March 4 — Fifty years after Stalin died, felled by a brain hemorrhage at
his dacha, an exhaustive study of long-secret Soviet records lends new
weight to an old theory that he was actually poisoned, perhaps to avert a
looming war with the United States.
That war may well have
been closer than anyone outside the Kremlin suspected at the time, say the
authors of a new book based on the records.
The 402-page book,
"Stalin's Last Crime," will be published later this month. Relying on a
previously secret account by doctors of Stalin's final days, its authors
suggest that he may have been poisoned with warfarin,
a tasteless and colorless blood thinner also used as a rat killer, during
a final dinner with four members of his Politburo.
They base that theory
in part on early drafts of the report, which show that Stalin suffered
extensive stomach hemorrhaging during his death throes. The authors state
that significant references to stomach bleeding were excised from the
20-page official medical record, which was not issued until June 1953,
more than three months after his death on March 5 that year.
Four Politburo members
were at that dinner: Lavrenti P.
Beria, then chief of the secret police;
Georgi M. Malenkov,
Stalin's immediate successor; Nikita S. Khrushchev, who eventually rose to
the top spot; and Nikolai Bulganin.
The authors, Vladimir
P. Naumov, a Russian historian, and Jonathan
Brent, a Yale University Soviet scholar, suggest that the most likely
suspect, if Stalin was poisoned, is Mr. Beria,
for 15 years his despised minister of internal security.
Beria supposedly boasted of killing Stalin on
May Day, two months after his death. ``I did him in! I saved all of you,''
he was quoted as telling Vyacheslav M.
Molotov, another Politburo member, in Mr. Molotov's 1993 political
reminiscence, ``Molotov Remembers.''
Naumov and Brent dismiss Khrushchev's own
account of Stalin's death, in his memoirs, as an almost
cartoonish distortion of the truth. With
virtually everyone connected to the case now dead, the real story may
never be known, Mr. Brent said in an interview this week.
"Some doctors are
skeptical that if an autopsy were performed, that a conclusive answer to
the question of whether he was poisoned could be found," he said. "I
personally believe that Stalin's death was not fortuitous. There are just
too many arrows pointing in the other direction."
The book, like most
such volumes, paints a chilling portrait of Stalin, at once deeply
paranoid and endlessly crafty, continually inventing enemies and then
wiping them out as part of the terror that killed millions and kept
millions more in the toil that enabled the Soviet Union to leap from
czarism to the industrial age.
Yet modern Russians
are torn about his memory. The latest poll of 1,600 adults by the
All-Russian Public Opinion Center, released today on the eve of the 50th
anniversary of his death, shows that more than half of all respondents
believe Stalin's role in Russian history was positive, while only a third
By the poll's
reckoning, 27 percent of Russians judge Stalin a cruel and inhumane
tyrant. But 20 percent call him wise and humane — among them the head of
the Communist Party, Gennadi
Zyuganov, who today compared Stalin to "the
most grandiose figures of the Renaissance."
Mr. Brent and Mr.
Naumov, the secretary of a Russian government
commission to rehabilitate victims of repression, have spent years in the
archives of the K.G.B. and other Soviet organizations.
granted them access to some documents for their latest
work, which primarily traces
the fabulous course of the Doctors' Plot, a supposed collusion in the late
1940's by Kremlin doctors to kill top Communist leaders.
The collusion was in
fact a fabrication by Kremlin officials, acting largely on Stalin's
orders. By the time Stalin disclosed the plot to a stunned Soviet populace
in January 1953, he had spun it into a vast conspiracy, led by Jews under
the United States' secret direction, to kill him and destroy the Soviet
That February, the
Kremlin ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Kazakhstan,
Siberia and the Arctic north, apparently in
preparation for a second great terror — this time directed at the millions
of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent.
But the terror never
unfolded. On March 1, 1953, two weeks after the camps were ordered built
and two weeks before the accused doctors were to go on trial, Stalin
collapsed at Blizhnaya, a north Moscow dacha,
after the all-night dinner with his four Politburo comrades.
