How Soviet People Learned About the Death of Joseph Stalin and Said Goodbye to Him

NEW – March 5, 2023

Exactly 70 years ago – on March 5, 1953 – Joseph Stalin died. His personality still causes heated discussions, but back then, in 1953, this death was a real shock and tragedy for the vast majority of Soviet people. Only eight years have passed since the end of the Great Patriotic War, the confrontation with former allies was growing, and many feared for fragile peace. “How do we live on?”, “So what now?” — such questions were asked by people who could not hold back tears after the news was announced on the radio and through street speakers. This material is about how the farewell to Stalin and his funeral, which turned into a tragedy, took place and how these days were remembered by eyewitnesses.

Scale of personality

It was 1953, and only eight years had passed since the end of the Great Patriotic War. The USSR secured the status of one of the superpowers and acquired a nuclear potential. The formation of the Eastern European bloc of socialist countries seems to have shown that the spread of left-wing ideas around the globe is not a utopia. And the symbol of victory and global change was, of course, Joseph Stalin. In most Soviet families, he was treated as a saviour and an undisputed leader.

“We back then lived in Volgorechensk, Kostroma region. We had a portrait of the chief in our house. We also had a bust of him,” Mariya Kondrashina told Izvestiya. “I remember the day of Stalin’s death very well, I was then 16 years old. I was getting ready to go to school, it was about two kilometres away by foot, so I had to wake up at five in the morning. My parents were going to the factory, and when we went outside, the death of Joseph Stalin was announced over the loudspeaker. For a moment, the entire village seemed to freeze. And then all the women in the street started crying.”

Mariya Kondrashina looked at her father and saw a tear. After that, the heroine herself could not hold back.


“It was a blur all day. Classes at school were canceled, and in the evening my father told everyone to get ready — we will go to Moscow to say goodbye to Stalin,” the woman shared her memories.

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At school, the news of the death of the country’s leader was caught by the future People’s Artist of Russia Vasily Bochkaryev.

“In the staff room, teachers were crying, someone was crying. And there was one question: ‘How do we live on? How will we be without our father?’ he recalled in a recent interview with Izvestiya. “At the moment, everyone was orphaned. The memories are so vivid that I can still remember the smell of valerian that was all over the corridors and offices of the school. Then there was Stalin’s funeral, where I was knocked over.”

The farewell ceremony was held from March 6 to 9 in the Column Hall of the House of Unions, located on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. Tens of thousands of people went to see Joseph Stalin for the last time.

“People pass by the coffin in mournful silence. Mothers hold their children high in their arms. Our children, learning to pronounce the first words, together with the name of their mother, pronounce the name of Stalin, great and infinitely dear to them,” Izvestiya wrote in a report from the farewell on March 8.

“I was still a child, six years old, and I didn’t understand much,” Tamara Balonova shared her memories with Izvestiya. “But I’ve never seen so many people. Huge crowds with black armbands, all with mourning faces. I saw my mother crying, and my father discussing with passers-by how the country will live on. Most of all, they were afraid that the war would start again.”

Tamara’s family decided to say goodbye to Joseph Stalin on March 7. However, the journey to the House of Soviets took 5-6 hours. She was able to see the body of the leader only in the evening.


“Stalin was lying in a coffin in his gray-green uniform. His chest was decorated with a huge number of different medals, mourning music played. Many did not want to leave his coffin, crying loudly. We got home closer to night. There were huge military trucks with searchlights everywhere that shone as brightly as if it were day,” Tamara Balonova said.

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A bloody farewell

The funeral of Joseph Stalin itself took place four days after his death. Preparation of the route from the House of Unions to Red Square began at seven in the morning. 4,400 soldiers and about 12,000 civilians lined up at the Kremlin. The coffin was carried by the main figures of the country, including Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrentiy Beria, Vyacheslav Molotov and others.

The funeral was remembered by the citizens of the USSR and the terrible crush that formed in the Trubnaya Square area. The writer Edvard Radzinsky called this episode “Stalin’s bloody farewell to the people”, as he miraculously survived then.

As a result of the stampede, according to official data announced by the authorities at the time, about a hundred people were killed. However, according to witnesses, the picture was so horrifying that there could have been more real victims. But there is still no reliable information about the number of people killed that day — all data is classified.

“At some point, loud shouts began to be heard from the crowd,” recalls Mariya Kondrashina. “People began to walk as close to each other as possible in principle. Dad reacted quickly, grabbing my mum and me firmly by the arms and leading us out of the crowd.”


The family of Maria Kondrashina miraculously escaped from the flow of people and immediately went to friends who lived nearby.

“The next day, at breakfast, my friends told me that people had died yesterday. Neighbours found out that the police were collecting corpses and things at night,” our interlocutor added.

Despite the silence of the authorities, the scale of the tragedy that occurred during the funeral covered Muscovites in the morning of the next day. If back on March 9, people were crowding around the House of Unions, now – at the capital’s morgues.

Country symbol

Now it is difficult to realise the scale of the personality of Joseph Stalin, which was formed in the minds of the inhabitants of the Soviet Union, since for them he was not just a person, but a symbol of the great victory, says historian Armen Gasparyan.

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“The death of Joseph Stalin caused pain in the Soviet people, comparable only to the feelings after the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924. Of course, other leaders of the Soviet Union also died, but this did not cause such a reaction, because the reaction was different, after all, Stalin, even against the background of other leaders of the country, is a different figure. And, of course, then it seemed to many that life was over. People were afraid that the war would start again immediately,” the historian told Izvestiya.

But there were also those for whom the news of Stalin’s death was joyful, Armen Gasparyan stressed. For example, prisoners convicted under Article 58 of the Criminal Code of the USSR – for anti-Soviet or counter-revolutionary activities. They had hope for a new life and a review of their sentences.


“In general, Stalin at that time was the person with whom the salvation of the country from fascism was associated. His profile was on the medal for victory in the Great Patriotic War. Of course, now it is difficult to understand such an attitude towards the country’s leader, but it was a different era. For those people, Stalin was more than a man. His figure had a certain almost religious meaning,” Armen Gasparyan emphasised.

The personality of Joseph Stalin was ambiguous, in particular, because of his policy of repression. But even though the communist ideology was considered hostile in Europe, world politicians felt respect for the leader of the USSR, Vladislav Fedotov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, told Izvestiya.

“Former US President Harry Truman called Stalin an honest and very intelligent person. Winston Churchill believed that Russia was lucky that such a strong leader stood at the head of the country,” the expert noted.

But still, most foreign politicians believed that Stalin’s death would weaken the country and remove it from the rank of a “superpower”, and future leaders would be more compliant.

Roman Soldatov

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