On the 45th Death Anniversary of Stalin

The Last Mystery of Stalin

Edward Radzinsky

The first accounts by actual witnesses of Stalin's death were published in the book about Stalin written by Dmitri Volkogonov. Based on what he had been told by Stalin's security guard, A. Rybin, Volkogonov wrote: 'Stalin died at the Nearer Dacha. One of his guards, Starostin, found Stalin lying on the floor after a stroke...'

But by that time, I already knew that Volkogonov was wrong about Starostin. I was lucky to have found and read some unpublished memoirs called An Iron Soldier by the same A. Rybin in the Museum of the Revolution. In the manuscript there were some quite mind-shattering pages.

The Master's Incredible Order

Rybin himself had long since -- in 1935 -- (in fact 1955, ed. R.D.) stopped being one of Stalin's security guards. But on March 5, 1977 (yet another anniversary of Stalin's death) he managed to get together with a few of the guards who had been there at the Nearer Dacha when Stalin died. Based on the stories of those guards (officially they were referred to as 'Stalin factotums'), Rybin wrote his account. First the general thing:

'On the night of February 28/March 1, Politburo members (Central Committee Presidium Bureau members, to be more precise.--Ed.) watched a film in the Kremlin. After the film they went to the dacha. Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov and Bulganin arrived at the dacha and stayed there till four in the morning. Chief factotum M. Starostin and his assistant, V. Tukov, were with Stalin that day. The dacha commandant, Orlov, had a day off, leaving his assistant, Pavel Lozgachev, in charge.'

Matrena Butusova, the maid, was also at the dacha.

After the guests had left, Stalin went to bed. And he never came out of his rooms again.

Apart from the general account, Rybin took the statements of each of the guards -- Starostin, Tukov and Lozgachev -- individually. M. Starostin's was the shortest: 'Starting the hour 19:00, we were concerned about the quiet in Stalin's rooms... The two of us (Starostin and Tukov) were afraid to enter the rooms.' And so they sent Pavel Lozgachev in. It was he who discovered Stalin lying on the floor.

But what really struck me, were the words of V. Tukov and P. Lozgachev. It appeared that Starostin had omitted a remarkable detail from his story: before going to bed. Stalin gave an unprecedented order to his guards.

Tukov: 'After the guests had left, Stalin said to the staff and security guards: "I am going to bed, I will not be calling you any more, you can go to bed, too".' 'STALIN HAD NEVER BEFORE,' writes Tukov, 'GIVEN SUCH AN ORDER.'

So, the Master who had always been obsessed with security, suddenly and FOR THE FIRST TIME tells his own guards to go to bed, leaving the rooms practically unguarded. And that was the very night he had a stroke!

Moreover, the next account by THE CHIEF WITNESS, Lozgachev, who was the first to see him on the floor after the stroke, gave the very same words: 'I', SAID STALIN, 'AM GOING TO BED AND YOU SHOULD GO TO BED, TOO...' 'I CANNOT RECALL ANY PREVIOUS OCCASION', said Lozgachev further on, 'WHEN STALIN GAVE SUCH AN ORDER: "EVERYBODY OFF TO BED."

So I decided to meet Lozgachev.

I rang him many times -- no, actually -- many dozens of times. He was not sure, and put it off again and again. Their fear would stay with them till their graves. 'The secret facility', to which they were assigned - that is how come they called each other 'the assignees', - still ruled their lives. But my persistence won out. Lozgachev gave in.

Who Gave the Order?

In his small flat in Krylatskoe (now a desirable residential area in Moscow,--Ed.) I put down his statements sitting in the tiny kitchen.

Lozgachev: 'On the night of March 1, I was on duty at the dacha....Stalin had the Assignee-in-Chief, Starostin, his assistant, Tukov, myself and Matrena Butusova with him that day. That night some guests were to arrive at the dacha. 'Guests' was what Stalin called the Politburo members who came to see him. As usual, when there were people coming, we discussed the menu with him. So on the night of February 28/March 1, our menu included the grape juice Majari -- I think, three bottles...Majari was a young grape wine, but the Master called it 'juice' because of the low alcohol content. So that night, the Master called me and said 'Give us the juice, a couple of bottles each'...Who was there that night? His usual guests were Beria, Malenkov, Khrushchev, and a man with a beard -- Bulganin. A while later he called me again: 'Bring some more juice.' Well, we did. All was quiet. We drew no criticism. Then it was four in the morning...Shortly after four we ordered the cars to drive up to the door. When the Master was seeing guests off, the Assignee had to be with him -- it was his job to close the doors behind them. And so the Assignee, Ivan Vassilievich Khrustalev, closed the doors and turned to face the Master. STALIN SAID TO HIM: "WHY DON'T YOU ALL GO TO BED. I won't be needing anything else. I am also going to bed."

