JUST HOW MANY millions of deaths Joseph Stalin was responsible for is disputed, but that the figure runs into millions is not in doubt. To the end, when he was in his seventies and approaching his own death, his subordinates continued to carry out his murderous orders.
Stalin was paranoid in any case and in his later years he suffered from arteriosclerosis. There's a theory that this may have exacerbated his temper, which became ever more savage as he grew older. His doctor, Vladimir Vinogradov, noticed a marked change for the worse in Stalin's health early in 1952. When he suggested that the dictator start to take things more easily, the patient flew into a furious rage and had him arrested.
Several other medical men were arrested in 1952. Some of them were Jewish and newspaper tirades against `murderers in white gowns' provoked widespread rumours about a medical conspiracy. There were whispers of babies killed in maternity wards and patients being given poisoned medicines. In January 1953 the Tass press agency reported the arrest of nine members of `a criminal group of killer doctors', accused of murdering prominent Soviet figures. Six of the nine were Jews. More doctors were arrested and although many of them were not Jewish, there was an outbreak of anti-Semitism and Jews were attacked in the streets. Stalin meantime was seriously considering a plan to deport all Soviet Jews to Siberia.
The accused doctors' lives were saved by Stalin's own death. He had begun to feel his age and tell his subordinates that he had not long left to live. His senior colleagues, their homes and offices bugged by the security police, were all terrified of him. At a meeting of the Central Committee of the Party in October 1952 Stalin announced that he was too old to cope any longer and asked to be relieved of his post as Secretary General. Georgi Malenkov, in the chair, paled for fear that the other members would not instantly stand up to protest and demand that the request be denied. Fortunately for him, they did.
Stalin left the Kremlin for his dacha at Kuntsevo, outside Moscow, in mid-February 1953, for the last time. There are conflicting reports of what happened, but after a routine night of heavy drinking until the early hours of March 1st, the guards became alarmed when there was no sound from their master all day and late in the evening a guard or a maid ventured in and found him lying on the floor of his bedroom. …