Did Brain Illness Affect Stalin’s Actions?
Newly released diaries kept by Alexander Myasnikov, one of Joseph Stalin’s personal physicians at the time of his death in 1953, claim that the Soviet leader – who was famed for his brutality and paranoia – may have suffered from a degenerative brain illness that impaired his decision-making and contributed to the ruthlessness of his rule.
Stalin died on March 5, 1953 at the age of 74 after suffering a stroke. Now excerpts from Myasnikov’s diaries, published for the first time in Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets on 21 April 2011 and subsequently quoted in UK newspaper The Independent, outline Myasnikov’s belief that:
“The major atherosclerosis [hardening of arteries] in the brain, which we found at the autopsy, should raise the question of how much this illness – which had clearly been developing over a number of years – affected Stalin’s health, his character and his actions … Stalin may have lost his sense of good and bad, healthy and dangerous, permissible and impermissible, friend and enemy. Character traits can become exaggerated, so that a suspicious person becomes paranoid … I would suggest that the cruelty and suspicion of Stalin, his fear of enemies… was created to a large extent by atherosclerosis of the cerebral arteries. The country was being run, in effect, by a sick man”.
Myasnikov’s diary was thought to have been seized by the KGB when he died in 1965 but was recently recovered from the state archive by his family and is now set to be turned into a book called I Treated Stalin.
The causes of Stalin’s ruthless and murederous actions have long been debated by historians, with numerous factors suggested as having possibly influenced his later policies including genetics, an unhappy childhood and the suicide of his second wife in 1932. However, these new diary excerpts have given rise to fears that Myasnikov’s diagnosis may lead to new attempts to ‘whitewash’ Stalin – who is generally considered to be responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens during his rule 1928-1953 – by allowing pro-Stalin revisionists to claim that his actions were caused by his medical condition.
In truth, we’ll probably never know what it was that really made Stalin tick and the available evidence suggests that Stalin’s psyche was far too complex to be explained by any single cause. Even if Myasnikov’s diagnosis suggests that medical factors may have contributed to the cruelty and paranoia Stalin displayed, particularly during the latter years of his rule, he also suggests that Stalin’s condition would have ‘exaggerated’ pre-existing character traits. So even if his illness may have exacerbated certain aspects of his personality, from his early years as a Bolshevik revolutionary and through the cunning tactics which allowed him to rise to power after Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin clearly always demonstrated that he had the capacity for violence and ruthlessness when he deemed it necessary.
1 Comment »