Joseph Stalin: How Did He Die and What Happened Next?

How did Joseph Stalin die, and what happened to the Soviet Union afterwards? Read on to find out more about the circumstances of his death.

Dec 18, 2021By Robin Gillham, BA History, MA Russian & Post-Soviet Politics
joseph stalin death photograph
Stalin lying in state, from the film The Death of Stalin, 2017, via Gateway Online


1953 was a seminal year in global history. Princess Elizabeth Windsor ascended to the throne and became Queen Elizabeth. Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary climbed Mt Everest. A polio vaccine was developed, and the Korean War ended. But one event overshadowed them all in terms of its impact on the course of the 20th Century and the conduct of The Cold War. On March 5 of 1953, the leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, died. What followed in the days, weeks, months, and even years afterwards was a struggle for mastery of the Soviet Union and the global power and influence it wielded.


It is widely accepted that Joseph Stalin, the Supreme Commander of the Soviet Union, died four days after suffering a stroke after a night of drinking and watching movies. However, a select number of theories have arisen claiming that he didn’t die of natural causes but foul play. Read on to find out the theories behind Stalin’s death and what followed afterwards.


Joseph Stalin: 3 Theories on His Death


1. The Plot to Exile the Jews and a Deadly Confrontation

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Headline proclaiming Stalin’s death in the San Francisco Chronicle, 1953, via SFChronicle


The first non-official theory behind Stalin’s death is that his fatal stroke was a direct result of an angry confrontation with Soviet officials. Historian Gennady Kostyrchenko has put forward the theory that Nikita Khrushchev reportedly confessed to a European journalist in 1956 that Joseph Stalin suffered a fatal stroke after Soviet officials revolted against him and even threatened the Soviet leader.


According to Khrushchev, Soviet officials were displeased with Stalin’s plans to forcibly move Soviet Jews to the Eastern parts of the country. The plan was drawn up when Stalin was ramping up his purges against the Soviet Jewish minority.

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Allegedly, Soviet officials confronted Stalin and threatened to bring the army to the Kremlin if he did not abandon his plan to exile Soviet Jews to Siberia. One official even tore up his membership card for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and threw it into Stalin’s face. Not used to such a show of disrespect, Stalin allegedly suffered a fatal stroke and died.


2. The Axe Murderer 

joseph stalin death mask
Stalin’s death mask at the Stalin Museum in his hometown of Gori, via


The second theory is perhaps the most sensational. Some Soviet historians such as Alexander Dugin have proposed that Khrushchev himself was responsible for Stalin’s death. The primary evidence for this theory comes from Khrushchev’s apparent suspicious statements at various official events.


For instance, in July 1963, when addressing a diplomatic delegation from Budapest, Khrushchev said:


“There have been many brutal dictators in human history, but all of them died from an axe, just as they also gained power with an axe.”


However, in a transcript of the speech printed in Soviet newspapers, these words were redacted.


Dugin believes that Khrushchev wielded the axe. He proposes that Stalin planned to purge Khrushchev from his position shortly before his death and exile him. But Khrushchev decided to act first and formed a plot to remove Stalin.


3. Death by poisoning 

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Lavrentiy Beria hugging Stalin’s daughter at Stalin’s dacha, 1935, via


The third theory is maybe the most believable, considering the people involved. That Stalin was poisoned by the head of the KGB Lavrentiy Beria as he was on Stalin’s list for execution.


According to historian Nikolai Dobryukha’s book, How Stalin was killed, Beria used rare poisons from either a snake or a spider. To substantiate the claim that the security chief was behind Stalin’s death, Dobryukha cites the words of Stalin’s long time Foreign Affairs Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, who later recalled that after Stalin died Beria remarked that it was he “who saved all of you [high-ranking Soviet officials] from Stalin.”


The cause of Stalin’s death will not cease to be a matter for discussion or comedy, but one fact remains: after officials received news that Joseph Stalin had suffered a stroke, they did not hurry to call doctors. Instead, they preferred to let the old dictator pass away without calling for aid.


