71 years after Stalinʼs death, Russian communists suspected that he was killed by “Western special services.” In fact, they should look for the culprits right under their noses. The last days of the Soviet dictator

Serhii Pyvovarov
Dmytro Rayevskyi, Kateryna Kobernyk
71 years after Stalinʼs death, Russian communists suspected that he was killed by “Western special services.” In fact, they should look for the culprits right under their noses. The last days of the Soviet dictator

In the photo next to Stalinʼs coffin are his closest associates (from right to left): Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrentiy Beria, Georgy Malenkov and Nikolai Bulganin, March 1953.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Dictator Joseph Stalin, who ruled the USSR for more than thirty years, died on March 5, 1953. According to the official version, it was caused by a brain hemorrhage enhanced by hypertensive crisis. But there are numerous conspiracy theories about the assassination of Stalin. This year, the "Communists of Russia" party asked the FSB to investigate the involvement of "Western special services" in the dictatorʼs death. There are indeed many white spots in the history of Stalinʼs death. However, as the researchers testify, if there is anyone to suspect, it is the immediate circle of the Kremlin leader. And especially his closest associate Lavrentiy Beria. Babel tells about the state of Stalinʼs health, which was not as strong as it was presented by propaganda, about the official version of the last days of his life and, of course, about versions of a possible murder.

Stalin had poor health and did not trust doctors

The state of health of Kremlin leaders is still one of the most important state secrets. During Stalinʼs time, this secret was guarded especially strictly, and propaganda spread the myth of a "strong Caucasian body." So the researchers had to collect real facts piecemeal — in fragments of documents, letters, and memories.

Stalinʼs first serious health problems began around 1926, when he was 48 years old. He complained of severe pain in the muscles of his arms and legs. On the recommendation of doctors, Stalin underwent a course of hydrogen sulfide baths in Abkhazia. He was periodically treated at these resorts throughout the 1930s.

Joseph Stalin with bodyguards on the street in Moscow, 1920s.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

In the early 1940s, Stalin developed new problems — signs of hypertension and atherosclerosis. By the end of the Second World War, the problems intensified. At the end of 1945, he had his first heart attack, and in 1946, Stalin suffered a severe stroke. During these periods, even his daughter Svetlana was forbidden not only to visit her father, but also to call him.

Despite this, Stalin did not lead a healthy lifestyle. He smoked a lot, regularly drank alcohol, especially before going to bed. And he went to bed late after 15-18 hours of sedentary working day. His "diet" consisted of fatty Caucasian dishes.

He followed the doctorsʼ advice selectively. After a stroke in 1946, he spent more time at his suburban dacha in Kuntsevo. There, Stalin walked a lot in the park in the fresh air, but continued to smoke and drink alcohol. Also, he slept too little. When his health took a turn for the worse, he abruptly quit smoking on the eve of his 72nd birthday in December 1952. Of course, it was not easy for the smoker with more than 50 years of experience. He gained weight, became irritable and agitated, and had problems with blood pressure.

Joseph Stalin surrounded by the Soviet leadership during a parade on Red Square in Moscow, late 1940s.

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In addition, telling the chief about his illnesses was dangerous for the health of the doctors themselves. In 1927, rumors spread in Moscow medical circles about the sudden death of the well-known neuropathologist and psychiatrist Vladimir Bekhterev. According to legend, he was called to examine Stalin, and he unexpectedly diagnosed the Soviet dictator with a severe form of paranoia, in addition to neurological problems. Bekhterev told his acquaintances about his discovery. And in a few days, he died right during a congress of neuropathologists and psychiatrists. According to the official version, the doctor "poisoned with canned goods" at the banquet. No forensic investigation into the circumstances of death was conducted, and the body was quickly cremated.

Vladimir Vinogradov was Stalinʼs personal physician from the mid-1940s. In 1952, he strongly advised the dictator to work less and rest more. Stalin suspected a conspiracy, thinking that his enemies allegedly tried to remove him from the leadership of the state in this way. In November 1952, Vinogradov ended up in prison as part of the "Doctorsʼ Affair" — one of the large-scale repressive campaigns personally overseen by Stalin at the end of his life. Since then, no one has conducted medical examinations of the dictator. And the medical history, which was kept by Vinogradov, was destroyed by Stalinʼs personal order.

The last days of Stalin — the official version

In recent months, Stalin hardly appeared in the Kremlin. He spent all his time at the country house in Kuntsevo. Sometime before lunch, he slept, and then he got down to business. In the evening, he usually summoned four people from his closest circle to him — the deputies in the government, Georgy Malenkov, Lavrentiy Beria and Nikolai Bulganin, and the first secretary of the Moscow Regional Committee, Nikita Khrushchev. Together they discussed business, had dinner, drank, watched movies until late at night.

Such a party took place at Stalinʼs dacha on February 28, 1953. The guests left around five in the morning. According to Khrushchevʼs recollections, Stalin saw them off personally, drank a lot and was in a good humor: "He joked a lot, poked me in the stomach with his finger, calling me Mykyta. He always used the Ukrainian form of my name when he was in a good mood."

