On March 1st, 1953, the morning after an all-night dinner in his country estate outside Moscow centre, Joseph Stalin failed to rise at his usual time. He was discovered lying on the floor of his room only at about 10 p.m. in the evening. The Deputy Prime Minister Lavrentiy Beria was summoned, but neither he nor the politburo called the doctors until the next day. (A few months earlier, aging and paranoid Marshal Stalin fabricated a “Doctors Plot” to assassinate top Soviet leaders). With his drunken son Vasili storming around the room, and the members of the Politburo haplessly wringing their hands, Stalin died on 5th March, and his body was transported back to the city to lay in state at the Hall of Columns, the grand ballroom of the House of Trade Unions, where Lenin had lain in state too.
(It has been suggested that Stalin was assassinated. His Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov claimed that Beria had boasted to him that he poisoned Stalin: “I took him out.” Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that Beria had, immediately after the stroke, gone about “spewing hatred against [Stalin] and mocking him”, and then, when Stalin showed signs of consciousness, dropped to his knees and kissed his hand. When Stalin fell unconscious again, Beria immediately stood and spat. Later autopsies found that Stalin ingested a favorless and powerful rat poison. Indeed, Stalin’s death arrived at a convenient time for many who feared an imminent purge).
The Moscow Radio announced the news in a 47-minutes long bulletin. The next day, red flags went up all over the country in mourning. Those who were indeed not mourning were the motley crew that assembled at his bierside in the above historic photo. On the bier, Stalin was clad in a marshal’s uniform, with only one of his innumerable decorations–the “Hero of Socialist Labor”–on the breast. From left to right are: Molotov, Voroshilov, Beria, Malenkov, Bulganin, Khrushchev, Kaganovich and Mikoyan.
Everyone was stiff and formal but everything was not well within the walls of Kremlin. They found Stalin’s shoes too big to fill. Stalin was succeeded first by a ruling “troika” with Beria, Molotov and Malenkov. Soon afterwards, Beria was purged and replaced by Khrushchev. When Molotov, Malenkov, Bulganin and Kaganovich attempted to pull the same trick of Khrushchev, the latter outmaneuvered them and they were dismissed. Khrushchev in turn was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded Voroshilov as the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet when Voroshilov retired.
Most of them (Khrushchev included) would spend the rest of their lives in obscure retirements. By the time Molotov died in 1986, he was the last of the ’17ers. “Iron Lazar” Kaganovich would nearly outlast the Soviet Union itself, living until 1991. The true survivor, politically wise, was Anastas Mikoyan, who consistently betted on the right horse: he supported Stalin when Lenin died; he denounced Beria’s and Molotov’s attempt to oust Khrushchev, and organized the latter’s de-Stalinization speech. When Mikoyan himself abandoned his support, Khrushchev knew it was the time to leave. Under Brezhnev, he was the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and retired with six Orders of Lenin.
Stalin, photographed by Dmitri Baltermants