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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Study Supports Idea Stalin Was Poisoned

Fifty years after Josef Stalin died, felled by a brain hemorrhage at his dacha, an exhaustive study of long-secret Soviet records lends new weight to an old theory that he was actually 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. Relying on a previously secret account by doctors of Stalin's final days, its authors suggest that he 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.

They base that theory in part on early drafts of the report, which show that Stalin suffered extensive stomach hemorrhaging during his death throes. The authors state that significant 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 on March 5 that year.

Four Politburo members were at that dinner: Lavrenty Beria, chief of the secret police; Georgy Malenkov, Stalin's immediate successor; Nikita Khrushchev, who eventually rose to the top spot; and Nikolai Bulganin.

The authors, Vladimir Naumov, the secretary of a government commission to rehabilitate victims of repression, and Jonathan Brent, a Yale University scholar, suggest the most likely suspect, if Stalin was poisoned, is Beria, for 15 years his despised KGB chief.

Beria supposedly boasted of killing Stalin on May Day, two months after his death. "I did him in! I saved all of you," he was quoted as telling Vyacheslav Molotov, another Politburo member, in Molotov's 1993 political reminiscence, "Molotov Remembers."

On March 1, 1953, Stalin collapsed at Blizhnaya, a north Moscow dacha, after the all-night dinner with his four Politburo comrades. After four days, Stalin died, at age 73. Death was blamed on a hemorrhage on the left side of his brain.

In their book, Naumov and Brent cite wildly varying accounts of Stalin's last hours as evidence that -- at the least -- Stalin's Politburo colleagues denied him medical help in the first hours of his illness, when it might have been effective.

Why remains a mystery: One guard later said Beria had called shortly after Stalin was found, ordering them to say nothing about his illness.

More telling, however, is the official medical account of Stalin's death, given to the Communist Party Central Committee in June 1953 and buried in files for almost the next 50 years until unearthed by Naumov and Brent. It maintained that Stalin had become ill in the early hours of March 2, a full day after he actually suffered the stroke.

The effect of the altered official report is to imply that doctors were summoned quickly after Stalin was found, rather than after a delay.

The authors state that a cerebral hemorrhage is still the most straightforward explanation for Stalin's death, and that poisoning remains for now a matter of speculation. But Western physicians who examined the Soviet doctors' official account of Stalin's last days said similar physical effects could have been produced by a five-to-10-day dose of warfarin, which had been patented in 1950.

Why Stalin might have been killed is a less difficult question. Politburo members lived in fear of Stalin; beyond that, the book cites a previously secret report as evidence that Stalin was preparing to add a new dimension to the alleged American conspiracy known as the Doctors' Plot. That report -- an interrogation of supposed American agent Ivan Varfolomeyev, in 1951 -- indicated the Kremlin was preparing to accuse the United States of a plot to destroy much of Moscow with a new nuclear weapon, then to launch an invasion of Soviet territory along the Chinese border.

Naumov said in an interview that this plan, combined with other Soviet military preparations in the Far East at the time, suggests Stalin was preparing for a war along the U.S. Pacific Coast.

Brent said he believes fear of nuclear holocaust could have led Beria and perhaps others to assent to Stalin's death.

"No question -- they were afraid," he said. "But they knew the direction Stalin was going in was one of fiercer and fiercer conflict with the U.S. This is what Khrushchev saw, and it is what Beria saw. And it scared them to death."