MOSCOWExactly 50 years after Stalin died, felled by a brain hemorrhage at his
dacha near Moscow, an exhaustive study of long-secret Soviet records lends new
weight to an old theory that he actually was 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 by HarperCollins. Relying on a previously
secret account by doctors of Stalin's final days, its authors suggest that
Stalin 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 on March 1, 1953.
They base that theory in part on early
drafts of the report, which show that Stalin suffered extensive stomach
hemorrhaging during his death throes. Virtually all 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.
Four Politburo members were at that
dinner, including Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor. The authors, the
Russian historian Vladimir Naumov and a Yale University Soviet scholar, Jonathan
Brent, suggest that the most likely suspect in the killing is Lavrenti Beria,
for 15 years Stalin's despised minister of internal security.
But with virtually everyone connected to
the case now dead, the truth may never be known, Brent said in an interview this
"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
Working with the Russian authorities,
Brent and Naumov, the secretary of a Russian government commission to
rehabilitate victims of repression, have spent years in the archives of the KGB
and other Soviet organs. Their book traces the fabulous course of the so-called
Doctors' Plot, a supposed collusion in the late 1940s by Kremlin doctors to
murder top Communist leaders.
The collusion was in fact a fabrication
by Kremlin underlings, acting largely on Stalin's orders. By the time Stalin
revealed the plot to a stunned Soviet populace in January 1953, he had elevated
it into a vast conspiracy, led by Jews under the United States' secret
direction, to kill Stalin and destroy the Soviet Union itself.
The following month, 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 a few kilometers from the Kremlin. He had just finished an
all-night dinner with four members of the Politburo, including Khrushchev and
Beria; Georgi Malenkov, the Communist Party secretary, and Nikolai Bulganin, a
former war minister.
After four days of prolonged agony,
Stalin died, 50 years ago Wednesday, at 73. Death was laid to a hemorrhage on
the left side of his brain.
Most, though not all of that, is
uncontested. But in their book, Naumov and Brent cite wildly varying accounts of
Stalin's last hours as evidence that - at the least - Stalin's underlings denied
him medical help in the first hours of his illness, when it might have been
Khrushchev and others recalled long after
Stalin's death that they had dined with him until the early hours of March 1. He
and other reports state that guards found Stalin on the floor, a copy of Pravda
nearby, in a darkened room late that evening.
Yet no doctors were summoned to the dacha
until the morning of March 2 - by one account, on Beria's orders. And the
official medical account of Stalin's death maintains that he became 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 soon after Stalin was found, rather than
after a delay of eight or more hours.
Just a year earlier, the authors write,
Stalin's personal physician had advised him to think about retiring because he
suffered from hardened arteries and poor general health. "He was ready to die,"
the authors write. "The question is whether he was ready to die just then, two
weeks before the Jewish doctors were allegedly to be put on trial."
The authors allow that a cerebral
hemorrhage remains the most straightforward explanation for Stalin's death and
that poisoning remains for now a matter of speculation. But physicians who
examined the doctors' 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 sold worldwide.
The question of why Stalin might have
been killed is easier. Because Stalin had systematically eliminated many of his
closest underlings, including several heads of his secret police, the Politburo
members lived in fear of their lives.
Beyond that, however, the book cites a
previously secret report as evidence that Stalin was preparing to add a new
dimension to the Doctors' Plot conspiracy. That document - an interrogation of a
supposed American agent named Ivan 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 super-weapon, then to launch an invasion of Soviet territory
along the Chinese border.
Incredibly, Varfolomeyev's plot, called
"the plan of the internal blow," also alleged a conspiracy by the captains of
American industry to build a military arsenal capable of destroying the Soviet
Naumov said in an interview Tuesday 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
Pacific Coast of the United States. 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," he said, because the true devastation of
nuclear weapons was not yet an article of faith.