When Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, the official cause was arteriosclerosis, but rumor had it that the 53-year-old founder of Communism had succumbed to syphilis. The rumors were almost certainly right. Based on official records, documents released after the fall of the U.S.S.R., memoirs from Lenin’s physicians, and other evidence, three Israeli doctors concluded in January that the Soviet leader was treated for syphilis as early as 1895.
According to one document that recently came to light, the chief pathologist, Alexei Abrikosov, was ordered to prove that Lenin had not died of syphilis. Abrikosov didn’t mention the disease in his autopsy, yet the blood-vessel damage he cited, as well as the paralysis and other incapacities acknowledged in official records, are typical of syphilis. When Abrikosov’s autopsy failed to quell rumors—only 8 of 27 physicians who treated Lenin agreed to sign it—a second report was issued based on tissue analysis. This time, none of the organs, major arteries, or brain areas usually affected by the disease were cited.
In 1923 Lenin’s doctors treated him with salvarsan—the only drug specifically used to treat syphilis at that time. “The trial was successful, but it was stopped because of severe side effects,” says Eliezer Witztum of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, one of the three authors of the study. He adds that Lenin’s doctors used potassium iodine together with salvarsan, as was the custom in treating syphilis at the time.