After four days,
Stalin died, at age 73. Death was laid to a hemorrhage on the left side of
Less than a month
later, the doctors previously accused of trying to kill him were abruptly
exonerated and the case against them was deemed an invention of the secret
police. No Jews were deported east. By year's end,
Beria faced a firing squad, and Khrushchev had tempered Soviet
hostility toward the United States.
In their book, Mr.
Naumov and Mr. Brent cite wildly varying
accounts of Stalin's last hours as evidence that — at the least — Stalin's
Politburo colleagues denied him medical help in the first hours of his
illness, when it might have been effective.
Khrushchev and others
recalled long after Stalin's death that they had dined with him until the
early hours of March 1. His and most other reports state that Stalin was
later found sprawled unconscious on the floor, a copy of Pravda nearby.
Yet no doctors were
summoned to the dacha until the morning of March 2. Why remains a mystery:
one guard later said that Beria had called
shortly after Stalin was found, ordering them to say nothing about his
illness. Khrushchev wrote that Stalin had been drunk at the dinner and
that his dinner companions, told of his illness, presumed that he had
fallen out of bed — until it became clear things were more serious.
More telling, however,
is the official medical account of Stalin's death, given to the Communist
Party Central Committee in June 1953 and buried in files for almost the
next 50 years until unearthed by Mr. Naumov
and Mr. Brent. It maintained that Stalin had become ill in the early hours
of March 2, a full day after he actually suffered a stroke.
The effect of the
altered official report is to imply that doctors were summoned quickly
after Stalin was found, rather than after a delay.
The authors state that
a cerebral hemorrhage is still the most straightforward explanation for
Stalin's death, and that poisoning remains for now a matter of
speculation. But Western physicians who examined the Soviet doctors'
official account of Stalin's last days said similar physical effects could
have been produced by a 5-to-10-day dose of warfarin,
which had been patented in 1950 and was being aggressively marketed
worldwide at the time.
Why Stalin might have
been killed is a less difficult question. Politburo members lived in fear
of Stalin; beyond that, the book cites a previously secret report as
evidence that Stalin was preparing to add a new dimension to the alleged
American conspiracy known as the Doctors' Plot.
That report — an
interrogation of a supposed American agent named Ivan I.
Varfolomeyev, in 1951 — indicated that the
Kremlin was preparing to accuse the United States of a plot to destroy
much of Moscow with a new nuclear weapon, then to launch an invasion of
Soviet territory along the Chinese border.
Varfolomeyev's fantastic plot was known in
Soviet documents as "the plan of the internal blow." Stalin, the book
states, had assigned the Varfolomeyev case
highest priority, and was preparing to proceed with a public trial despite
his underlings' fears that the charges were so unbelievable that they
would make the Kremlin a global laughingstock.
Naumov said in an interview today that that
plan, combined with other Soviet military preparations in the Russian Far
East at the time, strongly suggest that Stalin was preparing for a war
along the United States' Pacific Coast. What remains unclear, he said, is
whether he planned a first strike or whether the mushrooming conspiracy
unfolding in Moscow was to serve as a provocation that would lead both
sides to a flash point.
"I am told that the
only case when the two sides were on the verge of war was the Cuban
crisis," in 1962, he said. "But I think this was the first case. And this
first time that we were on the verge of war was even more dangerous,"
because the devastation of nuclear weapons was not yet an article of
Mr. Brent said he
believes that fear of a nuclear holocaust could have led
Beria and perhaps others at that final dinner
to assent to Stalin's death.
"No question — they
were afraid," he said. "But they knew that the direction Stalin was going
in was one of fiercer and fiercer conflict with the U.S. This is what
Khrushchev saw, and it is what Beria saw. And
it scared them to death."
The authors say that
Stalin knew of his comrades' fears, citing as proof remarks at a December
1952 meeting of top Communist leaders in which Stalin began laying out the
scope of the Doctors' Plot and the American threat to Soviet power.
"Here, look at you —
blind men, kittens," the minutes record Stalin as saying. "You don't see
the enemy. What will you do without me?"
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