Joseph Stalin: Funeral

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Stalin’s funeral, caught on camera by Major Martin Manhoff, 1953, via Manhoff Archives


No matter which theory you believe about how Joseph Stalin died, Stalin’s death was announced the next day, on March 6, and his body was moved to lie in state for the next three days in the House of the Unions. On March 9, Joseph Stalin’s body was transferred to Red Square, where it was interred in the Mausoleum, alongside Lenin himself.


Millions across the Soviet Union and other Soviet satellite states publicly mourned Stalin’s death, and thousands participated in the state funeral in Moscow. However, when Stalin’s coffin was carried through red square, so many people rushed to get close enough to see the great leader that hundreds of mourners were killed in multiple crush events throughout the day. Later on, Nikita Khrushchev admitted that the number of those who died during Joseph Stalin’s funeral was perhaps in the thousands.


“The crowd turned into a monstrous whirlpool. I realized that I was being carried straight towards a traffic light. The post was coming relentlessly closer. Suddenly I saw that a young girl was being pushed against the post. Her face was distorted by a despairing scream which was inaudible among all the other screams and groans. A movement of the crowd drove me against the girl; I did not hear but felt with my body the cracking of her brittle bones as they were broken on the traffic light. I closed my eyes in horror, I could not bear the sight of her insanely bulging, childish blue eyes, and I was swept past. When I looked again, the girl was no longer to be seen. The crowd must have sucked her under.”
(From the memoirs of Evgenii Evtushenko)


After the Death of Joseph Stalin: A Power Struggle

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Stalin’s state funeral procession, 1953, via


Joseph Stalin’s death left a power vacuum as no successor had been appointed or even hinted at by Stalin. There were three emergent figures, however. The first was Lavrenty Beria, head of State Security, whose influence and control over the NKVD made him possibly the most powerful man in the Soviet Union.


The second man who emerged was Georgy Malenkov, the Deputy Head of the Soviet of Ministers. Malenkov oversaw all military projects in the country and therefore had close ties with the military apparatus and the influential men there, including Marshal Georgy Zhukov.


The third man was the head of the Moscow Party Administration, Nikita Khrushchev. Thus, his power base lay with the Party officials. Of the three men, it was widely assumed that Beria would be the most likely to take the reins; however, he would soon come to pay for the monstrous crimes he had committed under Stalin.


The Fall of Beria

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Nestor Lakoba, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenti Beria and Aghasi Khanjian riding the Moscow Metro, 1935, via Armenia National Archive


On June 26, as Beria returned from a trip to East Germany, he was arrested during a meeting of the Soviet of Ministers. He was charged with espionage for the British intelligence services, falsifying criminal cases, and abuse of power.


Khrushchev and Malenkov convinced Beria’s two key deputies in the security services, Ivan Serov and Sergei Kruglov, to switch their support from Beria to them, leaving Beria exposed as they controlled both the Ministry of the Interior troops as well as the Kremlin guard. Additionally, the military under Zhukov lined up against Beria, suddenly leaving him with no protection. Beria was subsequently tried, found guilty and executed in December.


The Two Contenders for Soviet Power

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Nikolai Bulganin standing with Georgi Malenkov, Maxim Z. Saburov and Premier of Russia Nikita S. Khrushchev during a garden party at the Indian Embassy, 1956, via TimeLife


Malenkov was a popular man among the intelligentsia and the more artistic communities. He favored a relaxation of the total state control over both science and the arts and wanted to create financial incentives for the labour force to try and increase production.


He was also interested in switching the country’s economic focus towards light industry and consumer goods while simultaneously lowering prices of daily consumption goods. Radically, he was also in favor of global denuclearization.


Krushchev, by contrast, was a Party man and his support lay firmly with members of the Party and the bureaucracy. Khrushchev did not agree with Stalin’s isolationist foreign policy ideas but disagreed with Malenkov’s desire to get rid of East Germany. He favored some increased political liberalization, but his main area of focus was on reforming agricultural policy. He wanted to see the settlement and agricultural development of Northern Kazakhstan, the Northern Caucasus, and Western Siberia.


