Beyond the movie: What really happened when Stalin died?

Adrian McLoughlin plays Stalin in ‘The Death of Stalin’ (Rex/eOne)
Adrian McLoughlin plays Stalin in ‘The Death of Stalin’ (Rex/eOne)

Armando Ianucci, best known for creating ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Veep’, moves to 1953 Russia for his latest political satire, mining the aftermath of the Soviet dictator’s passing for maximum laughs. But was reality as bonkers as the writer/director’s madcap comedy?

Be aware of mild spoilers for the film, though is it actually possible to spoil history?

The leader’s embarrassing death

One of the film’s running gags is about how Stalin is found covered in his own urine. That’s true – and for such a iconic figure, his death was surprisingly feeble.

One morning he didn’t emerge from his quarters, and no-one wanted to check on him because they were terrified about going into his room without his permission. That fear probably sealed his fate. When someone finally plucked up the courage to see where he was, it was six or even eight hours after he’d had a stroke.

He couldn’t talk and the doctors put leeches on the back of his head and neck. Partially paralysed, he died at 9:50a.m. on 5 March, 1953.

Stalin was trying to oust his most powerful friends

Simon Russell Beale is Soviet politician Lavrentiy Beria in ‘The Death of Stalin’ (Getty/eOne)
Simon Russell Beale is Soviet politician Lavrentiy Beria in ‘The Death of Stalin’ (Getty/eOne)

The movie charts the infighting amongst the leaders of the Politburo, particularly Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), head of the secret police Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and others.

This is true (though maybe not done quite as idiotically as the movie suggests), probably because the politicians were aware that being a long-term colleague and advocate of the dictator wasn’t a guarantee to safety. In fact, author Dmitri Volkogonov argues in his biography of Stalin that by the end of his life, the leader was plotting to ditch those closest to him and replace them with new, younger acolytes. Stalin died before he could follow through on that scheme, leaving the old guard battling for power after his passing.

The film shows that Stalin was on the brink of ousting Molotov, but in reality he’d already been sacked from the Politburo in 1949.

100 people died in a crush while Stalin lay in state

Top – The funeral of Josef Stalin [L – R] – Bulganin, Vorochilov, Mikoyan, Khrushchev, Beria, and Molotov – 5 March 1953 (Rex/eOne)
Top – The funeral of Josef Stalin [L – R] – Bulganin, Vorochilov, Mikoyan, Khrushchev, Beria, and Molotov – 5 March 1953 (Rex/eOne)

Stalin’s body lay in state for three days at Moscow’s House of Unions and the proletariat – despite his brutal regime and the spectacular damage he’d done to the country – lined up to pay their respects. So many came in fact, that there was a crush and 100 people died. Church bells rang across the land when he died, ironic really, considering he did more than anyone to destroy the church.

Bitter rivalries and the doctors’ plot

In Isaac Deutscher’s book ‘Russia After Stalin’, authored in the days, weeks and months after the leader’s death, he writes that the local newspapers were convinced everything was not well behind closed Politburo doors.

They were, he says, “full of speculation about the secret rivalries in the Kremlin, the many-sided plots in which now Beria was supposed to be trying to oust Malenkov and [Vyacheslav] Molotov, now Malenkov and Beria were supposed to oust Molotov, while in other versions [Nikolai] Bulganin and Beria were preparing a coup against all the others.”

This ties in with the arrests of a group of high-level doctors, who were alleged to be engaging in a plot to murder top Soviet politicians. Hundreds of people were rounded up and tortured, but after Stalin’s death the case was dropped and dismissed as made-up. It was, rather, an anti-Semitic attack, since most of the doctors were Jewish.

Who gets to take over?

Stalin was ill for great swathes of his later life, giving only three public speeches during his last seven years and spending most of his time at his dacha – his holiday home.

So, it’s safe to assume that the Politburo leaders were jostling to be successor for quite some time before he actually died. Stalin left no transitional instructions, so afterwards there was a meeting between the Central Committee. Malenkov was made de facto leader as chairman of the Council of Ministers, with Beria as his primary deputy.

This is amusing, given it’s been argued that Beria either arranged for his former boss to be assassinated by poisoning him with the drug warfarin, or deliberately waited as long as possible before letting Stalin receive medical treatment so that he was guaranteed to die

Neither men’s power grab worked for long. Malenkov was pushed out by Khrushchev within a few weeks and eventually ended up managing a hydroelectric plant in Kazakhstan.

Beria meanwhile – a vile rapist who may well have had young girls murdered after he was finished with them – was in June 1953 arrested on charges of treason and terrorism, most likely thanks to a plan cooked up by Khrushchev and his followers. Despite begging for his life and wailing in front of his executors, he was shot through the head in December the same year.

‘The Death of Stalin’ is out now.

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