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  • James Houser

March 5, 1953 - Death of Joseph Stalin

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

Take this one with a grain of salt, IMO. I don't honestly know *enough* about Stalin or the USSR.

March 5, 1953. Four days ago, Joseph Stalin was discovered unconscious on the floor in a room of the Kremlin. On this day, Joseph Stalin is pronounced dead - with no apparent successor to his position as the Soviet Union's dictator. Let the games begin.

It should probably not have to be established that Joseph Stalin was one of the most fearsome and terrible dictators of the 20th Century. He presided over a terrorist state full of political persecutions, genocidal pogroms, and ethnic cleansings. His Holodomor of the Ukraine resulted in the likely deaths of about 3.5 million, and subsequent persecutions of Poles, Ukrainians and Volga Germans amounted to more dead. Millions died in the Soviet Gulags, and the Soviet secret police - NKVD - killed others without trial. It was a terrible time for anyone involved.

Joseph Stalin

On February 28, 1953, Stalin and his top party cronies gathered for an evening of entertainment and drinks, during which they listened to a concert on the radio. Stalin retired after the gathering with strict orders that he was not to be awakened until he informed his personal guards. Throughout March 1, there was no sound from Stalin's private quarters, and his guards and personal aides were too scared of Stalin's orders to check on the leader of their nation and party. At 11pm, however, someone finally mustered up the courage to check on the Soviet Union's Premier.

The first person called to examine Stalin's dying body was Lavrenty P. Beria, the head of the Soviet Secret Police - the NKVD. Beria was one of the most feared members of Stalin's inner circle; moreover, he was a known child molester, rapist, and sadist with virtually unlimited power. Stories were told of his escapades, including abducting random young women to be assaulted and tortured. He would force women to perform sexual acts in order to save their relatives from the Gulag. In one infamous incident, Beria kidnapped actress Tatiana Okunevskaya and raped her under the promise to rescue her father and grandmother from the Gulag. Tatiana did not know that Beria had her relatives killed months ago.

Lavrenty Beria, with Stalin's daughter Svetlana. Stalin is in the background. (Svetlana does NOT look happy or safe.)

In any case, Beria pronounced Stalin merely resting, and allowed him to die .Many conspiracy theories have emerged about this occurrence, many of which have a strong chance of being true. Either way, Stalin was treated throughout the next several days, during which Beria supervised Stalin's treatment. It is hard to tell what effect the secret policeman's influence may have had on the Chairman's health, but on March 5, 1953, Stalin was pronounced dead.

It was unclear what was supposed to happen now. Stalin had successfully played most of his subordinates off against each other in order to keep anyone from assuming full power. Beria was one; Georgy Malenkov, Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, was another. Nikita Krushchev, the Head of the Communist Party in Moscow, was a major figure in the Soviet Union along with Georgy Zhukov, war hero of World War II, and Vyacheslov Molotov, the Foreign Minister. All of these individuals would vie for power after Stalin's death.

Beria, of course, quickly moved to seize power. He and Malenkov had been widely viewed as Stalin's chief successors, so Beria threatened the other contenders - reportedly warning Molotov that he had "taken Stalin out," and could take him too. But the situation was dangerous. Beria's daughter-in-law allegedly told him that "your position now is even more precarious than when Stalin was alive." All the Soviet leaders knew Beria's reputation as a sadistic murderer, and feared the consequences should he take power.

While Stalin was laid to rest on March 9, chess pieces were already moving across the board. Beria seemed to be preeminent, but for multiple leaders within the Soviet Union everything seemed to be at stake. No matter how bad Stalin had been, he had at least been consistent in his cold persecutions and hatreds. If you did something wrong, he'd kill you, but at least you could *sort of* guess why that was. If Beria thought your preteen daughter was hot, you might suddenly be a target, and that was more than most Communists could abide.

Stalin's Funeral, March 9, 1953

After Stalin's death, Deputy Chairman Malenkov took his place, but behind Malenkov was Beria. While Beria boasted that he had "done Stalin in" and "saved us all," the Soviet Politburo shrank from his ambition. At Stalin's funeral, Beria rushed forward to kiss the corpse, appearing "radiant and regenerated." Beria controlled Malenkov, and Malenkov was the new Premier. The tyrant had risen.

Nikita Khrushchev, head of the Party in Moscow, had lived through the Battle of Stalingrad and World War II as the head of Ukraine's Communist Party. With Beria on the rise, Khrushchev and other Soviets became convinced that he intended to make amends with the United States and the West. Beria's well-known corruption and depravity might lead him to consider a deal with the Western Powers in exchange for monetary benefits. His statements and aside remarks convinced Khrushchev, Molotov and even Malenkov that Beria was too dangerous to be trusted. When Zhukov guaranteed Red Army compliance and Malenkov promised his support, the deal was done.

On June 26, 1953, a meeting of the Presidium of the Communist Party suddenly turned into a public denunciation of Beria. As he looked on in amazement, Molotov quickly accused him of treason and collaboration with British intelligence. (Being in league with British spies had been a favorite Russian trope since the 1600s.) Khrushchev, in conjunction, called for Beria's instant dismissal. When Beria plaintively called on his crony Malenkov to speak for him, Malenkov refused to meet his eyes; instead, he pressed a button on his desk. Marshal Zhukov and his Red Army soldiers moved in to arrest Beria.

As the meeting had been occurring, Red Army troops under Defence Minister Nikolai Bulganin had been moving into Moscow to prevent NKVD security troops from trying to rescue Beria. Beria was held for six months before being tried, with many of his cronies, in a mock trial staged by Red Army Marshal Ivan Konev on December 26, 1953. Beria was immediately found guilty. Begging on his knees, moaning and crying and pleading for mercy, the sadist of the Secret Police was executed the same day; his executors had to stuff a rag in his mouth in order to silence his wailing before his death.

With the lunatic Beria out of the way, the floor was open. Though Malenkov still held most leadership positions, he had prove his weakness due to his manipulation by Beria and his cowardice in confronting him. Over the next year and a half, Nikita Khrushchev would slowly gain power until 1955, when he quietly elbowed the quiescent Malenkov aside and assumed full power in the Soviet Union.

The death of Stalin triggered the usual result when a dictator dies: a bloody power struggle. So it had been since the days of Caesar. When a Roman Emperor died with no named successor, chaos and bloodshed had been the result. In Soviet Russia, as in the Tsarist Courts before them, it proved no better. Maintaining face and public display was everything to Soviet leaders even as they loosened their knives. The sanguinary contest for supremacy happened behind the scenes, far from the influence of the people, even as their new leader was being determined in the cloak-and-dagger politics of the Soviet 1950s. It makes the two-party system look positively progressive.

And that, among many more reasons, is why dictators are bad.

Book Recommendations: For an in-depth look at the paranoia and terror of Stalin's regime, see Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003).

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