They expected the two men to arrive immediately, yet four crucial hours were to pass before they pitched up at the dacha. Beria was extremely irritated when he finally inspected Stalin.

‘What are you panicking for? The Boss is sound asleep.’ He ordered the guards to leave Stalin undisturbed and also warned them that he didn’t expect to be called out again.

Lozgachev and Starostin now took matters into their own hands, alerting several key doctors to what had happened, along with other members of the inner circle.

When the doctors finally arrived on the morning of 2 March, at least thirteen hours had passed since Stalin had been taken ill. By now he was vomiting blood and in an extremely serious condition.

‘The doctors were all scared stiff,’ said Lozgachev. ‘They stared at him and shook. They had to examine him but their hands were too shaky.’ They eventually concluded that he was suffering from an internal haemorrhage.

Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, was summoned to the dacha when it was realized that he would not recover. ‘The death agony was terrible,’ she recalled. ‘It was a horrible look – either mad or angry and full of fear of death.’

Significantly, she also recorded Beria’s jubilant reaction when Stalin finally breathed his last on 5 March. ‘Beria was the first to run out into the corridor and in the silence of the hall, where everyone was standing quietly, came his loud voice, ringing with open triumph: “Khrustalev, the car!”’

It was unusual behaviour on the part of Beria, especially given the context. Beria was surrounded by key members of Stalin’s inner circle, yet the first person he summoned was Khrustalev, the guard who had originally warned his dacha comrades that Stalin was not to be disturbed.

A possible explanation for Beria’s behaviour is to be found hidden in the post-mortem report on Stalin’s corpse, a report that has only recently become available. The doctors who conducted the autopsy said that Stalin had suffered a haemorrhage in the brain, the cardiac muscles and the lining of the stomach. They concluded that his known high blood pressure had triggered the haemorrhages.

But modern analysis suggests otherwise. High blood pressure might indeed have caused a brain haemorrhage, but it would not have caused Stalin to vomit blood and nor would it have necessarily provoked the gastrointestinal haemorrhage.

A far more likely trigger for such internal bleeding is the tasteless transparent chemical warfarin, a blood thinner, which had just become available in 1950s Russia. It is now believed that Lavrenti Beria admin- istered warfarin to Stalin’s diluted wine on the evening of 28 February. He had every reason to do so, for he was fearful of being the next on Stalin’s hit list. And he later told the Soviet inner circle that they should thank him for killing Stalin. He even bragged to Vyacheslav Molotov, the first deputy minister: ‘I did him in. I saved all of you.’

He was aided in his work by Khrustalev, the dacha guard. His warning that the other guards were not to disturb Stalin guaranteed that no one would discover Uncle Joe until it was too late for anything to be done.

This excerpt is from Fascinating Footnotes From History by Giles Milton, published by John Murray.