'And so Khrustalev came back and said happily: "Well, fellows, this is the first time ever... and he repeated the Master's words to us"...'

Here Lozgachev added: 'And indeed, IN ALL THE YEARS THAT I HAD WORKED THERE, THAT WAS THE ONLY TIME WHEN THE MASTER SAID: "GO TO BED"... NORMALLY HE WOULD ASK "ARE YOU TIRED?", HIS EYES BORING RIGHT THROUGH YOU. So that you instantly forgot about sleep. But that time, why, we were so happy to hear that order that we went to bed right off.'

'Wait a second,' I asked him, 'but what has Khrustalev got to do with it? You never mentioned him being at the dacha...'

Lozgachev: 'The Assignee Khrustalev was at the dacha till 10 in the morning, then left to rest, Mikhail Grigorievich Starostin replaced him.' (this is why Starostin never told Rybin about that strange order of Stalin's -- he simply never heard it.--E.R.).

So, that night at the dacha they only drank light wine -- no brandies or liquors that might have provoked an illness. The Master, according to Lozgachev, 'was well-disposed'. While, when he was ill, also according to Lozgachev, 'his moods varied -- you had better stay away'.

But that was not the main thing. The main thing was the phrase 'Why don't you go to bed'. It was 'the first time' Lozgachev had heard the Master say that. TO BE MORE PRECISE, NOT THE MASTER, BUT KHRUSTALEV. IT WAS KHRUSTALEV WHO RELAYED THE MASTER'S ORDER and left in the morning. That phrase violated the time-honoured rite: it sent everybody off to bed, that is, left Stalin's rooms unguarded. And it told them not to watch one another. And that was precisely what happened.

'No Movement'

Lozgachev: 'The next day was Sunday. At ten, as usual, we were gathered in the kitchen, just about to plan things for the day.'

So, complying with the order Lozgachev had slept till 10 a.m. And naturally, he did not know what his colleagues had been doing during the night. For example, what had Khrustalev himself, the man who had related that order so incredibly untypical of the Master, done? And who, the following morning, went, home.

Lozgachev: 'At ten there was no movement' (the phrase we used for when he was asleep) in his rooms. And then it struck eleven -- and still no movement. At twelve -- still none. That was already strange: usually he got up between 11 and 12, but sometimes he was awake as early as 10. Soon it was one -- still no movement. His telephones may have rung, but when he was asleep they were normally switched through to other rooms.

'Starostin and I were sitting together and Starostin said: 'There's something wrong. What shall we do?'

'And indeed, what were we to do -- go in to him? But he had always told us categorically: if there was 'no movement', we were not to go in. Or else we'd be severely punished. So there we were, sitting in our lodge (connected with his rooms by a 25-metre corridor), it was already six in the evening, and we had no clue what to do. Suddenly the guard outside rang us: 'I can see the light in the small dining room.' Well, we thought, thank God, everything was OK. We were all at our posts, on full alert, ready to go, and then, again... nothing. At eight -- nothing. We did not know what to do. At nine -- 'no movement'. At ten -- none. I said to Starostin: 'Go on, you go, you are the chief guard, it's your responsibility.' He said: 'I am afraid.' I said: 'Fine, you're afraid, but I'm not about to play the hero.'

'At that moment some mail was delivered -- a package from the Central Committee. And it was usually our duty to hand over the mail. Mine, to be more exact. 'All right, then,' I said. 'Wish me luck, boys'. We normally went in making some noise -- sometimes even banged the door on purpose -- to let him know we were coming. He did not like it if you came in quietly. You had to walk in with confidence, sure of yourself, but not stand too much at attention. Or else he would tell you off: 'What's all this good soldier Schweik stuff?'

