Was the Death of Joseph Stalin Really Murder?

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A Brief History

On March 1, 1953, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin suffered an alleged stroke that led to his death on March 5, 1953 at the age of 74.  Although the official reason the brutal dictator died was a common medical malady, high blood pressure leading to a cerebral hemorrhage complicated by a stomach hemorrhage as well, speculation that he may have been murdered persists to this day.  (You may note that there are various spellings of Stalin’s name, the one we have used is the Anglicized version.)

Digging Deeper

Born Ioseb Jughashvilli in Gori, Georgia of the Russian Empire in 1878, Stalin became involved with the revolutionary communist movement that eventually executed the Czar and established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  When venerated initial Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, Stalin seized power for himself.  Incredibly brutal, Stalin murdered millions of his own people and those of other countries during his tenure as dictator, certainly one of the greatest butchers in History.

Stalin (right) confers with an ailing Lenin at Gorky in September 1922.  Photograph by Maria Ilyinichna Ulyanova (1878–1937).

Stalin executed numerous “enemies” during his time, as many as around a million and a half officially executed.  Adding to that, he purposely starved 6 to 8 million Ukrainians during the 1930’s in an effort to pacify that Republic, a crime against humanity known as Holodomor,  and another 5 million that died in Gulag prison camps. Around 1.7 million of the 7+ million people he had deported and relocated died, and about a million German POW’s died in his custody during and after World War II.  On his orders, many German civilians were also murdered. His horrible death toll could well approach 20 million people, and estimates vary from as little as 3 million to as many as 60 million!  (The higher number would have to include starvation and malnutrition from ruinous agricultural policies.)

To say Stalin had enemies and that plenty of people existed with the motive to get rid of him is an understatement.  It has been pointed out that although Stalin’s health had declined since World War II ended in 1945 and he had suffered at least a minor stroke and heart attack, compounded by hard drinking and a lifetime as a heavy smoker, the stomach hemorrhage is inconsistent with a high blood pressure induced cerebral hemorrhage.  On the other hand, being poisoned with the blood thinner warfarin could cause such a combination of problems.  (This drug is used to prevent strokes in carefully administered and monitored small doses.  It is also used as rat poison.)

Stalin at his seventieth birthday celebration with (left to right) Mao Zedong, Nikolai Bulganin, Walter Ulbricht and Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal

Months after the original report of cause of death, the part about the stomach hemorrhage was mysteriously deleted, adding to suspicions of foul play.  In addition, Lavrentiy Beria, Interior Minister (and evil incarnate), was quoted by Vyacheslav Molotov, Foreign Minister, (in Molotov’s memoirs) as saying Beria claimed “I took him out.”  The official autopsy was made in 1953, but not released until 2011, and the shocking information contained included both cardiac and gastrointestinal hemorrhage, neither of which is normally associated with stroke caused by high blood pressure.  Need more evidence of poisoning by warfarin?  Stalin also suffered renal hemorrhage, another symptom not caused by high blood pressure, but certainly a possible result of warfarin poisoning.

Stalin, for all his brutality, was portrayed as a larger than life hero to both the Soviet people and those people under Soviet occupation, and admitting an assassination in 1953 would have caused an uproar.  Question for Students (and others): Was this terrible man actually murdered?  After all, he was 74 years old and not in great health.  Please let us know what you think about this half century mystery, and share your thoughts with your fellow readers.

A mourning parade in honor of Stalin in Dresden, East Germany.  Photograph by Erich Höhne and Erich Pohl.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Brent, Jonathan and Vladimir Naumov.  Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953.  Harper Perennial, 2004.

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The featured image in this article, the front page of the Komunist’i Newspaper from the Georgian SSR, featuring a picture of the death of Stalin, was first published in Georgia and is now in the public domain because its copyright protection has expired by virtue of the Law of Georgia on Copyright and Neighboring Rights (details). The work meets one of the following criteria:

  • It is an anonymous work or pseudonymous work and 70 years have passed since the date of its publication
  • It is another kind of work, and 70 years have passed since the year of death of the author (or last-surviving author)
  • It is one of “official documents (legislative acts, court decisions, other texts of administrative and regulatory nature), as well as official translations thereof
  • It is one of “official state symbols (flags, coats-of-arms, anthems, reward, banknotes, other state symbols and insignia)

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.