Death of Stalin Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The death of Joseph Stalin ended several decades of dictatorial rule and terminated the initial stages of a new wave of purges in the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

On March 4, 1953, Radio Moscow announced that on March 1, Joseph Stalin had suffered a stroke, which had led to partial paralysis with heart and breathing difficulties. On the morning of March 6, it reported that Stalin had died on the evening of March 5. He was seventy-four years old at the time of his death. [kw]Death of Stalin (Mar. 5, 1953) [kw]Stalin, Death of (Mar. 5, 1953) Soviet Union;death of Joseph Stalin[Stalin] Soviet leadership;Joseph Stalin[Stalin] Soviet Union;death of Joseph Stalin[Stalin] Soviet leadership;Joseph Stalin[Stalin] [g]Europe;Mar. 5, 1953: Death of Stalin[04100] [g]Soviet Union;Mar. 5, 1953: Death of Stalin[04100] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 5, 1953: Death of Stalin[04100] [c]Cold War;Mar. 5, 1953: Death of Stalin[04100] Beria, Lavrenty Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;de-Stalinization Malenkov, Georgi M. Molotov, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;de-Stalinization

The news aroused consternation throughout the country that Stalin had ruled for more than a quarter of a century. Following Lenin’s death in January, 1924, Stalin had become the most powerful figure in the party and governed the nation until his own death nearly three decades later.

Stalin had led his people victoriously through World War II, which brought death and destruction to the Soviet Union on an unprecedented scale as a result of the Nazi invasion, and he seemed to be the indispensable center about which all Soviet life revolved. Despite the terror, bloodshed, and suffering associated with his policies, Stalin provided the security of the familiar in Soviet citizens from the poorest collective farmers to the top leaders of the Communist Party. It was logical that his associates feared the possible disruptive consequences in the aftermath of his death and the removal of his dominating and guiding hand.

In the last years of his life, Stalin had been preparing to plunge his people once again into the suffering and killing that had characterized his rule. Suspicious of everyone and growing more paranoid in his final years, the old dictator appeared to be setting the stage for a repeat performance. The death penalty, abolished in 1947, was restored to deal with “spies and traitors.” Treason;Soviet Union The so-called Leningrad Affair of 1949 led to further demotions and even execution of significant party leaders. The Soviet press, by the early 1950’s, published numerous criticisms and even denunciations of individuals and groups.

Events surrounding the Nineteenth Party Congress Nineteenth Party Congress, Soviet (1952) Communist Party, Soviet;congresses of October, 1952, provided ominous signs of the purge spreading throughout the highest echelons of the party and extending to other areas of society to produce another destructive wave of terror. Technically, the actions of the Congress did not on the surface look unduly serious. A new leadership committee, the Presidium, replaced the ruling Politburo, substantially increasing its membership as compared to its predecessor. Significant changes modified the Secretariat as the Communist Party’s central bureaucratic and organizational structure. Rumors began to spread that even the most important of Stalin’s associates during the previous fifteen years were among those likely to be demoted, ousted from power in the government or the Communist Party, or possibly arrested.

Moreover, a major part of Stalin’s scheme was the conscious use of political anti-Semitism, Racial and ethnic discrimination;Soviet Jews a clear threat to the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. The dossier which Stalin prepared against his intended victims included numerous indictments of prominent Jews in the party and the government bureaucracy. Anti-Semitic language and the prevalence of Jews among the alleged “criminals” seemed to indicate that Stalin planned to capitalize upon existing anti-Semitism in Russia to get public support for at least the beginning of his purge. Allegations of Jews recruited by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to work for “American-Zionist imperialism” inside the Soviet Union became more frequent. The executions of several Jews in 1952, after allegations of collaboration with Russia’s enemies, further added to the atmosphere of suspicion and fear.

Most frightening of all was the announcement in January, 1953, of the discovery of the Doctors’ Plot, Doctors’ Plot (1953)[Doctors Plot] which charged that nine prominent doctors, six of whom were Jews, had been guilty of trying to kill, by improper medical treatment, leaders of the Communist Party and the armed forces. The list of alleged murdered victims included Andrei Zhdanov Zhdanov, Andrei , the party leader of Leningrad and widely believed to have been Stalin’s choice as his eventual heir, who died in 1948. The secret police and investigative agencies came under special attack for their apparent laxity in discovering these opponents. It became clear that Stalin was piecing together allegations involving assassination plots, economic crimes, sabotage, and collaboration with foreign enemies in which prominent party figures and many lesser officials would be swept up and punished.

Only his death saved Russia from the bloodshed that would have followed the implementation of his plans. On March 4, Soviet authorities announced that Stalin suffered a major stroke on the night of March 1-2. A brain hemorrhage caused major paralysis of his right side, plus loss of speech and consciousness. The medical team provided what care they could, even using leeches to reduce the blood pressure of their patient. He died at 9:50 p.m. on March 5.

In announcing Stalin’s death and in their speeches in succeeding weeks, Communist Party leaders, fearing civil disorder upon the death of the much feared leader, appealed to the people in the name of “collective leadership” to remain calm. They took steps to tighten control over the party and other political and economic organs by placing themselves in key positions. The powerful party leaders carefully avoided any suggestion that any individual would rule the party as Stalin had done. Georgi M. Malenkov became Soviet premier, while Nikita S. Khrushchev assumed the responsibility as head of the party.


Stalin’s successors began almost immediately to reduce the most hated features of the Stalinist system, including the secret police apparatus and the terror by which it had infected Russian life. The Doctors’ Plot was admitted to have been fabricated, and those physicians still in prison were released. By the end of the year, it was announced that Lavrenty Beria had been ousted as head of the secret police, expelled from the party, and executed. Articles in the party newspaper Pravda assured the people that their rights under the Soviet constitution would be respected and that more consumer goods would be made available. Thus, the Communist Party, under the concept of “collective leadership,” rode out of the days of uncertainty, fear, and turmoil surrounding Stalin’s death, and a new era in Russian history began. Soviet Union;death of Joseph Stalin[Stalin] Soviet leadership;Joseph Stalin[Stalin]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bortoli, Georges. The Death of Stalin. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1975. The title is misleading, as this account traces events from 1952 through Stalin’s death and effectively juxtaposes general social conditions with the activities of the Communist Party leadership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. This psychological study emphasizes Stalin’s paranoia and his desire to achieve massive power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fürst, Juliane, ed. Late Stalinist Russia: Society Between Reconstruction and Reinvention. New York: Routledge, 2006. Focused account of the last eight years of Stalin’s regime conveys the state of the Soviet Union at the time of his death. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hyde, H. Montgomery. Stalin: The History of a Dictator. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972. A critical assessment of Stalin, but a solid biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Radzinsky, Edvard. Stalin: The First In-Depth Biography Based on Explosive Documents from Russia’s Secret Archives. New York: Doubleday, 1996. A Russian historian provides more information based on previously inaccessible files.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salisbury, Harrison E. Moscow Journal: The End of Stalin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. Engaging and detailed account of conditions in the Soviet Union in the late Stalin era, including Stalin’s demise, by a New York Times correspondent living in Moscow.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ulam, Adam B. Stalin: The Man and His Era. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. Expanded edition of an earlier biography of Stalin by a highly regarded Soviet scholar at Harvard University.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Volkogonov, Dmitri. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991. Substantial biography by a noted Russian historian provides a post-Communist perspective of Stalin.

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Categories: History