What Killed Lenin?

By Medical Discovery News

Aug. 11, 2012

Like many notorious figures who had gone before him, Lenin’s death remains shrouded in mystery. Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, who later changed his name to Vladimir Lenin, ushered in the era of Soviet communism that ruled until the dissolution of the Soviet state in 1991.

Yet, the presumptively healthy Lenin didn’t last long in power. He died just before his 54th birthday of a massive stroke and possibly poison. Hoping to resolve Lenin’s cause of death, neurologist Harry Vinters and Russian historian Lev Lurie poured over the ruler’s medical history. Afterward, they presented their findings at the University of Maryland’s yearly conference investigating the deaths of famous people.

Lenin’s health troubles began when someone tried to assassinate him in 1918. He was shot twice, with one bullet passing through a lung before resting in his collarbone. The other lodged in the base of his neck. Both bullets were not removed, and his health began to suffer.

Four years later, he was hit with the first of three debilitating strokes. The last, a massive stroke, occurred at 6:50 p.m. on January 21, 1924, and he died hours later. For years, historians have speculated what brought on the strokes at his relatively young age. An autopsy revealed almost complete blockage of the arteries that supply blood to the brain. But Lenin did not have the traditional risk factors for stroke such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, or excessive alcohol consumption. He also exercised regularly.

Notes from the autopsy further detailed extremely hardened blood vessels in his brain, which some medical experts had initially interpreted as evidence of a syphilis infection. While the sexually transmitted disease can cause hardening of cerebral arteries, Vinters didn’t find conclusive evidence of this in the autopsy records. He also didn’t find any writings describing Lenin suffering from other symptoms of syphilis.

The researchers believe family history played a big role in Lenin’s strokes. His father died at 54 from cerebral hemorrhage. His three siblings who lived into adulthood had evidence of cardiovascular disease. So, it’s reasonable to conclude Lenin inherited a tendency to develop extremely high cholesterol, and great stress can further exacerbate the disease.

However, this does not explain the seizures Lenin experienced hours before his death. Seizures are not usually associated with strokes, but can be brought on by many types of poison. During his lifetime, Russia was a place of great political intrigue and Joseph Stalin was Lenin’s main obstacle in maintaining control of the Soviet Union.

Starting in 1921, Lenin began to experience a series of health problems including insomnia and severe headaches. Historians speculate Stalin poisoned Lenin with cyanide. Interestingly, even though toxicology tests were typically a part of autopsies, it was withheld on Lenin.

Lenin’s body was embalmed and is on display in Moscow’s Red Square. Although it’s been suggested a brain tissue sample might reveal whether he’d been poisoned, it’s not likely to happen.

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