Stalin with his closest entourage in Moscow. On his left is Nikita Khrushchev, on his right is Georgy Malenkov, Lavrentiy Beria and Vyacheslav Molotov, 1946.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

On the first of March, Stalin did not leave his room at noon, as was usually the case. Motion detectors installed in each room did not detect any movements. So the guards began to worry, but they did not dare to look into the chiefʼs bedroom. Finally, around six in the evening, the light came on in his room, so the security relaxed a bit. A reason to go to the chiefʼs room was found only around ten in the evening — business mail was brought, and it had to be handed over personally.

One of the guards entered the room and found Stalin in a helpless state on the floor. The security moved him to the couch and called their direct supervisor, Minister of State Security Semyon Ignatiev. According to the recollections of the guards, he did not dare to decide something on his own, but sent his subordinates to Malenkov and Beria. They arrived a round 1 AM, Khrushchev and Bulganin arrived later. After long hesitation, Malenkov and Beria decided to look into Stalinʼs room. Malenkov even took off his shoes so that they would not squeak. In a few minutes, they returned, said that Stalin was asleep, and scolded the guards for causing an unreasonable panic. After that, all four left.

On the morning of March 2, the guards reported that something was wrong with the leader. Then the "four" finally decided to call the doctors to the dacha. They quickly diagnosed Stalin with a massive hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of the brain due to hypertension and atherosclerosis of blood vessels. As a result — loss of speech, paralysis of the right arm and left leg. The next day, an expanded council of doctors announced the verdict — Stalinʼs death was inevitable within days, if not hours.

A coffin with Stalinʼs body in the House of Trade Unions in Moscow, March 1953.

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On March 4, the Pravda newspaper published an announcement about Comrade Stalinʼs "severe illness." And around ten in the evening on March 5, doctors declared his death.

Versions about the murder

There are many conspiracy theories about Stalinʼs death, as if the dictator was killed. But none of them can be confirmed due to the lack of documents and closed access to the archives of the Kremlin special services.

Most historians and researchers agree that when it comes to Stalinʼs murder, the culprits should be sought in his closest circle. First of all, this concerns Malenkov, Beria and Khrushchev. Bulganin never had real power and strength. He was an old party member who from time to time "plugged" holes in various ministries and departments.

Malenkov, Beria and Khrushchev can be accused of not providing timely assistance to Stalin. With such a diagnosis, even in modern medicine, the patientʼs chances of survival are 50/50, and this is under the conditions of operative medical care. And doctors were allowed to see Stalin almost half a day later. However, it is unlikely that these three would be able to organize a conspiracy, even a spontaneous one. Actually, Stalin was the person who kept them from starting to fight among themselves for power.

Stalin during a speech, late 1940s.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

On the other hand, the actions of Malenkov, Khrushchev and Beria can be explained by fear. During the rule of Stalin, no one was immune from unexpected repressions, especially his closest circle. And the dictator himself liked to remind them about this from time to time. So given his suspiciousness, the trio could have gotten into trouble even if they had called the doctors right away. The leader could suspect that they want to declare him incompetent and remove him from power.

In the 2000s, a new theory appeared that Stalin was allegedly poisoned with warfarin. This drug thins the blood, preventing it from clotting. But in case of an overdose, it can cause severe bleeding. However, modern medical research refutes this theory, based on data on the autopsy of Stalinʼs body. And it is unlikely that anyone would be able to bring something suspicious to Stalinʼs dacha. Even his closest four comrades were thoroughly searched by the guards twice — at the gate and at the entrance to the house. And this especially annoyed the old Chekist Beria.

The main suspect is Beria

In the story of Stalinʼs death, Lavrentiy Beria deserves the most suspicion. According to researchers, he had a strong motive to get rid of the leader. After all, it was Beria who was to become the main figure in the "Megreli case" — another repressive campaign that Stalin launched at the end of his life.

Historians cite some facts to support this theory. It was Beria who selected the doctors who tried to save Stalin and allegedly told them what to write in the medical documents. They recall the story of Arseniy Rusakov, who was part of the group of doctors who performed Stalinʼs autopsy. Apparently, he detected signs of poisoning of the leader. But already on April 12, 1953, he "died prematurely." The day after Stalinʼs death, by order of Beria, all the dictatorʼs bodyguards were layed off and sent away from Moscow. Later, two of them committed suicide — according to the official version, they shot themselves. Also, by order of Beria, not only all papers, but also furniture and dishes were removed from the dacha.

Later, rumors appeared that Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalinʼs long-term foreign minister, allegedly told how during a parade on Red Square on May 1, 1953, Beria whispered in his ear: "It was I who saved you all from Stalin."

Stalinʼs funeral in Moscow. In the photo, the first on the right is Khrushchev, the second is Beria, the fourth is Malenkov, March 9, 1953.

According to the memoirs of Beriaʼs son Sergo, his mother Nina said to her husband after the leaderʼs death: "Your position is even more precarious now than during Stalinʼs life." Her words turned out to be prophetic. At the end of June 1953, Malenkov and Khrushchev conspired and arrested Beria. In December of the same year, he was shot. Beria was officially accused of anything — treason, working for British intelligence, counter-revolutionary activities, but not involvement in Stalinʼs death.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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Serhii Pyvovarov
Dmytro Rayevskyi, Kateryna Kobernyk

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