'Well, I opened the door, walked loudly down the corridor. The room where we put documents was right next to the small dining room. I went into that room and looked through the open door into the small dining room and saw the Master lay on the floor, his right hand out-stretched...like this (Lozgachev stretched out his half-bent arm--E.R.). I froze. My arms and legs refused to obey me. He had not yet lost consciousness, but he could not talk. His hearing was fine, he'd obviously heard my footsteps and seemed to be trying to summon me to help him.

'I ran to him and asked: "Comrade Stalin, what's wrong?" He'd wet himself and he wanted to pull something up with his left hand. I said to him: "Should I call a doctor?" and in reply he just mumbled: "Dz...Dz...", incoherently.

'On the floor there was a pocket-watch and a copy of Pravda. And the watch showed, when I looked at it, half past six. So this had happened to him at half past six. On the table, I remember, there was a bottle of Narzan mineral water. He must have been going to get it when the light went on. While I was talking to him, which must have been for two or three minutes, suddenly he snored quietly... I heard this quiet snoring, as if he was sleeping.

'I picked up the receiver of the intercom, my hands shaking and sweat beading on my forehead, and phoned Starostin: "Come to the house, quick." Starostin came in, and stood petrified. The Master had lost consciousness. I said: "Let's lay him on the sofa, he's not comfortable on the floor." Tukov and Motia Butusova came in behind Starostin. Together, we put him on the sofa. I said to Starostin: "Go and phone everybody, and I mean everybody." He went off to phone, but I did not leave the Master. He lay motionless, except for snoring. Starostin phoned Ignatiev at the KGB, but he panicked and told Starostin to try Beria and Malenkov. While he was phoning, we got an idea -- to move him to the big sofa in the large dining room. There was more air there. Together, we lifted him and laid him down on the sofa, then covered him with a blanket -- he was shivering from the cold. Butusova unrolled his sleeves.

'At that point Starostin got through to Malenkov. About half an hour had gone by when Malenkov phoned us back and said: "I can't find Beria." Another half hour passed, Beria phoned: "Don't say anything to anybody about Comrade Stalin's illness".'

The Lie

So, an hour passed, and no one came to the dying man, the former Master. Only the assignees sat by him and waited.

Nikita Khrushchev was the only one of his comrades-in-arms to describe the night of the tragedy in detail in his Memoirs. And he described it very strangely: 'Suddenly Malenkov phoned: "Look, the security boys have phoned from Stalin's place (he gave their names). They are very worried, something's happened to Stalin. We've got to go there. I've already phoned Beria and Bulganin. You go straight there. I'm coming, and they'll be along shortly."

'I immediately ordered my car... We agreed not to go straight to Stalin, but first stop by the security lodge.'

And so, according to Khrushchev, all four of the previous night's guests left AT ONCE.'

Khrushchev continues: 'We dropped in at the guard house and asked: "What's happening?" They explained: "Usually, by this time, 11 in the evening, Stalin has always phoned, summoned us, ordered tea... But not this time. The guards said that they'd already sent Matrena Petrovna Butusova in to find out what was the problem (the maid was not at all intelligent, but honest, and devoted to Stalin). She came back and said: "Comrade Stalin was lying on the floor, asleep, and there was a puddle under him, he'd wet himself. The guards had lifted Stalin and laid him on the sofa in the small dining room. When they told us that something untoward had happened and that he was asleep now, we decided it would be a mistake to go in... while he was in such an unseemly state. So we all went back home."

So, according to Khrushchev, they arrived RIGHT AWAY. But, finding out about the master's unseemly state, the four tactfully left again. But in fact, what happened was entirely different.

Lozgachev: 'At 3 o'clock in the morning, I heard a car approaching. (This was about four hours after our first phone call. Stalin had lain without help for about four hours -- and only now a car was coming.--E.R.). Malenkov and Beria arrived. (Khrushchev was not there.--E.R.) Malenkov had squeaky boots. I remember how he took them off and stuck them under his arm. He came in: "What's up with the Master?" He was lying there, snoring gently... Beria swore at me: "What are you panicking for? The Master is sound asleep. Let's go, Malenkov!"

'I explained everything to him - how he'd been lying on the floor and how he'd just gone 'dz'. Beria said to me: "Don't panic, and don't bother us. And don't disturb Comrade Stalin." And they left.'

And so, having resolved that the seventy-four-year-old man, who had been lying for four hours in his own urine, was "sleeping peacefully", his comrades-in-arms left, leaving the Master once again without help.

