SITTING on historian Simon Sebag Montefioreís desk in London is a medical report which describes, minute by minute, the last hours of a sick 73-year-old man.
They detail his incontinence, his spasms, his last gasps - and also severe stomach haemorrhaging. Normally, such a document would be of little significance except to immediate family, a record of just another tired old humanís messy terminal moments. But the collapsed old man was Joseph Stalin, one of the most merciless despots the world has known, and that yellowing, mundanely typed account takes on new and seismic significance when it reveals hitherto suppressed details which suggest that the dictator just might have been murdered.
In Who Killed Stalin?, a BBC2 Timewatch dramatised documentary tonight, Sebag Montefiore, author of the award-winning Stalin: The Court of the Red Czar, looks at evidence, unearthed after half a century, which suggests that, rather than dying of a stroke as officially stated, the "Man of Steel" may have had the fear and hatred which surrounded him finally catch up with him - and was poisoned.
The programme dramatically reconstructs Stalinís final moments on 5 March, 1953, as his henchmen and children gather round, and it interviews families of those who knew him. But the linchpin for speculation is the medical report, concealed for some 50 years, to which Sebag Montefiore was given access when writing his book. As he sat in the bunker-like archives of the Institute of Marxism and Leninism, near Pushkin Square in Moscow, he realised that there were elements of Stalinís final hours which had been covered up.
"Itís an amazing archive," recalls the historian. "And the most fascinating thing about the whole affair is this medical report. Because when Stalinís successors were faced with this report, just hours after his death, they noticed it mentioned stomach bleeding, and they decided to suppress this information.It remained suppressed until 2000. The official cause of death was that he died of a cerebral haemorrhage - a stroke.
"The report details literally every gasp, every hiccup, every enema he was given... and as I researched deeper, it was as if I could see Stalin deteriorating before my eyes. And suddenly he was vomiting blood, his stomach was bloated and the doctors got really alarmed." As time runs out for the tyrant - whose disastrous collective farming policies in the Ukraine had starved ten million people to death and whose later purges killed, tortured and exiled millions more - he is surrounded by his two emotionally-damaged children, and by his closest confederates, a bunch of paranoid and fearful power-seekers, all with the blood of thousands on their hands.
There was Stalinís daughter, Svetlana, who never lost the emotional scars from when her mother shot herself in 1932 after denouncing her husband as a tyrant. Svetlana, now a recluse, no longer gives interviews, but during footage of one she gave years ago, she describes her father as "a moral and spiritual monster".
Not much familial affection either from his son, Vasily, who was possibly even more damaged by his motherís suicide and who rose through the ranks of the Russian air force purely through his status as son of the great leader - but his alcoholism and blatant philandering embarrassed even Stalin, who had him demoted and sent to the western front.
Then there was Stalinís long-standing henchman, Vyacheslav Molotov; between them, they had drawn up death lists of thousands of people. Half expected to succeed Stalin, Molotov instead fell from favour, while Stalin - preoccupied latterly with the nonsensical "Jewish Doctor conspiracy" - denounced Molotov as a traitor and had his Jewish wife, Paulina, arrested and deported to Kazakhstan. Molotov had to divorce her.
Nikita Krushchev went on to succeed Stalin, but he served his apprenticeship as "Stalinís fool"; the dictator regularly humiliated him and made him dance and sing at the drunken nocturnal revels the leader hosted at his dacha. As another participant, Nikolai Bulganin, remarked when leaving one such drunken levee: "One never knows if one is going home or to prison".
Closest of all to Stalin, and hungry for power, was fellow-Georgian, secret policeman and torturer Lavrenty Beria - a horrific concatenation of consummate manager and statesman, the mastermind behind Russiaís atomic bomb, and a sadistic pervert who picked up women from the streets of Moscow, then raped and murdered them. Beria, too, knew that he had fallen from grace. In his memoirs, Krushchev would later recall Beria mocking the unconscious dictator and spitting at his feet, only to kneel and kiss his hand whenever he appeared to be regaining consciousness.
So, we have a ghastly man, surrounded by ghastly men all watching their backs, but there were other odd circumstances connected with Stalinís death. After his inner circle had left yet another drinking party at his dacha round 4:40 in the morning, the ultra-paranoid Stalin took the unprecedented step of telling his new bodyguards to go to bed, before locking up and going to sleep on his divan. He did not appear as usual at midday and at 6pm the guards saw his lights come on - but it was another four hours before anyone tried to enter. When they did, they found Stalin lying on the floor in a pool of urine, half-conscious, and partly paralysed.
The guards lifted him on to the divan, where they left him snoring, and called Beria, who wasnít in. When Beria finally returned the call, he came to the dacha, inspected the comatose leader, and angrily accused the guards of panicking: "Comrade Stalin is obviously sleeping peacefully."
It was 12 hours after Comrade Stalinís collapse before he received any medical attention - partly because the expert Jewish doctors who usually ministered to Stalin and his confidants were by now in jail. The inexperienced medics who eventually arrived were so terrified they could hardly carry out their procedures. Four days after his collapse, Stalin choked to death.
Sebag Montefiore has his own thoughts on the affair, which we wonít give away, but he agrees that "with this bunch of monsters, anything could have happened". Apart from its whodunit interest, the drama-documentary paints a vivid portrait, not only of the last hours of one of historyís most appalling tyrants, but of the terrifying entourage he cultivated, a grim circus of murderers, torturers and power-seekers, united only in their fear of the man whose deathbed they are attending.
Today, we regard Stalin as a monster, someone who, behind the avuncular pipe, moustache and taxi-driverís hat, deployed peasant brutishness on an unimaginable scale. But Sebag Montefiore suggests that it doesnít do to delude ourselves. Monster, yes, but the Georgian dictator was also a man of enormous intellect.
"The old view," he agrees, "is of Stalin as a primitive, cold, automaton-like mediocrity. But I worked with his private papers, only opened up in 2000, and I realised very quickly that I was dealing with an absolutely exceptional person. He had enormous political gifts, was a brilliant negotiator, and an autodidat who read everything he could get his hands on. It also happened that he believed absolutely - as they all did - that you had to kill a lot of people now in order to create a perfect, deferred paradise further down the road. His personality fused perfectly with the Bolshevik system. So, you had a pretty disgusting system and a pretty disgusting man, who happened also to be a superb politician and quite an intellectual."
One might argue that acknowledging the human side of Stalin may help us guard against future despots, but that argument evaporates if you look to the former Soviet Union, where some 40 per cent of Russians recently voted Stalin the greatest statesman in history. Just this year a quarter of the population said theyíd vote for him if he was running for president. In the light of all thatís now known about him, what is going on here? "Itís all about prestige and security and victory and empire," muses Sebag Montefiore. "The Russians have this amazing ability to separate out memory, so they have two Stalins - the one who made what they call Ďexcessive mistakesí and the one who was a war leader and statesman. They know he was ruthless, and he was open about that and proud of it." A hard man for hard times, then. And the historian believes that Stalin will become more and more popular as Russians become further distanced from the awful reality.
Stalin once declared that one death was a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic. As Sebag Montefiore got more and more under the dictatorís skin, as he went through the notes, letters and books, he made a conscious effort not to regard all the people Stalin exterminated as mere statistics, but as individuals with families and children. It would have been easier, he agrees, to equate the genocide with the brutal, peasant caricature: "But he wasnít that, not by a long shot. And the more human and educated he turned out to be, the more disgusting I found him."