What killed Lenin? Poison called possibility

UMd. panel speculates on dictator’s death

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BALTIMORE — Stress, family medical history or possibly even poison led to the death of Vladimir Lenin, contradicting a popular theory that a sexually transmitted disease debilitated the Soviet Union’s founder, a UCLA neurologist said.

Dr. Harry Vinters and Russian historian Lev Lurie reviewed Lenin’s records Friday for an annual University of Maryland School of Medicine conference that examines the deaths of famous figures.

The conference is held yearly at the school, where researchers in the past have re-examined the diagnoses of figures including King Tut, Christopher Columbus, Simon Bolivar and Abraham Lincoln.

The 53-year-old Soviet leader suffered several strokes before dying in 1924, and what caused them isn’t clear.

An autopsy found blood vessels in his brain were extremely hardened, results that have been difficult to understand, said Dr. Philip Mackowiak, who organizes the yearly event.

“No. 1, he’s so young, and No. 2, he has none of the important risk factors,” Dr. Mackowiak said.

Lenin didn’t smoke; he never let smokers near him. He also didn’t have diabetes, wasn’t overweight, and the autopsy didn’t find any evidence of high blood pressure, said Dr. Mackowiak, director of the medical care clinical center of the VA Maryland Health Care System, a co-sponsor of the event.

There was “considerable suspicion” among Russians at the time of Lenin’s death that syphilis was to blame, Dr. Mackowiak said.

Lenin was treated for syphilis using the primitive medications available at the time, and while the sexually transmitted disease can cause strokes, there is no evidence from his symptoms or the autopsy that was the case with Lenin, Dr. Vinters said.

The Soviet dictator’s father died at 54, and both may have been predisposed to hardening of the arteries. Stress also is a risk factor for strokes, and there’s no question the communist revolutionary was under plenty of that, the neurologist said.

“People were always trying to assassinate him, for example.” Dr. Vinters said.

Mr. Lurie, a St. Petersburg-based expert in Russian history and politics, who also spoke at the conference, said that while Lenin had several strokes, he believes Josef Stalin may have finished him off with poison, a theory that Dr. Vinters said is a possibility.

Lenin’s health had been growing worse over time. In 1921, he forgot the words of a major speech, and he had to learn to speak again and write with his left hand after one stroke. However, Mr. Lurie said Lenin had recovered enough in early 1924 that he celebrated the new year and went hunting.

Mr. Vinters, who reviewed autopsy records and the leader’s clinical history, said toxicology tests that might have revealed poisoning were not conducted. Reports from the time also show Lenin was active and talking a few hours before his death.

“Then he experienced a series of really, really bad convulsions, which is quite unusual for someone who has a stroke,” Mr. Vinters said.

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