Lenin poisoned?

Investigating deaths of historical figures! How cool!  This is the job I want.

American medical schools conduct “clinicopathological conferences” giving physicians and students an opportunity to study a famous medical case whose diagnosis is considered questionable.  In the end, a pathologist and an historian solve the case with a diagnosis using up-to-date medical tools and information.

The University of Michigan held a ‘clinicopathological conference’ (try to say that 10 times in a row ).  The attendees of the conference addressed the death of Lenin.  How did Lenin really die?  Is it possible that he was murdered?

Last Friday, 4 May 2012, an historian and a pathologist ‘solved’ the 88 year old mystery of Lenin’s death.

Dr. Laurie, the historian told the audience that Lenin may have been murdered.

“In 1921 Lenin started complaining that he was ill. From then until his death in 1924, Lenin ‘began to feel worse and worse.  He complained that he couldn’t sleep and that he had terrible headaches. He could not write, he did not want to work. He wrote to Alexei Maximovich Gorky, ‘I am so tired, I do not want to do anything at all.’  But he nonetheless was planning a political attack on Stalin, Dr. Lurie said.

And Stalin, well aware of Lenin’s intentions, sent a top-secret note to the Politburo in 1923 claiming that Lenin himself asked to be put out of his misery.  The note said: ‘On Saturday, March 17th in the strictest secrecy Comrade Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife) told me of ‘Vladimir Ilyich’s request to Stalin,’ namely that I, Stalin, should take the responsibility for finding and administering to Lenin a dose of potassium cyanide. I felt it impossible to refuse him, and declared: ‘I would like Vladimir Ilyich to be reassured and to believe that when it is necessary I will fulfill his demand without hesitation.’

Stalin added that he just could not do it: “I do not have the strength to carry out Ilyich’s request and I have to decline this mission, however humane and necessary it might be, and I therefore report this to the members of the Politburo.’

Dr. Lurie said Stalin might have poisoned Lenin despite this assurance, as Stalin was “absolutely ruthless.'”

According to the Soviet press, the leader suffered strokes before his death.  It was claimed that Lenin died of a stroke.  Dr. Vinn, the medical pathologist, stated that stroke was not a likely cause of death as stroke is not accompanied by seizures.  But, Dr. Vinn pointed out that many poisons can cause seizures.  According to the New York Times, “Dr. Vinters believes that sky-high cholesterol leading to a stroke was the main cause of Lenin’s death. But he said there is one other puzzling aspect of the story. Although toxicology studies were done on others in Russia, there was an order that no toxicology be done on Lenin’s tissues.” (New York Times)

Read the full article at “Lenin’s Death Remains a Mystery” .

So…does this exercise prove that Lenin was murdered?  If so, who murdered him.  Stalin is a serious suspect.  Yet, did his wife kill him per Lenin’s own request.  So many questions…looking for answers.

Whose death will be studied next?  I vote for a look at Stalin’s death.  How about Woodrow Wilson? Whose death would you like investigated?  What would history to like if those historical figures had died 20 years later?

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300 French Jews deported to Estonia (1944)

It is a little known piece of history that Estonian prisons, way up here in the North corner of Europe, were used by the Nazis to house French Jews before they were deported to concentration camps in Germany.  Three hundred Jews in 1944 were forced into train cars in Paris and then forced to endure a long dark trip to Estonia.  It is unclear why the Jews were housed here in Tallinn.  After only four months, the Nazis then sent the prisoners back to Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig.

“We can try, but we will never completely understand what those people were feeling, the ones who were sent from occupied France to occupied Estonia in May 1944 as part of ‘convoy nr. 73’,” said [Foreign Minister] Paet.  “In a moment, the future was slashed and what used to be Europe became, for the captive peoples, a uniformly grey spider web of railway stations and concentration camps, in which each thread served a role in the devilish system,” the foreign minister added.

75% of Estonia’s 4500 Jews left Estonia and escaped to the Soviet Union before the Nazis invaded in 1941. (History of Jews in Estonia)

My Jewish friend, Valya, told me that the Soviet government gave her family and other Jews passage on trains to go to Russia before the Nazis arrived.  She remembers leaving and how she wondered if she would ever return ‘home.’ In her early twenties in 1941, Valya, would not see Estonia again until after the war.

