The doctors' stroke of luck

February 16, 1996

Would you save the life of a dictator who was in the habit of arresting doctors whose prognoses displeased him? Zhores Medvedev speculates that Stalin's death was a mite premature

At the beginning of the 1930s Stalin, himself Georgian born, was fascinated by legends about the extraordinarily long lives of Georgian people. In conversations he often spoke about centenarian mountain folk whose only medicine was red wine. In 1937 the director of the Institute of Physiology in Kiev set up a permanent project to investigate Georgian longevity. Stalin encouraged the research. In the newspapers there were frequent stories about healthy Georgians and Abkhazians with excellent memories who had just celebrated their 110th, 120th, even 130th, birthdays.

Stalin's mother lived in Tbilisi at that time. Stalin wrote short letters to her in Georgian, most of them ending with the words "Live a thousand years, Mama!" In a letter written on March 10 1937 he wrote: "They tell me that you are cheerful and well I If that is so, I am really glad. Our family clearly comes from strong stock." In fact, this turned out to be his penultimate letter to her. She died on June 4 1937 at the age of 78.

Stalin's own hopes for a long life were not realised. But is there a link between his death and the legend of Georgian longevity? Did the doctors and party officials attending him withhold medical treatment in that last fatal week of his life, fearing a new wave of terror if he survived? Newly published archival documents paint a different picture of Stalin's last hours to that which is generally accepted.

Stalin died on March 5 1953. There is now no doubt about the date. In the past there were stories that he had actually died a few days earlier and theories that he was killed by Beria or other comrades-in-arms who feared that they were about to be repressed. Until very recently there was also disagreement about whether Stalin died in the morning or evening of March 5. According to the official announcement of his death broadcast over the radio the day after his death he died at 9.50 pm.

A recent biography by Dmitri Volkogonov gives the most detailed account to date. He maintains that Stalin died on the morning of March 5, citing, by way of evidence, Dmitri Shepilov, chief editor of Pravda in 1953: "The phone rang on the morning of the fifth. I heard Suslov's voice. 'Come to the 'corner' (this is what the chief's office was called in Kremlin jargon) quickly. Comrade Stalin is dead'I He rang off I In the office they were deciding how to organise the funeral I" According to the accepted version of history, a combined meeting of the three main organs of power took place on the next day, March 6. It was at this meeting that Georgii Malenkov was officially appointed to the post of chairman of the council of ministers, which Stalin had held. Khrushchev was given the chief position in the Central Committee of the party and Klimentii Voroshilov became chairman of the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet. Lavrentii Beria received the combined ministries of internal affairs and state security, while Nikolai Bulganin became minister of defence. The chronological logic of all these historical events compressed into two days has never seemed in doubt before. However, the recently published minutes of this combined meeting show that the real course of events was rather different.

It appears that the meeting, attended by about 300 people, took place not on March 6 but on March 5 1953, before Stalin's death. According to the minutes, the meeting began at 8.0 pm and finished 40 minutes later. Khrushchev, who chaired the meeting, gave the floor to the minister of health, A. F. Tretyakov, so that he could "give information about the state of health of Comrade I. V. Stalin". The assembled ruling elite went on quickly to redistribute posts. In effect, Stalin was removed from his position of prime minister.

Dmitri Volkogonov does not contend that Stalin was murdered by his colleagues, who were fearful that the wide campaign of arrests and repressions which he had launched in 1953 would affect them. But he does give the impression that Stalin was intentionally deprived of speedy medical assistance when he suffered a stroke from a cerebral haemorrhage on March 1 1953.

Stalin had suffered from insomnia for a considerable period of time. He also had high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis of the blood vessels in the brain. He had already suffered two small strokes which had affected his speech. He did not trust his doctors and would not agree to be hospitalised for treatment. He would only allow Vladimir Vinogradov, one of the leading specialists at the Kremlin hospital, to examine him. But these examinations took place only two or three times a year. In 1952, during a routine check up, Vinogradov found a severe deterioration in Stalin's condition and recommended complete rest and a withdrawal from dealing with daily government business. This advice was also recorded in the special secret medical history of "the illness of I. V. Stalin" which was kept in the Kremlin hospital.

Stalin was furious at this advice and ordered Vinogradov's arrest. Soon almost all the main Kremlin doctors followed Vinogradov into the investigatory prison of the Ministry of State Security. Since it turned out that many of them were Jewish, the "doctors' plot" soon grew into "the Zionists' plot" and began to develop into an anti-Semitic avalanche in January and February 1953. The threat of arrest hung over several members of the Praesidium of the Central Committee and of the government.

