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The Article

We learned this week that, as one of my military correspondents delicately put it, “Lenin was a syphilitic whore-monger who sampled the delights of Paris and died raving mad.”

In fact this news item, arriving about a century too late to be acted upon effectively, is not in itself new. I seem to recall gathering the insinuation from an historian of the Soviet Union some decades ago—perhaps it was Robert Conquest.

Rumours of Lenin’s actual medical condition began circulating soon after his death; traced mostly to, of all people, the famous Russian physiologist, and behaviourist, Ivan Pavlov—he of “Pavlov’s dog.” Apparently he was speaking out of school, to at least one fellow physician in Paris around 1928, and was then of the opinion that, “The revolution was made by a madman with syphilis of the brain.”

The Soviet Communists went to some length to destroy Lenin’s medical records, and kill an unknown number of persons who might be aware of them. Yet as ever happens, they missed some bits, and diary scraps remain from Soviet doctors who treated him, and rather more from doctors who had treated him in Europe. Historians seemed previously hesitant to investigate this “little fact,” woven into the background of the great tapestry of mass murder and unspeakable tyranny that marked the first triumph in this world of an explicitly atheist ideology.

A fairly convincing retrospective diagnosis of terminal syphilis in Lenin appeared in the European Journal of Neurology five years ago. Three Israeli physicians sifted the evidence to this conclusion. This week’s “news alert” came from the recently published book, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile, by the respected British historian Helen Rappaport. I have not read that book, but I gather that she has coordinated all of the evidence in an unanswerable way.

Diagnoses of syphilis have previously been made for several other of the great monsters of history, including Lenin’s predecessor Ivan the Terrible, Henry VIII of England, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler. And I further recall glancing in a book that purported to show the dark influence of syphilis upon most of the “symbolist” poets of 19th-century France.

As a man who lived in Bangkok, for more years than he can comfortably admit, I have often suspected that sexually-transmitted disease plays a larger part in human events than the prim could ever imagine. Indeed, that sex, generally, plays an important role, at more levels than they could enumerate. And the beauty of it—if one may apply the term “beauty” to the genius with which evidence is concealed—is that we cannot know and will never know the half of it. A few discovered highlights must illuminate the unplumbed depths.

In considering politics more generally, the phenomena of “madness” are difficult to chart. There are too many forms of it. In the world today we have several obvious madmen ruling states—Ahmadinejad of Iran, Gadhafi of Libya, Chavez of Venezuela. But there are many more subtle cases where the precise degree and cause of the affliction is unclear. One thinks, for instance, of Berlusconi of Italy, or Sarkozy of France, or of Clinton, the former president of the United States—men whose unusual and irregular sex lives have impinged on questions of state in ways that we can see, and ways that we can’t.

The present-day leadership of Russia is shot through with “interesting cases.” I brought attention some years ago to a little, well-recorded incident of Vladimir Putin’s curiously pathological relationship with cats. (They upset him terribly.) I am not a shrink, and I don’t trust shrinks, but it struck me that in combination with some of his other eccentricities, this will make a fine study for the forensic psychologists.

The problem, for the “common people,” with the sometimes arduous task of living under unhinged rulers, or with the conditions of life they create, is broader than can ever first appear. The lust for power itself is a moral failing, a beginning to madness. And when it grows gigantic, in relation to the size of the man, and makes connections with “the madness of crowds,” usually by means of hypnotic slogans—then we “progress” towards inevitable catastrophe.

History is littered with demagogues, and with the bodies of their victims both direct and indirect. But even on the smallest scale, at the level of some club or committee, we may observe the fallout from individuals with “ego issues” and iron wills.

There, at least, we can look in their eyes.

My near-hatred of politics on the big scale—of large central administrations, with ambitions to “advance history”—is founded in the scope they give to men like Lenin. For syphilis was just a disease, until it found him in some Paris brothel.

David Warren
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