Valya was fortunate to have escaped.  Of those that remained, virtually all Jews that remained in Estonia were executed by the Nazis by 1941.  It is estimated that up to 1000 Estonian Jews may have been executed.  Estonia was declared Judenfrei at the Wansee Conference on 20 January 1942.

“The Nazi regime also established 22 concentration and labor camps in Estonia for foreign Jews…An estimated 10,000 Jews were killed in Estonia after having been deported to camps there from Eastern Europe. Four Estonians most responsible for the murders at the Kalevi-Liiva Concentration Camp were accused of war crimes trials in 1961….”(Wikipedia. “History of the Jews in Estonia.”)

In 2012, Estonia, finally free of both Nazi and Soviet occupation, has encouraged research on the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity.   This last week the Estonian Foreign Minister opened an exhibit at the Tallinn Occupation Museum on the French Jews deported to the Baltics. (Estonian Foreign Minister)

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Should there be limits to wartime censorship?

Barbara Tuckman, a journalist during World War II, wrote in her book, Stillman and the American Experience in China: 1911-45how the American government used American journalists to ‘work for the war effort’ by holding back information, giving them false information and even asking journalists to provide false information.

I remember stories that my mother told me about China.  She and my father, a young Naval officer, were stationed in Shanghai prior and during the bombing of Shanghai by the Japanese in 1937.  My mother told me wondrous and exciting stories about China.  This led to my lifelong interest in Asia and history.  I was raised on stories about Chiang Kai-shek (Jiǎng Zhōngzhèng [蔣中正]), the Chinese and a world so different from my own.  Later when I studied about modern China at university, I found a discrepancy between her stories and what I read in history books.  Now I know that my mother was repeating stories that she learned from the contemporary press and in some cases those stories were false.

What do you think?  Is censorship necessary during war?  To what extent?  Should the public know more so that they have an opportunity to respond to inappropriate behavior of its government during wartime?  Remember the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War?  or torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq?

Yesterday Associated Press apoligized for firing Ed Kennedy, one of its wartime journalists.  Mr.Kennedy defied American military censorship by announcing the end of World War II a day before the Americans wanted it announced.  The American government had agreed with Stalin to keep  the momentous news quiet for one day so the Soviets could take front stage in the surrender of the Nazis.  Kennedy lost his job with Associated Press for his transgression.  I am sure the other journalists who obeyed the censorship weren’t too excited by Kennedy’s scoop.

Edward Kennedy: AP Apologizes For Firing Journalist Who Defied Embargo And Reported End Of World War II

“NEW YORK (AP) by David B. Caruso — In World War II’s final moments in Europe, Associated Press correspondent Edward Kennedy gave his news agency perhaps the biggest scoop in its history. He reported, a full day ahead of the competition, that the Germans had surrendered unconditionally at a former schoolhouse in Reims, France.

For this, he was publicly rebuked by the AP, and then quietly fired.

The problem: Kennedy had defied military censors to get the story out. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Harry Truman had agreed to suppress news of the capitulation for a day, in order to allow Russian dictator Josef Stalin to stage a second surrender ceremony in Berlin. Kennedy was also accused of breaking a pledge that he and 16 other journalists had made to keep the surrender a secret for a time, as a condition of being allowed to witness it firsthand.

Sixty-seven years later, the AP’s top executive is apologizing for the way the company treated Kennedy.  ‘It was a terrible day for the AP. It was handled in the worst possible way,’ said president and CEO Tom Curley.

Kennedy, he said, ‘did everything just right.’ Curley rejected the notion that the AP had a duty to obey the order to hold the story once it was clear the embargo was for political reasons, rather than to protect the troops.

‘Once the war is over, you can’t hold back information like that. The world needed to know,’ he said in an interview.” (for the full story, read Huffington Post‘s site.)

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Rare photos of Hitler’s Bunker

Recently, Life Magazine published an intriguing, yet somewhat horrible, set of previously unpublished photos of Hitler’s last bunker at “Hitler’s Bunker and the Ruins of Berlin: Rare and Unpublished Photos.”

Viewing these photos, it reminds me of the exceptional 2004 film, Downfall (Der Untergang) directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.

The story of the photographer was especially interesting to me.

