Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (aka Lenin) died on this day 90 years ago with cerebral vessels so calcified that when tapped with tweezers, they sounded like stone. He was only 53. He hadn’t smoked and, in fact, had prohibited smoking in his presence. He had consumed alcohol sparingly and had exercised regularly, swimming, biking, and walking as often as his schedule allowed. And yet, when only 51 years of age, he had a first stroke, seven months later a second, and then another before suffering his final, fatal one three months shy of his 54th birthday. How could a man so young with none of the usual risk factors for cerebrovascular disease have had cerebral vessels with walls so thick and calcified, that in many places, their lumens were either completely obliterated or narrowed to the dimension of tiny slits?
Syphilis was one of the earliest explanations considered. It is, after all, an infection that attacks the brain, one possibly passed on to Lenin by his mistress, Inessa Armand, a self-professed advocate of free love. However, whereas Treponema pallidum, the bacterium responsible for syphilis, does invade the vessels of the brain, it typically attacks the small arteries of the meninges, the brain’s membranous envelope, not the large feeder vessels responsible for the kind of strokes Lenin had. Moreover, several Wasserman tests (blood tests for syphilis) performed on Lenin prior to his death were all allegedly negative, though it should be noted that the official reports of these tests have since mysteriously vanished.
A more likely explanation for Lenin’s premature cerebrovascular disease, one initially proposed by Dimitri Volkogonov, the first researcher to gain access to Lenin’s secret Soviet files, is that the vessels of his brain were “simply destroyed by the strains of power.” Prior to the October Revolution, Lenin had enjoyed a free and easy existence of literary activities, vacationing in the mountains, and Party squabbles in exile. This changed radically after he became the leader of the World Communist Revolution, when he was forced to work with a driving urgency that found him hardly bothering to undress before falling into an exhausted, troubled sleep. Brief naps no longer refreshed him. Every day brought some new disaster requiring his personal attention. Every day he woke with a dull headache. The tension of dealing with the ever-changing demands of State caused him to erupt in anger with frightening regularity. When his health began to fail, his physicians diagnosed “overstrain of the brain.”
In fact, numerous scientific investigations have since demonstrated a relationship between psychological stress and both cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, through mechanisms that have yet to be fully elucidated. Lenin was subjected to such stress in the extreme as the Supreme Soviet leader. Moreover, he was likely genetically predisposed to the adverse effects of such stress on his cerebrovascular system in that his father died at the same age with neurological complaints similar to his own. In addition, two of his brothers died of coronary artery disease and a sister of a stroke. Thus, Lenin’s genetic code likely dictated that sooner or later he would succumb to cerebrovascular disease, whereas the pressures of directing the World Communist Revolution likely caused this to transpire sooner rather than later.
Headline image credit: Vladimir Lenin speaking to a crowd. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.