The Period of Collective Leadership

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Show trial during Stalin’s purges, via The New Yorker


The period after Beria’s arrest is known as the period of Collective leadership. In September of 1953, Khrushchev was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He used this position to strengthen his position inside the Party itself further, appointing loyal officials to key positions. Malenkov’s indifference to the Party, naturally hurt his popularity. But his chances at taking sole leadership took a severe blow in late 1954 when Krushchev organized an investigation against the MGB, the Ministry of State Security, for their handling of the Leningrad Affair.


That was a fabricated plot in the late 1940s where several prominent politicians in Leningrad were found guilty of high treason and executed. Malenkov, along with Beria, was one of the organizers and supervisors of the show trials. Following this blow, Malenkov was criticized by other party leaders and Khrushchev for the economic failures caused by the government.


On February 8, 1955, he was forced to resign as head of the Soviet of Ministers and instead took on a new role as Minister of Power Stations. This may seem unremarkable from a 21st Century perspective but was extraordinary in the Soviet Union of the 1950s. A political opponent was removed from a prominent office not by arrest or execution but rather just by being appointed to a different role.


Rise of Khrushchev and the Start of De-Stalinization 

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Opening of the XX Congress of the CPSU, with Nikita Khrushchev speaking, 1956, via RussianPhoto


Nikita Khrushchev was now the new unopposed sole leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. By the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, Khrushchev had consolidated his power over the Party itself. His intent at the Congress was to publicly speak to the crimes and the cult of personality during Stalin’s leadership. However, he was convinced by the rest of the Party leadership to at least give the speech in a closed session.


Although the Congress had officially ended on February 24, Khrushchev invited the delegates themselves but not journalists or foreign invitees to a special closed session on the morning of the 25th. For four hours that morning, Khrushchev spoke and criticized the cult of personality created in the Soviet Union, surrounding Stalin.


For four hours, he denounced Stalin’s crimes, his brutality, and the abuses of power. He also criticized the idea of the inevitability of war between communism and capitalism, stating that communism would eventually prevail. The speech, naturally, sent shockwaves through the entire Socialist world.


Delegates in attendance were even said to feel physically ill as a result of the speech. Internationally, countries like China, North Korea, and Albania categorically rejected any notion of de-Stalinization. In other places, such as Hungary and Poland, the speech is recognized as encouraging anti-communist uprisings. Inside the USSR, many people reacted enthusiastically to the new course being set, even going so far as to vandalize the symbols of the Stalin era. Stalin’s native Georgia rioted for four days, calling for the resignation of Khrushchev and for Molotov to take over.


After Joseph Stalin: Khrushchev Is the Last Man Standing 


On June 18, a session of the Central Committee of the Communist party was called. There, Khrushchev named the three lead dissenters, Molotov, Malenkov, and Kaganovich, as the Anti-Party Group, denounced their complicity in the crimes of Stalin, and had them expelled from the Central Committee and the Presidium. However, in a break from the old days, the three were neither arrested nor executed but rather exiled to minor roles. Zhukov, for his part, was promoted to the Presidium. Still, Khrushchev recognized his popularity as a threat and in October of that same year arranged for his dismissal while Zhukov was on a tour of the Balkans. A similar fate was arranged for Bulganin, and with that, Khrushchev found himself the last man standing.

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By Robin GillhamBA History, MA Russian & Post-Soviet Politics Robin is a keen collector of Soviet artifacts and documents that he has found during his travels across the former Soviet Union especially. He has written two dissertations on the social impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and traveled to the abandoned nuclear town of Pripyat. He also has a passion for Ancient History and the origins of modern consciousness among early civilizations. He holds a BA in History from Bangor University and an MA in Russian and Post-Soviet politics from UCL. In his spare time, he explores abandoned military facilities.