London: A Slovenian historian has suggested that Joseph Stalin was poisoned rather than suffering a fatal stroke, pointing the finger of suspicion directly at his arch enemy Josip Broz Tito.
When Josef Stalin died on March 5 in 1953, a letter was found in his office that had been written by Tito.
The two leaders were bitter enemies, after Tito had used World War II as an opportunity to spark a revolution and lead Yugoslavia to independence from Soviet influence.
A combination of pride, fear and jealousy had spurred Stalin to attempt to have Tito killed - and no less than 22 assassination attempts had been made in the years after the war.
“Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle... If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second,” the Daily Mail quoted Tito’s letter as reading.
In his book Tito In Tovarisi, historian Joze Pirjavec puts forward mainly circumstantial evidence to support his poisoning theory. Crucially, however, he has used former Yugoslav archives that have been overlooked by many historians.
He suggests that Tito knew Stalin would not stop until an assassination attempt was eventually successful. In something that sounds too farfetched even for a James Bond novel, one of the attempts against Tito involved a jewellery box that would emit a toxic nerve gas when opened.
Pirjavec suggests that Tito’s letter was not an idle threat but a statement of fact - one which he carried through.
Ironically enough, Stalin’s death - either by natural causes or at the hands of a Tito assassin - was largely his own doing.
He ruled with such ruthlessness - executing anyone who stood in his way or defied his orders - that even his own security team was effectively paralysed with fear.
On the day he suffered the stroke that would eventually kill him; he had given strict instructions that he was not to be disturbed.
People, who saw him on the day of his stroke, including his successor Nikita Khrushchev, said that he was showing no signs of ill health.
After a meeting that lasted until 4am, Stalin went to bed and sent his guards off duty. They were under strict orders not to disturb him until they were called for.
But, as the sun set that day, there had been no word from the Russian leader.
According to reports, a light come on in Stalin’s room at 6.30pm but there was still no word from the boss, and they were too frightened to break his orders.
Eventually, at 10 pm, the guards decided that they had to enter the room. They found Stalin lying on the floor, unable to move or speak. His watch had broken and stopped at 6.30pm, suggesting a fall.
For some reason, the guards did not immediately contact medical help. They first called the minister of state security, and then the secret police.
They may have been following protocol but Pirjavec agrees with other historians who claim the delay was intentional - using the time to cover-up or remove evidence.
When medical help finally did arrive, the leader was paralysed and vomiting blood. He survived in agony for several days, ultimately choking to death in his bed on the night of March 5.
The official cause of death was ruled as a cerebral haemorrhage most probably brought about by a stroke. Despite the fact that Stalin had suffered minor strokes before, Pirjavec claims the then 74-year-old had been poisoned with potassium cyanide.
Pirjevec makes the point that Stalin referred to Tito’s threatening letter within hours of the stroke.
First Published: Thursday, July 19, 2012, 15:47