What did Joseph Stalin really die of? A reappraisal of his illness, death, and autopsy findings

Cardiovasc Pathol. 2019 May-Jun:40:55-58. doi: 10.1016/j.carpath.2019.02.003. Epub 2019 Feb 20.


Joseph Stalin was one of the most important world leaders during the first half of the 20th century. He died suddenly in early March 1953 after a short illness, which was described in a series of medical bulletins in the Soviet newspaper Pravda. Based on both the clinical history and autopsy findings, it was concluded that Stalin had died of a massive hemorrhagic stroke involving his left cerebral hemisphere. However, almost 50 years later, a counter-narrative developed suggesting a more nefarious explanation for his sudden death, namely, that a "poison," warfarin, a potent anticoagulant, had been administered surreptitiously by one or more of his close associates during the early morning hours prior to the onset of his stroke. In the present report, we will examine this counter-narrative and suggest that his death was not due to the administration of warfarin but rather to a hypertension-related cerebrovascular accident resulting in a massive hemorrhagic stroke involving his left cerebral hemisphere. The counter-narrative was based on the misunderstanding of certain specific autopsy findings, namely, the presence of focal myocardial and petechial hemorrhages in the gastric and intestinal mucosa, which could be attributed to the extracranial pathophysiologic changes that can occur as a consequence of a stroke rather than the highly speculative counter-narrative that Stalin was "poisoned" by the administration of warfarin.

Keywords: Autopsy findings; Death; Joseph Stalin; Reappraisal; Terminal illness.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Portrait
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autopsy
  • Cause of Death
  • Death, Sudden* / etiology
  • Famous Persons
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Hypertension / complications
  • Hypertension / history*
  • Hypertension / pathology
  • Hypertension / therapy
  • Intracranial Hemorrhage, Hypertensive / etiology
  • Intracranial Hemorrhage, Hypertensive / history*
  • Intracranial Hemorrhage, Hypertensive / pathology
  • Intracranial Hemorrhage, Hypertensive / therapy
  • Russia
  • Stroke / etiology
  • Stroke / history*
  • Stroke / pathology
  • Stroke / therapy

Personal name as subject

  • Joseph Stalin