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Soviet Icon Lenin Died of Syphilis -- Experts Say.
Tue Jul 20, 9:09 AM ET By Megan Goldin
BEERSHEBA, Israel (Reuters) - There were whispers in the Kremlin and salons of Europe for decades but it was never more than idle gossip until a team of Israeli doctors announced that they had solved an 80-year-old medical mystery.
The posthumous diagnosis by two psychiatrists and a neurologist recently published in the European Journal of Neurology was that the great Russian revolutionary and Soviet icon Vladimir Lenin died an agonizing death from syphilis.
"It's an amazing story, the degeneration of Lenin's mental and neurological state," said psychiatrist Dr Eliezer Witztum.
The doctors' diagnosis of crippling neurosyphilis that caused massive brain damage and dementia in Lenin in the last two years of his life is more than a historical curiosity that sullies the image of the founder of the Soviet Union.
The disease and a decades-long cover-up by the Soviet authorities, who turned Lenin into the deity of their fledgling state, highlights the danger of hiding the mental health of leaders who hold the fate of millions in their hands, the doctors said.
"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 Yoram Finkelstein, head of diagnostic neurology at Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek hospital.
"It was a time of chaos and there was a power vacuum which was unfortunately filled by Stalin."
The retrospective diagnosis was reached using documents released after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union -- Lenin's medical chart, autopsy results and memoirs by physicians who treated Lenin and were sworn to silence after his death in 1924.
"The symptoms are compatible with syphilis as are the mental changes which preceded the overt disease," said Finkelstein.
The official cause given for Lenin's death was cerebral arteriosclerosis, but only eight of the 27 physicians who treated him and were at his autopsy signed that report.
His two personal physicians refused to sign. Dr Vladimir Lerner, a Moscow-born psychiatrist at Israel's Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, thinks he knows why.
As a young psychiatrist in Moscow, he worked with the son of Lenin's chief physician who confided that his father once told him that as many as eight autopsy reports had been drawn up with a different cause for Lenin's death in each. One cited syphilis.
Proving Lenin died of syphilis was complex as the sexually transmitted micro organism -- which was rampant and incurable in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries -- was frequently mistaken for other neurological illnesses.
"Syphilis is often called the great imitator because it imitates so many diseases," explained Lerner, before reeling off a list of evidence that he said pointed to a high degree of certainty to neurosyphilis as the cause of Lenin's death.
Perhaps the most explosive evidence is a decision by a committee of physicians including syphilis experts to prescribe the drug Salvarsan to treat the ailing Lenin in 1922.
Salvarsan, a potent drug from arsenic with agonizing side effects, was used only to treat syphilis, the doctors said.
Their suspicions of a cover-up were fueled by censored medical records coupled with Soviet documents that reveal the Commissar of Health instructed the chief pathologist to put forth "evidence" that Lenin did not die of syphilis.
Blood tests 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?" asked Lerner. "Why are there urine and lumbar tests which were taken infrequently but the results of blood test which they conducted often have vanished?"
Other evidence included consultations by a renowned syphilis expert who once gave a cryptic hint when asked about Lenin's illness: "Everyone knows for which brain disorder I am called."
LENIN'S CRIPPLING ILLNESS
In addition, the doctors studied the changes to Lenin's personality several years before he became obviously ill. It can take 10 to 20 years from the time syphilis is contracted for the disease to reach the brain.
Before the revolution, Lenin began to find the sound of loud noise unbearable. His associates wrote in memoirs that he became quick-tempered, irritable and sometimes lost self control.
Lenin's brain, preserved at an institute in Moscow, might furnish the final proof, but the doctors doubt Russian officials will ever allow independent scholars to study tissue samples.