Washington, March 6 (RFE/RL) - Stalin died as he had lived, a figure shrouded in secrecy and fear, and for more than 40 years most of his secrets -- historical and personal -- remained largely hidden.
Now five years after the collapse of the state he helped build, long after the fading of the terror he unleashed, a new biography of the Soviet dictator by Edvard Radzinsky reveals much of what was so deeply concealed.
Drawing on secret documents in recently opened government, party and KGB archives, and interviews with survivors, Radzinsky tells what he says are the true circumstances of Stalin's birth, his machinations in the Communist Party, his reign in the Kremlin, and the way he really died 43 years ago this past Tuesday -- on March 5, 1953.
The 600-page book, entitled "Stalin," goes on sale in English translation in the United States next month. But Russian readers will have to wait until the fall.
A spokeswoman for Radzinsky's New York literary agent told RFE/RL that "Stalin" will be published in Russia after the broadcast of a television series based on the book.
She says Radzinsky, historian and playwright, as well as a television personality, hosts the "Mysteries of History" program on Russia's ORT Channel One and is already working on the production of the 12-part series on Stalin. It is to be aired on this program before the book is published in Russia.
Radzinsky's previous book "The Last Tsar" was also published first in U.S. and received critical acclaim. The Stalin biography promises to be as successful and perhaps more so.
American reviewers, who received advance copies of "Stalin", have called it "a tour de force," "masterful," "vivid and astonishingly intimate," and "a remarkable and gripping biography."
One critic, Carolyn White of Mirabella publications, said the book transported her to a menacing reality and kept her "spellbound for a terrifying tale, told in full for the first time."
She says "the frightening current of Stalinist nostalgia in Russia, in advance of the presidential elections this June, raises Radzinsky's work of historical genius to immediate import."
A critic for Kirkus reviews says "the book may change the way we view Stalin and will certainly change many of the interpretations of his life."
Radzinsky, who is in the United States this week giving interviews to generate advance publicity for his work, says he worked mostly from files he found in the so-called "President's Archives."
These were controlled, he says, directly by the Communist Party leadership and preserved in a secret place together with Stalin's personal archive.
Radzinsky says "this was only right, since by then the history of the Party, and that of the country, had become Stalin's history."
He says he also spoke with people who knew Stalin personally, including party officials, government ministers, Stalin's grandchildren and other relatives.
But the most sensational information, Radzinsky says, came from Peter Vasilevich Lozgachev, who had served in Stalin's guard and was present at his death.
Lozgachev told Radzinsky how he discovered Stalin lying on his bedroom floor in a pool of his own urine. Top government officials, including future leader Nikita Khrushchev, were summoned by the guards. But they left Stalin helpless and dying without medical help for 13 hours.
Radzinsky says Lozgachev confirmed that historical reports of Stalin's last days had been falsified.
In the book, Radzinsky fills in the gaps, explaining convincingly, albeit without conclusive evidence, that Stalin was probably poisoned on orders from Lavrenti Beria, head of the Soviet secret police.
Radzinsky says "if they did not kill him by poison, they killed him by witholding medical attention."
He documents that in 1953, the year of his death, Stalin strongly believed that Soviet world domination was close at hand and could be achieved through a global war.
Radzinsky shows how Stalin had already launched a new anti-semitic campaign and deduces that it was intended to provoke the West and raise the curtain on a nuclear third world war. The plan was aborted with Stalin's death and Radzinsky speculates it could have been one of several motives for Stalin's Politbureau comrades to hasten his end.
With new archive material, Radzinsky clarifies much else that has been rumored and uncertain. He shows how Stalin tried to obscure his early life and had his friends from those days exiled or killed.
Radzinsky suggests the secret Stalin was trying to keep was that on Lenin's instructions he was probably working as a double agent, spying both for the Bolshevik cause and the Tsarist secret police.
Penetrating Stalin's obfuscation, Radzinsky shows Stalin was born on December 6, 1878, a year and three days earlier than the official date, and that his mother lived in a palace when he rose to power and not in a washerwoman's hovel.
Radzinsky also cites documents showing that Stalin personally staged the show trials of the 1930s and was far more sadistic and methodically bloodthirsty than Western historians had assumed.
But Radzinsky says Stalin did not poison Lenin, who probably died of artherosclerosis and did not shoot his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva.
He says Stalin may have contributed to her suicidal mood with his infidelities and paranoic personality and they did quarrel hours before she died. But according to Radzinsky, Nadezhda shot herself, in part because she was seriously ill and facing major surgery.