Comrade Stalin is Dead

By Zinaida Osipova

On September 14, Miami University’s Theatre and Music Departments presented their highly creative piece “Deceptive Cadence: Stories from Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Shchedrin”. It featured music by these Soviet composers, theatrical performances, and original footage from the time. During one act, the footage showed Stalin’s funeral: among the crowd, covered in flowers, there was Stalin’s coffin which the cameraman captured from every possible angle. The footage reminded me of what my grandmother had told me about this March 1953 day. She was in the third grade when the teacher announced to the class that comrade Stalin had died; the whole class, including my grandmother, was in tears over the country’s leader’s death. This recollection made me wonder how the Soviet press described the event. To answer this question, I turned to the Walter E. Havighurst Special Collections’ Pravda Digital Archive. Pravda, the most important Soviet newspaper, announced Stalin’s death with much sorrow yet determination for the continuation of Stalin’s cause. Looking at how the Communist Party communicated Stalin’s health condition to the nation both tells us about the personality cult widely present in the USSR and shows how the government wanted the country to react to the event: remembering Stalin but also uniting in this difficult time to keep working even harder for the bright communist future.

Pravda, meaning “truth”, was the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) between 1918 and 1991. During the Soviet era, members of the CPSU were obligated to read the newspaper. How did the newspaper report its supreme leader’s death to the orphaned nation? Since Stalin died in the evening of March 5th, 1953, the newspaper announced his death on the following day:

On March 5, at 9 hours and 50 minutes in the evening, after a serious illness, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR and Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin passed away.

The heart of Lenin’s comrade-in-arms and the inspired continuer of Lenin’s cause, the wise leader and teacher of the Communist Party and the Soviet people, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, has stopped beating.[1]

Front Page of Pravda (issue 65), March 6, 1953.

Following accolades and the enumeration of Stalin’s achievements, the eulogy reminded citizens of the values and unity of the Party. After enlisting the many noble causes of the CPSU, the article ended with “The immortal name of Stalin will always live in the hearts of Soviet people and all progressive humanity.”[2] Aside from the Party’s address to people, the front page of the newspaper featured two medical reports, one from six hours before Stalin’s death and one summarizing his illness. The second article, signed by the Minister of Health and nine other prominent doctors, informed that it was on the night of March 2 that Stalin first experienced cerebral hemorrhage. Naturally, I turned to earlier issues of Pravda to see when reports of the country’s leader’s health condition first appeared.

The newspaper’s issue from March 2, 1953, covered a range of topics, from elections to local Soviet committees to current events in Korea and Iran, but there was not a word about Stalin’s health.[3] Since the article from March 6 did not mention what time Stalin experienced the cerebral hemorrhage, the absence of a report on March 2 could be attributed to the paper having already been printed by the time the news was received. What about March 3? According to the final report, the condition was severe from the beginning and worsening with each day.[4] Since the condition was so grave, the newspaper must have informed Soviet citizens at least on the following day, but that was not the case. According to Pravda from March 3, 1953, Ashgabat was getting built, Abkhazia was getting ready for tourists’ arrival, and China was adopting a new election law, but there was still no mention of Stalin’s health condition.[5]

It was on March 4 that the government addressed the nation, informing that Stalin was severely ill. Moreover, the Party acknowledged comrade Stalin’s “more or less prolonged non-participation in directing activities”, nonetheless calling it a “temporary leave” in the next paragraph and stressing the importance of unity in the CPSU:

The Central Committee and Council of Ministers express certitude that in this difficult time, our party and all Soviet people will demonstrate the utmost unity, solidarity, toughness of spirit and vigilance, will double their energy in building communism in our country, and will unite even more closely around the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Government of the Soviet Union.[6]

The front page of the next issue of Pravda provided a detailed medical report on Stalin’s condition as of 2 am on March 5.[7] As we can see, the newspaper kept Soviet citizens informed of the country’s leader’s health impairment with a slight delay. Yet once the grave condition was announced, the Party, while being cautious about dismissing Stalin’s leadership for good, did not conceal the seriousness of his state. The following issues of the newspaper spotlighted Stalin’s funeral ceremony, his legacy and continued to stress the unity of the Communist Party during this difficult period. Thus, the case of Stalin’s death is a vivid example of a personality cult in the USSR and of the way the Party controlled the narrative of the leader’s sickness, death, and subsequent transition.

[1] Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Council of Ministers of the USSR, Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. “От Центрального Комитета Коммунистической Партии Советского Союза, Совета Министров Союза Сср И Президиума Верховного Совета Ссср: Ко Всем Членам Партии, Ко Всем Трудящимся Советскою Союза.” Pravda, March 6, 1953, p.1

[2] ibid

[3] Pravda, March 2, 1953.

[4] Minister of Health of the USSR A.F. Tretyakov, Head of Medical Health Management of Kremlin I.I. Kuperin, Chief Physician of the Ministry of Health of the USSR, Professor P.I. Lukomsky,  Full Member of the Academy of Medical Sciences, Professor N.V. Konovalov, Full Member of the Academy of Medical Sciences, Professor A.L. Myasnikov,  Full Member of the Academy of Medical Sciences, Professor E.M. Tareev, Corresponding Member of the Academy of Medical Sciences, Professor I.N. Filimonov, Professor I. S. Glazunov, Professor R.A. Tkachev, Docent V.I. Ivanov-Neznamov. “Медицинское Заключение О Болезни И Смерти И. В. Сталина.” Pravda, March 6, 1953, 1.

[5] Pravda, March 3, 1953

[6] Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Council of Ministers of the USSR. “Правительственное Сообщение О Болезни Председателя Совета Министров Союза СCР И Секретаря   Центрального Комитета КПСС Товарища Иосифа Виссарионовича Сталина.” Pravda, 1.

[7] Pravda, March 5, 1953.

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