On March 4, 1953, Soviet citizens woke up to an unthinkable announcement: Joseph Stalin, the country’s all-powerful leader, had died of a stroke. In...

On March 4, 1953, Soviet citizens woke up to an unthinkable announcement: Joseph Stalin, the country’s all-powerful leader, had died of a stroke. In The Last Days of Stalin (Yale University Press, 2016), Joshua Rubenstein recounts the events surrounding the dictator’s death and the sociopolitical vacuum it opened up at home and abroad. After Stalin did not emerge from his room on the morning of March 1, a maid who was sent into his room found him lying in his own urine; doctors’ efforts to save him, including the application of leeches, proved hopeless. The following weeks brought mass grief and halting attempts at reform, including a mass amnesty of Gulag prisoners. Rubenstein argues that the months following Stalin’s death were a missed opportunity for a de-escalation of the Cold War. While Pravda published Eisenhower’s famous chance for peace speech and Soviet officials expressed willingness to negotiate, the State Department under John Foster Dulles viewed Soviet concessions as a moral challenge to resist rather than an opportunity to explore. While Khrushchev went on to denounce Stalin’s cult and relax political controls, a chance for the peaceful reunification of Germany and relaxation of tensions across Europe was lost.


Joy Neumeyer is a journalist and PhD candidate in History at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation project explores the role of death in Soviet culture.

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