Lozgachev: 'And again, I was left alone. I thought I should call Starostin again and have him alert everybody again. I said: "If you don't, he'll die, and our heads will roll. Phone them and tell them to come".'

From the Memoirs of N. Khrushchev: 'AFTER A SHORT TIME there was another phone call. Malenkov phoned and said: "Comrade Stalin's guards have called again. They say that there really is something wrong with Comrade Stalin. Though Matrena Petrovna said that he was sleeping peacefully, when we sent her in, I don't think it's normal. We need to go out again." We decided, the doctors should be summoned.'

Lozgachev: 'Sometime after seven in the morning Khrushchev turned up. (That was when he first made an appearance - E.R.). Khrushchev: "How's the Master?" I said: "He's very poorly, there's something wrong." And I told him the whole story. Khrushchev said: "The doctors are on their way." Well, I thought, thank God. Between half past nine and nine (after he had lain for 13 hours without help!--E.R.) the doctors arrived.'

We would never know what really happened that night in the Master's locked rooms. But there are only two possible scenarios:

either the Master had lost his mind and did give the order sending everybody to bed, and then had a stroke in the night, or...

or Khrustalev had been ordered by somebody to send his staff off to bed. So that he -- or that somebody else, a stranger -- could be alone with the Master.

After the arrest of Vlasik (who for years had been Stalin's Chief Guard--Ed.) Beria, naturally, recruited his people in the guard that was left without any supervision. He had to make the most of any chance to survive.

Did Khrustalev go inside his room? Or was it somebody else? Did they give Stalin, who was sleeping off the Majari, some injection? Did the injection provoke the stroke? And, feeling bad, did the Master wake up and try to save himself? But the injection was effective -- and he could only make it to the table?

If that was how it was, then we can understand the astounding daring of the comrades-in-arms: on hearing what had happened they did not hurry to help. As if they knew for certain WHAT HAD HAPPENED and that the Master was already harmless.

But even in the first scenario, too, the four calmly and CONSCIOUSLY left Stalin to die without any help.

So they KILLED him in both the scenarios. Killed him cowardly, just as they lived. And Beria had perfect right to say to Molotov the words, which the latter used to repeat later: 'I've taken care of him.'

Chronicle of the Last Hours

Lozgachev: 'The doctors were all scared stiff... They stared at him and shook. They had to examine him, but their hands were too shaky. To make it worse, the dentist took out his plates, and dropped them by accident. He was afraid. Professor Lukomsky said: 'We must get his shirt off and take his pressure.' I tore his shirt off and they started taking his blood pressure. Then everybody examined him and asked us when he had collapsed. We thought: that was it, the end. They'll just put us in the car and there you are. But no, thank God, the doctors came to the conclusion that he'd had a haemorrhage. Then there were lots of people, and, actually, from that moment we did not have anything to do with it. I stood in the door. People -- the newly arrived -- crowded around behind me. I remembered Minister Ignatiev was too scared to come in. I said to him -- go on, come in. That day, the second of March, they brought Svetlana.'

Svetlana writes in her book: 'They also called Vassily, but he was drunk and soon left and joined the guards. He screamed in their office that his father had been killed -- till he went back home. They put on leeches and ex-rayed his lungs. Then there was a special session of the Academy of Medical Sciences to decide what to do. They brought an iron lung machine. The huge contraption just stood there, idle, while the young specialists stared wildly.'

Leaving Bulganin with Stalin, the comrades-in-arms went back to Moscow -- to his office.

While the Master was dying, his office continued functioning. According to the "Stalin's Visitors Register', on March 2, at 10:40, the three -- Beria, Malenkov, and Khrushchev -- arrived back from the dacha and got together in his office. They were joined by the disgraced Molotov, Mikoyan, Voroshilov, Kaganovich and the other members of the Central Committee Presidium -- second-rank functionaries. And, evidently, started to divide the power. After that, Beria, Malenkov and the emboldened Voroshilov and Mikoyan went off to the dacha to watch over the dying man.

At half past eight in the evening, according to the Register, they all gathered again in Stalin's office and continued to divide the power. In the morning out to the dacha again. And that went on every day.

But they did want the helpless, still breathing dead man.

Professor Myasnikov: 'Malenkov let us know that he hoped the doctors could prolong the life of the patient long enough. We all understood that some time was needed to get the new government together and prepare public opinion.