“Vandivert was the first Western photographer to gain access to Hitler’s Führerbunker, or “shelter for the leader,” after the fall of Berlin, and a handful of his pictures of the bunker and the ruined city were published in LIFE magazine in July 1945. A few of those images are republished here; most of the pictures in this gallery, however, were never published in LIFE and vividly illustrate the surreal, disturbing scenes Vandivert encountered in the bunker and in the streets of the vanquished city beyond the bunker’s walls.

In his typed notes to his editors in New York, Vandivert described in detail what he saw. For example, of the sixth slide in this gallery, he wrote, “Pix of [correspondents] looking at sofa where Hitler and Eva shot themselves. Note bloodstains on arm of soaf [sic] where Eva bled. She was seated at far end … Hitler sat in middle and fell forward, did not bleed on sofa. This is in Hitler’s sitting room.” Remarkable stuff — but, it turns out, it’s only about half right. Historians are now quite certain that Braun committed suicide by biting a cyanide capsule, rather than by gunshot — meaning the bloodstains on the couch might well be Hitler’s after all.

…William Vandivert — who at 6 ft. 5 in. held the distinction of being the tallest photographer on staff — shot for LIFE from the late 1930s through the late ’40s. In 1947 he joined Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour in founding the legendary Magnum photo agency. (Rita Vandivert, his wife, served as Magnum’s first president.) William Vandivert died in 1992.” (Life Magazine)

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Photography articulates gaps in history

Taryn Simon uses photography to articulate unasked questions of history and society.  In November 2011, Ms. Simon gave a TED Talk, “The Stories behind Bloodlines.”  Her art work hangs at the Tate Gallery in London.

Using a large format camera, Ms. Simon took portraits of individual members of families who live in different parts of the world.   Each family has a story to tell.  Each individual is backed by a stark white background and  sits unsmiling, looking into the eyes of the audience.  One family suffered from the losses caused by the massacre in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war.  Two sets of families are involved in a family feud in Brazil.  One set of photos are composed of the descendants of an adviser to Hitler.

Ms. Simon said, “Archives exist because there’s something that can’t necessarily be articulated. Something is said in the gaps between all the information.”

China: Controlling History

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell. 1984.

We scholars of Chinese and Japanese history stand at the door of China longing for access to accurate information on modern Chinese history.   Disappointed, but not surprised, we wait in vain as the Chinese government, like governments before them, fear the truth and construct history to fit an ideological agenda.   All the hype about economic miracles and modernization of China can not change the fact that China is an authoritarian state that can not by its nature move forward.

China’s iron grip on past impairs future on world stage

Sergey Radchenko. January 4, 2012. Sydney Morning Herald


Beijing’s monopoly on truth, at the expense of open inquiry, is incompatible with its search for prestige and acclaim.

With China stumping assertively on the world stage, one might think Beijing would be open, even gracious, about the country’s past. To the contrary, history remains a sensitive subject, drawing relentless attention from authorities anxious to keep all skeletons safely in closets.

As a university professor in China, I face the consequences of this official apprehension every day. My young, bright students know little about their country’s recent past. What they do know tends to agree with the government-sponsored discourse on the pride and glory of China’s rise after a century of humiliation by Western powers. Library and bookstore shelves tell, with enviable conviction, this same story of national grandeur. And it is hard to get around that government-approved tale.

We recently attempted to order a standard Western work on China’s history, Jonathan D. Spence’s The Search for Modern China. Our efforts ran aground when customs officials refused to allow the book shipment into the country. The agent proposed manually cutting out the censored sections, including photos of the Tiananmen Square massacre and Spence’s account of the Cultural Revolution, to get the customs clearance. These are things the Chinese people are not supposed to know.

Historians of China face secrecy and restrictions everywhere as the key archives remain largely inaccessible, even though the Chinese archives law provides for the opening of official documents after 30 years.

Some progress has been made with declassification, notably at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to appease international scholars. Academics can now read, though not print, digitised memos and telegrams from 1949 to 1965. Still, even these documents have been preselected to avoid potential embarrassment for the government. The party archives, which host the records of the Communist Party’s holy of holies – the Politburo – are closed.

