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What killed Lenin? Stress ... and maybe poison

Doctors say stress, a genetic predisposition to strokes and possibly even poison hastened the death of Vladimir Lenin, contradicting a popular theory that syphilis debilitated the late Soviet leader.
Image: Lenin on deathbed
Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, seen here on his deathbed in 1924, suffered a debilitating series of strokes at the age of 53 — and forensic researchers say there's a possibility he was poisoned as well. But syphilis doesn't appear to have been a factor, despite the rumors at the time.AP

Stress, a genetic predisposition to strokes and possibly even poison hastened the death of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, medical investigators reported Friday. But syphilis? Not so much.

UCLA neurologist Harry Vinters and Russian historian Lev Lurie reviewed Lenin's medical records, autopsy and family history for an annual University of Maryland School of Medicine conference on famous people's deaths. Past conferences have reviewed the diagnoses for personages ranging from King Tut to Abraham Lincoln.

Lenin was debilitated by several strokes before dying in 1924 at the age of 53, but that raises questions about why he fell victim to such attacks at a relatively young age — and whether those strokes were enough to push him over the edge.

An autopsy found that blood vessels in his brain were extremely hardened, results that have been difficult to understand, said Philip Mackowiak, who organizes the yearly event. "No. 1, he's so young, and No. 2, he has none of the important risk factors," Mackowiak told The Associated Press.

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, Mackowiak said.

There was "considerable suspicion" among Russians at the time of Lenin's death that syphilis was to blame, Mackowiak said.

Vinters said Lenin was treated for syphilis using the primitive medications available at the time. "Syphilis was fairly common in those days," he said. But he saw no evidence in Lenin's symptoms or the autopsy that syphilis was a factor in Lenin's strokes.

Genetic predisposition to a hardening of the arteries was more likely to have played a role in Lenin's decline. Vinters noted that the Soviet leader's father died due to similar causes at the age of 54.

Stress also is a risk factor for strokes, and there's no question the communist revolutionary was under plenty of that. "When someone's trying to assassinate you, that's pretty stressful," Vinters said.

Lurie, a St. Petersburg-based expert in Russian history and politics who also planned to speak at this week's conference in Baltimore, told AP that while Lenin had several strokes, he believes Josef Stalin may have finished him off with poison.

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. A major stroke later left him paralyzed on one side, confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak.

In photos taken at the time, Lenin "really looked like an 80-year-old," Vinters said.

However, Lurie said Lenin had recovered enough in early 1924 that he celebrated the new year and went hunting. Lenin, who supported Stalin's rise to power, may have realized he made a mistake and began aligning himself with Leon Trotsky, which caused Stalin to poison Lenin, the historian said.

Lurie said poisoning was one of Stalin's favorite methods of disposing of enemies. He suggested that it might be worth doing an analysis on tissue from Lenin's brain, which is still preserved in Moscow — but Vinters was doubtful.

"There was actually a lab of the secret police that was focused on designing poisons that would never be detected after they had done their job," Vinters said. "It'll remain a mystery, basically."

Lenin's embalmed body still lies on public display in a Red Square mausoleum, almost 20 years after the collapse of the communist state he helped bring to life. Vinters, who reviewed autopsy records and the leader's clinical history, said toxicology tests that might have revealed poisoning were not conducted during the autopsy. Reports from the time also show Lenin was active and talking a few hours before his death.

"And then he experienced a series of really, really bad convulsions, which is quite unusual for someone who has a stroke," Vinters said.

Poisoned or not, Lenin's autopsy records clearly show that disease had taken a fatal toll, Vinters said. "Vascular disease, either strokes or heart disease, almost certainly would have taken him out in the next few months," he said.

If a patient with Lenin's symptoms came into a doctor's office today, he'd probably be put on lipid-lowering drugs, Vinters said. "He could have been placed on something like Lipitor," Vinters said. "Theoretically, he could have had some interventional work done as well."

Such medical interventions might include inserting a catheter or stents into the blood vessels to clear away the plaque. During his years as vice president, Dick Cheney underwent angioplasty, stent insertions and surgery to address his cardiovascular problems. In March, Cheney received a heart transplant at the age of 71.

Vinters said the University of Maryland School of Medicine's annual checkup on long-dead historical figures offered an opportunity to assess the progress of medical care over the course of decades, centuries and millennia.

"It's very interesting to look at this from a historical perspective," he said. "It's instructive to see how far we've come in understanding cardiovascular disease."

More about historical diagnoses:

This report includes information from The Associated Press.