'Stalin sometimes groaned. At one point, only for a brief moment, his conscious gaze seemed to go round the faces by the bed. Then Voroshilov said: "Comrade Stalin, we, all your true friends and colleagues, are here. How are you feeling, dear friend?" But his eyes were devoid of all expression already. We spent all day March 5 injecting things, and writing press releases. Politburo members walked up to the dying man. The lower ranks just looked through the door. I remember that Khrushchev was also by the doors. In any case, the hierarchy was well observed -- Malenkov and Beria came first. Then Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Bulganin and Mikoyan. Molotov was not well, but came over two or three times, for a short time.'

Molotov: 'They told me to come out to the dacha... His eyes were closed, and, when he opened them and tried to speak, Beria would come running and kiss his hand. After the funeral Beria laughed: "The light of science, ha-ha-ha".'

The fifth of March came.

Svetlana: 'Father was dying horribly and hard.. His face went dark and changed... his features were becoming unrecognisable.. The agony was terrible. We could see how it was stifling him.. At the last moment he suddenly opened his eyes. It was a horrid look -- either mad, or angry and full of the horror and sort of either pointed up somewhere, or shook his finger at us all... The next moment his soul, having made its last effort, broke away from his body.'

He died at 21:50.

'Khrustalev, the car!'

Svetlana: 'Beria was the first to run out into the corridor, and in the silence of the hall, where everybody was standing around quietly, came his loud voice ringing with open triumph: "Khrustalev, the car"!'

In this account by Svetlana, the memorable thing is the triumphant voice of Beria: Beria addressing Khrustalev! From all the assignees he was choosing Khrustalev!

Beria was in a hurry. The rest of the comrades-in-arms stayed behind. But then, after standing around for a while, they also rushed back to the Kremlin. To take over the power. A joint session of the Central Committee, the Council of Ministers and the Supreme Soviet Presidium was in progress in the Kremlin at the time. The session was to legalise all the arrangements that had been already made.

The writer Konstantin Simonov, a member of the Supreme Soviet, like all the country, believed that he was still alive. '...I went into the room 40 minutes early, but everybody was already there. We all believed that somewhere nearby in the Kremlin, Stalin was lying unable to regain consciousness... Everybody sat in total silence.. I would never have believed that three hundred people could have sat elbow to elbow in such silence for a whole 40 minutes. Never in my life will I forget that silence. Those, who were on the Bureau of the Presidium of the Central Committee, as well as Molotov and Mikoyan came in through the back door. Malenkov gave an introductory address. The message was this: Comrade Stalin continued to struggle with death, but, even if he won, his condition was so critical... It was impossible to leave the country without leadership. Therefore it was necessary to form a new government.'

So they did. There was no point in pretending. And when, after the session. Simonov came to the Pravda office, the Editor-in-Chief's telephone was ringing. When the man put down the receiver, he said to Simonov: 'Stalin is dead.'

Lozgachev: 'We were told they were taking him to the hospital for embalming. Nobody summoned us to say good-bye to the dead man, we went ourselves. Svetlana did not stay long. Vassily was also there. I would not say he was drunk, but clearly agitated. Then the car with the stretcher came, they put him on it and carried him away -- I saw it myself. And that was it... There we were, standing and looking on.'

I asked Lozgachev: 'They say the Master had a bruise on his body, like somebody had pushed him?' 'There wasn't any bruise, and couldn't be any, nobody had pushed him,' he said. 'KHRUSTALEV WAS THERE WHEN HE WAS BEING EMBALMED and told us that they'd found something in his lungs, some burnt bit. May have got in with the oxygen, when it was pumped in. Otherwise, there was nothing.'

I inquired what became of the 'assignees'.

Lozgachev: 'They got rid of everybody. They'd summon you and send you away from Moscow, 'immediate departure, with the family'. Starostin, Orlov and Tukov decided to go and see Beria. To ask him not to send them away. So they went into his office and he said: 'If you don't want to be out there, you'll be down there.' And he pointed down to the ground. So away they went.'

'And what became of Khrustalev?' I asked.

Lozgachev: 'Khrustalev fell ill and died soon (!!!--E.R.)... Orlov and Starostin were given jobs in Vladimir, and I stayed at 'the facility' -- the facility was empty, with me as superintendent.'

Courtesy: 'Sputnik', Moscow, June 1997.

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