Anyone in China interested in studying the origins of the Korean War, which took place more than 60 years ago, will not get very far. The Great Leap Forward? The Cultural Revolution? Same story. Uncomfortable episodes of China’s recent history have become a subject of official amnesia and a victim of the government’s monopoly on truth.

Consider the case of Lin Biao, a hero of the Chinese Civil War, and later Mao Zedong’s comrade-in-arms during the Cultural Revolution, who died in 1971.  Lin, who is well remembered for his appearances atop Tiananmen Square, the ”little red book” in his hand, supposedly conspired to kill the Chinese leader, even though he was Mao’s anointed successor. When the plot was discovered, he fled to the Soviet Union, then China’s arch enemy, but he never made it. His plane crashed in Mongolia after allegedly running out of fuel.

This is as much as the Chinese government is willing to say, 40 years on. We do not know whether Lin really planned to kill Mao. Their falling out could have been a personal feud or, as the chairman later claimed, a policy disagreement (Lin is said to have opposed the Sino-American opening).

In 2003, the crash report was leaked from Mongolian intelligence archives. Contrary to the official Chinese explanation, the report showed the plane had plenty of fuel when it crashed. No attempt had been made to land the plane and weather conditions were fine. Mongolian investigators concluded that the pilot made an error. However they had no access to the plane’s black box – the Soviet military took it. The Soviets later came back and took the heads of the two victims with golden teeth, which, it turned out, belonged to Lin and his wife.

These heads are said to remain at the archives of Russia’s Federal Security Service. Moscow has not released its findings about the crash and China has remained silent. Although we know precious little about Lin’s death, we know enough to conclude that at least part of Beijing’s explanation is a fabrication.

In the absence of archival openness and amid repression of free historical inquiry, these kinds of myths and fabrications underpin the official discourse on history in China – hence the need to repulse the infiltration of foreign books.

The time has come for strong and proud China to cast aside this fear of the past, which is incompatible with Beijing’s search for international prestige and acclaim.

True, China’s history is full of blood and tragedy. It is also full of remarkable feats and formidable breakthroughs on the path towards modernity. Both facets of its history, like the proverbial halves of yin and yang, make China what it is today.

Government efforts to control how history is read and taught are doomed to failure. The question is when today’s China will realise it should not resort to methods of information control handed down from a tyranny.

Sergey Radchenko is a lecturer in the history of American-Asian relations at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China.

Justice for Sierra Leone? Special Court delivers a guilty verdict.

Former Liberian President Convicted of War Crimes

UPDATE:  The Special Court for Sierra Leone has found Charles Taylor guilty  of aiding and abetting war crimes on all charges.

The judge read out 11 offences of which Taylor had been found guilty,  all war crimes or crimes against humanity. They were:

1. Acts of terrorism
2. Murder
3. Violence to life
4. Rape
5. Sexual slavery
6. Outrages of personal dignity
7. Cruel treatment
8. Other inhumane acts
9. The use of child soldiers
10. Enslavement
11. Pillage

For an excerpt of the live reading of the judgement by Judge Lussick go to BBC.

I spent 6 months in 2003 working for Sierra Leone‘s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  This Commission worked in tandum with the Special Court for Sierra Leone  and was created to address the 10 years of crimes committed during the Civil War (1991-2002).   My task was to research the 10 year war to create an impartial history of the war.  A gruesome war, families and cultures were torn apart and the communities of Sierra Leone were deeply affected by the war.

Today at 11:00 a.m. Hague time in Netherlands, the Special Court for Sierra Leone delivered its judgement against Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia.  This case was transferred to Europe and removed from Sierra Leone because of security concerns.

“Charles Taylor was charged in an 11-count indictment alleging responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by rebel forces in Sierra Leone during the country’s decade-long civil war. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.” (Press Release 4-26-12)

Charles Taylor is the first sitting leader to have been arrested and then convicted of an international crime.  Taylor’s conviction stands to warn leaders that they will be held accountable for international crimes committed against their own people as well as for aiding others to commit those crimes.

“Taylor’s conviction sends a powerful message that even those in the highest level positions can be held to account for grave crimes,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch. “Not since Nuremberg has an international or hybrid war crimes court issued a judgment against a current or former head of state. This is a victory for Sierra Leonean victims, and all those seeking justice when the worst abuses are committed.” (Washingtopost.com)

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