July 25, 2004, Updated September 13, 2012

“I think the public should know about its leaders, when a disease is incapacitating them” – Dr. Eliezer WitztumA group of Israeli researchers say they have proven what has been an 80-year-old mystery regarding the death of communism’s greatest icon – Vladimir Illyich Lenin.

After the Russian leader died on January 24, 1924, the official cause of death was listed as arteriosclerosis, but rumors have persisted over the ensuing years that it was a cover up. The Israeli team – after five years of research – are convinced beyond doubt that the actual cause of death was syphilis.

Writing in the European Journal of Neurology, the trio of doctors from from Ben-Gurion University in the Negev and Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem say they used medical records pieced together from archives released after the fall of communism to reconstruct the first Soviet leader’s illness and death.

The team’s conclusions raise issues of the public’s right to know about their leaders, and how incomplete disclosure can affect historic events.

The team says Lenin’s syphilis caused brain damage and later dementia in the last two years of his life. The basis of the disclosures are medical charts, results of a post mortem examination and memoirs from physicians who treated Lenin and were sworn to secrecy after he died in 1924. Officially, Lenin died of arteriosclerosis, but only eight of 27 doctors who treated him were willing to put their names to the death certificate. Among those who refused to sign were his two personal doctors.

“For many years, I had read about Lenin’s deterioration in his last three years – and the symptoms that were described did not match the medical definition of his official cause of death – arteriosclerosis,” Dr. Eliezer Witztum of BGU told ISRAEL21c.

According to Witztum, the diagnosis of syphilis was particularly problematic in the 19th and early 20th century as the disease often mimics other brain disorders. But the discovery that a committee of Soviet doctors prescribed the medicine Salvarsan, an arsenic-based treatment that is used only to treat syphilis, was a strong indication that his doctors knew the true nature of his disease.

“My colleague at Ben-Gurion University – Professor Vladimir Lerner – worked as a young psychiatrists in Moscow with the son of Lenin´s chief physician. He confided to Lerner that among the many autopsy reports at the time of Lenin’s death was one which cited the cause of the death as syphilis,” said Witztum.

Witztum and Lerner’s expertise is in psychobiography – the biography informed by psychological theory and/or research whose typical focus is an individual of historical importance.

“We combined forces along with Dr. Yoram Finkelstein, head of diagnostic neurology at Jerusalem´s Shaare Zedek hospital. Our work is primarily in psychobiography, and with Finkelstein’s expertise in toxology and neurology, we had all sides covered,” he said.

Witztum said that blood test results which were taken frequently and would have proved conclusively that Lenin had syphilis are missing from his medical chart, while the results of far less accurate urine and lumbar puncture tests are still in the file.

“There is no direct proof because of the lack of blood tests. Why did they disappear?” Lerner said to Reuters. “Why are there urine and lumbar tests which were taken infrequently but the results of blood test which they conducted often have vanished?”

According to the researchers, Lenin’s crippling neurosyphilis caused massive brain damage and dementia in the last two years of his life and had an impact on ensuing events in his country.

“His (Lenin’s) private business affected the lives of millions because of his illness, his inability to lead the country at a crucial time,” said Finkelstein.

“In 1923, Stalin was able to take control of his party. If Lenin’s condition had been public, that would never have happened,” Witztum told ISRAEL21c.

“I think the public should know about its leaders, when a disease is incapacitating them. Look at the health of American presidents that have been secret – Kennedy’s addiction to painkillers, even the information that’s come out about [Richard] Nixon and his being incapacitated by drinking during the Yom Kippur War,” he added.

Witztum says that he and his colleagues were fortunate to have access to the medical information on Stalin – which was available for for a very short time.

“We were lucky – after the Soviet regime fell many of the archives were opened up, but for a temporary period of two or three years. Then it was closed down again and now the reports that we had access to are no longer available,” he said.

Lenin’s body is still on display in a specially constructed mausoleum in Moscow. His preserved brain might furnish the final proof, but the doctors doubt Russian officials will ever allow independent scholars to study tissue samples. Although the researchers end their article by suggesting that an examination of the tissue might find the DNA of syphilis and yield a definitive answer, Witztum has no illusions that this is likely to happen.

“They won’t let anyone in. It’s like if I said that George Washington died of syphilis. Would the U.S. government allow us to probe his brain to do DNA testing?”

Despite that final proof, Witztum and his colleagues are convinced they have revealed the secret that has kept Moscow buzzing for the last 80 years. And a five year labor of love – financed with their own money – has come to a successful end.

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Jason Harris

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