On February 28 1953 Stalin invited Khrushchev, Malenkov, Beria and Bulganin to his dacha at Kuntsevo for an evening meal. In his memoirs, Khrushchev recorded that the evening passed off without incident. Stalin had a great deal to drink and was jolly. His colleagues only went home at about five o'clock in the morning on Sunday, March 1.

Stalin usually went to sleep at about 5.0 am and slept until midday. When he got up, he usually rang the duty guard at the dacha and asked him to bring food and the post. On this occasion there were no such orders. Although the duty guards were worried, it was only at about 11.30pm on Sunday that they resolved to go into his room. Members of the guard told Volkogonov that Stalin was lying on the floor of the dining room "in his pyjama trousers and vest". He lifted his hand with difficulty to call the duty guard to his side but he could not say anything. His eyes expressed horror, fear and entreaty. A copy of Pravda lay on the floor and on the table there was an open bottle of Borzhomi mineral water. It was clear that he had been lying there for some time. The guards carried Stalin to a bed in another room and began to telephone, as their instructions supposedly demanded, the minister of state security, Semyon Ignatev.

From that moment a series of events began which can only be called strange. Ignatev took no action and asked the dacha guard to telephone Beria and Malenkov. According to Khrushchev, Malenkov telephoned him at about 2.0 am. He told him that Beria and Bulganin already knew and that the four of them should go quickly to Stalin's dacha at Kuntsevo. They arrived at about 3.0 am.

Only Malenkov and Beria went in to see Stalin, who had already been moved to a bed. Volkogonov discovered that Beria forbade the guards from going into Stalin's room or telephoning anyone. After this all four visitors left. In his memoirs Khrushchev explained their behaviour by saying that they did not want Stalin to find out that they had seen him in such an "unpresentable" state.

On Monday morning Matryona Petrovna, a female attendant whom Stalin trusted, went into the bedroom and found Stalin in an "unusual" state. The guard telephoned Malenkov again and the four colleagues returned to Stalin's dacha at 9.0 am when they decided to summon other party leaders and, at last, some doctors. The doctors were told that Stalin had worked at his desk until the early hours of that morning and was found lying on the floor at 7.0 am. This was untrue but it explains why the first medical bulletin issued on March 4 maintained that the stroke struck Stalin on the night of March 2, rather than, as in fact occurred, at least 24 hours earlier.

That Monday a cardiograph, X-ray machine and artificial ventilation equipment were brought to the dacha. A brain haemorrhage can affect the lungs and it is usual, therefore, to put the patient on artificial ventilation for the first few hours or days. For some reason, however, this equipment was not used. Stalin's daughter, Svetlana, who was called to the dacha that day maintained that "the unwieldy machine stood idle".

On Tuesday, the following day, according to the accounts of both Khrushchev and Svetlana, Stalin periodically regained consciousness, making signs with his left hand and taking food from a spoon. The deterioration in his condition was gradual and Stalin's daughter and his son, Vasilii, who was also called to his father's side that evening, believed that the deterioration was caused by an increasing lack of oxygen.

The course of Stalin's illness was monitored continuously by the doctors who kept a special journal. They also recorded all the treatment. The journal disappeared without trace later. However, several obvious facts - the nearly 24-hour delay before calling the doctors in, the refusal to hospitalise Stalin immediately (essential in cases of brain haemorrhage), the refusal to use artificial ventilation - are sufficient to allow one to doubt whether the colleagues who supervised Stalin's treatment were very interested in keeping him alive. Perhaps they remembered the example of Lenin, who lived in his dacha from 1922 to 1924, partially paralysed after a stroke and periodically deprived of the ability to speak.

Vasilii, already a lieutenant general of aviation at the time, was the only person who openly maintained after his father's death that Stalin had been killed. When he refused to stop making these claims he was arrested. He was convicted in 1955 and died in prison in 1962.

Today it would clearly be possible to institute an independent expert investigation of all the events of that memorable week in March 1953. But even without such an inquiry one can affirm that Stalin's death saved the country from a new wave of mass terror. Stalin wanted to take revenge not on those who stood in the path of his absolute power (there were no such people left). He wanted vengeance on the people who could not guarantee him at least the usual 100 years of "Georgian" longevity.

Zhores Medvedev is the author of Gorbachev (1986), Soviet Agriculture (1987) and The Legacy of Chernobyl (1990).

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