Jim Gilcrhist: Was Stalin Murdered?

Roundup: Talking About History

Jim Gilcrhist, in the Scotsman (3-11-05):

SITTING on historian Simon Sebag Montefiore's desk in London is a medical report which describes, minute by minute, the last hours of a sick 73-year-old man.

They detail his incontinence, his spasms, his last gasps - and also severe stomach haemorrhaging. Normally, such a document would be of little significance except to immediate family, a record of just another tired old human's messy terminal moments. But the collapsed old man was Joseph Stalin, one of the most merciless despots the world has known, and that yellowing, mundanely typed account takes on new and seismic significance when it reveals hitherto suppressed details which suggest that the dictator just might have been murdered.

In Who Killed Stalin?, a BBC2 Timewatch dramatised documentary tonight, Sebag Montefiore, author of the award-winning Stalin: The Court of the Red Czar, looks at evidence, unearthed after half a century, which suggests that, rather than dying of a stroke as officially stated, the "Man of Steel" may have had the fear and hatred which surrounded him finally catch up with him - and was poisoned.

The programme dramatically reconstructs Stalin's final moments on 5 March, 1953, as his henchmen and children gather round, and it interviews families of those who knew him. But the linchpin for speculation is the medical report, concealed for some 50 years, to which Sebag Montefiore was given access when writing his book. As he sat in the bunker-like archives of the Institute of Marxism and Leninism, near Pushkin Square in Moscow, he realised that there were elements of Stalin's final hours which had been covered up.

"It's an amazing archive," recalls the historian. "And the most fascinating thing about the whole affair is this medical report. Because when Stalin's successors were faced with this report, just hours after his death, they noticed it mentioned stomach bleeding, and they decided to suppress this information.It remained suppressed until 2000. The official cause of death was that he died of a cerebral haemorrhage - a stroke.

"The report details literally every gasp, every hiccup, every enema he was given... and as I researched deeper, it was as if I could see Stalin deteriorating before my eyes. And suddenly he was vomiting blood, his stomach was bloated and the doctors got really alarmed." As time runs out for the tyrant - whose disastrous collective farming policies in the Ukraine had starved ten million people to death and whose later purges killed, tortured and exiled millions more - he is surrounded by his two emotionally-damaged children, and by his closest confederates, a bunch of paranoid and fearful power-seekers, all with the blood of thousands on their hands....

Today, we regard Stalin as a monster, someone who, behind the avuncular pipe, moustache and taxi-driver's hat, deployed peasant brutishness on an unimaginable scale. But Sebag Montefiore suggests that it doesn't do to delude ourselves. Monster, yes, but the Georgian dictator was also a man of enormous intellect.

"The old view," he agrees, "is of Stalin as a primitive, cold, automaton-like mediocrity. But I worked with his private papers, only opened up in 2000, and I realised very quickly that I was dealing with an absolutely exceptional person. He had enormous political gifts, was a brilliant negotiator, and an autodidat who read everything he could get his hands on. It also happened that he believed absolutely - as they all did - that you had to kill a lot of people now in order to create a perfect, deferred paradise further down the road. His personality fused perfectly with the Bolshevik system. So, you had a pretty disgusting system and a pretty disgusting man, who happened also to be a superb politician and quite an intellectual."...

Stalin once declared that one death was a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic. As Sebag Montefiore got more and more under the dictator's skin, as he went through the notes, letters and books, he made a conscious effort not to regard all the people Stalin exterminated as mere statistics, but as individuals with families and children. It would have been easier, he agrees, to equate the genocide with the brutal, peasant caricature: "But he wasn't that, not by a long shot. And the more human and educated he turned out to be, the more disgusting I found him."

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