How did Stalin die?

The Russian dictator died 71 years ago today.
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

71 years ago today, on March 5, 1953, Joseph Stalin died. Born December 18, 1878, he had ruled over Russia in various capacities from 1921 until his death, and changed the world in the process. For better or for worse. But how did Stalin die?

Great question, lover of history, and we’ve got your answer. But before we get there, let’s answer some other important questions about Joseph Stalin and his complicated (to say the least) history that you might want to know.

And no, we’re not just stallin’. Let’s get into it.

Who was Joseph Stalin?

Joseph Stalin was born in Georgia, Russia, specifically in the town of Gory. But he wasn’t born Joseph Stalin… His birth name was Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, or Soso for short.

Most of his early life he was poor, and after his father became an abusive alcoholic he left with his mother to wander Russia. Eventually, through a lot of hard work she was able to enroll him in school where he excelled, but also succumbed to sickness including smallpox, which left him with visible facial scars. He was later hit by a carriage, which reduced the use of his left arm.

Fast forward to 1899, and the future Stalin was working as a meteorologist while secretly organizing workers meetings. He joined the Marxist party, though many found him far too militant, as he continued to rise to power.

In the midst of this, there was the Russian Revolution of 1905 – and Stalin met Lenin for the first time. From there, Stalin tussled with the law, lambasted the ruling powers, and was ultimately thrown in prison… And then sentenced to three years of exile. He continued to write and distribute materials against those in charge, have multiple affairs, get thrown in prison and was even exiled to Siberia.

When did Stalin change his name?

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Through most of his revolutionary life he went by the pseudonym Koba. However, that name carried a ton of weight and history to it, and by 1913, it was no longer a viable name to use.

So in 913, Stalin signed “Marxism and the National Question” with the name Joseph Stalin. Where that name came from? Unfortunately we don’t really know, since Stalin made a lot of his history secret – and historians have essentially had to be archaeologists, unearthing his secret history far after the fact.

How did Stalin come to power?

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Stalin began consolidating power based on his key role in that aforementioned revolution: he was the man behind the scenes, working on the newspaper and helping coordinate the coup at the center of the revolution.

While Lenin took power at first, Stalin was building his own power in the background, commanding the Russian military and building his own coalition of allies. Lenin, meanwhile, really did not like Stalin at all. And even when the former had a stroke in 1922 that left him mostly paralyzed, he was still dismissive of Stalin, arguing with him constantly.

So it is with some level of irony that when Lenin died in 1924, Stalin used the opportunity to further the breadth of his influence until, despite a ton of competition, he managed to exile or diminish his competitors enough to become the leader of the party.

How many people did Stalin kill?

According to Genocide, a 2014 book by William D. Rubinstein, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 7 million people, or 4.2% of the total population of the USSR at the time. Other historians estimate the amount anywhere between 6 million and 9 million people, depending on whether you take into account policies put forward by Stalin that indirectly caused their deaths. However you look at it, he was responsible for a shocking number of dead Russians and others.

How tall was Stalin?

Premier Joseph Stalin and President Harry S. Truman
Premier Joseph Stalin and President Harry S. Truman / Library of Congress/GettyImages

Similar to other leaders (cough Napoleon cough), Stalin wasn’t proud of his height. He was reportedly 5’5”, but the rumor was that he was only 5’2”. So consequently, he had paintings and other depictions make him look much taller than he actually was.

Did Stalin speak English?

There’s actually a fair amount of debate about this. Rumor has it that Stalin pretended not to speak English, so that he could eavesdrop on British and American interpreters. Other reports say he could speak English, but just barely. And others say that he couldn’t speak English at all, because the language wasn’t important to Russians. In fact, Stalin made learning Russian mandatory in Russian schools, and promoted Russian superiority. Point being, it’s possible he knew some English, but not likely.

Was Stalin Jewish?

Stalin was decidedly not Jewish. While Gory – where he grew up – was a mix of Jews and others, and Stalin railed against the pogroms slaughtering Jews throughout Russia in his early years, it’s arguable he was using that as a political point – not something he believed.

In fact, not only was Stalin not Jewish, he was pretty not-so-secretly anti-Semitic, roiling up animosity for Jews through secondary parties and using their pain to further his political ambitions. Despite this, he also maintained friendships with some Jewish people, and had affairs with Jewish women.

But yeah: not Jewish.

Was Stalin a good leader? Was Stalin a dictator?

I don’t think we can effectively answer this question here at Ask Everest, as whether Stalin was a good leader is something that has been debated for decades. He was, however, a dictator, based on the strictest dictionary definition of the word. Historical reports vary as to whether Stalin ever had total control over Russia, something he himself worked towards fighting against by putting his own puppets in positions of seeming power. But he behaved in an autocratic way, which is the secondary definition of the word “dictator". So there is that.

How did Stalin die?

On March 1, 1953, Stalin was found on the floor having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. For three days he lay on the couch, treated with leeches and other attempts to get him better. But on March 5, 1953, he died, and his passing was announced the next day.

Here’s the thing, though: he was probably actually murdered. Poisoned, more specifically, as further confirmed by a report in the New York Times from 2022. Though we don’t know the exact culprit, it was most likely someone from his inner circle who did the deed, poisoning him with warfarin.

While we may never know the full truth of the matter, this seems like the most likely outcome for how Stalin died. As is, we may never know the full truth.

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