The Sad Lives and Demise of Stalin's Sons
Rupert Colley is the principal writer and series editor of the "History in an Hour" ebook series, published by HarperCollins (UK).
Last week we learnt of the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s only daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva. She died in Wisconsin on November 22 at the age of 85.
But Stalin, who died in March 1953, also had two sons, one from each of his wives. The eldest, Yakov, the child of Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze, was born in 1907 and died in a German concentration camp in 1943. Ekaterina was, along with Stalin’s mother, his great love. They married in 1906 and had been man and wife only 16 months when she died of typhus, aged 22, while her son was still only nine months old. Her death greatly affected the future dictator—comrades, worried for his sanity, took away his revolver for fear he might put the gun to his temple. At her funeral, a grief-stricken Stalin told a friend, ‘This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.”
He certainly didn’t harbor particularly “warm feelings” for their son, Yakov Dzhugashvili, or Yasha, as his father called him.
Deprived of his father’s affections and upset by a failed romance, Yakov once tried to shoot himself. As he lay bleeding, his father scathingly remarked, “He can't even shoot straight.”
Yakov joined the Red Army at the outbreak of the war with Germany in June 1941, serving as a lieutenant in the artillery. On the first day of the war, his father told him, “Go and fight.” On July 16, within a month of the Nazi invasion, Yakov was captured and taken prisoner. Stalin considered all prisoners as traitors to the motherland and those that surrendered he demonized as “malicious deserters.” “There are no prisoners of war,” he once said, “only traitors to their homeland.”
Certainly Yakov, by all accounts, felt that he had failed his father. Under interrogation, he admitted that he had tried to shoot himself. His father probably would have preferred it if he had.
Families of POWs, or deserters, faced the harshest consequences for the failings of their sons or husbands—arrest and exile. Yakov may have been Stalin’s son, but his family was not to be spared. He was married to a Jewish girl, Julia. Stalin had managed to overcome his innate anti-Semitism and grew to be quite fond of his daughter-in-law. Nonetheless, following Yakov’s capture, Julia was arrested, separated from her three-year-old daughter, and sent to the gulag. After two years, Stalin sanctioned her release but she remained forever traumatized by the experience.
The Germans made propaganda capital of Yakov’s capture, dropping leaflets in the Soviet Union that claimed that the Great Leader’s son had surrendered and was feeling “alive and well.” “Follow the example of Stalin’s son,” the Germans urged Soviet soldiers, “stick your bayonets in the earth.”
In 1943, Stalin was offered the chance to have his son back. The Germans had been defeated at Stalingrad and Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus was taken prisoner by the Soviets, their highest-ranking capture of the war. The Germans offered a swap—von Paulus for Yakov. Stalin refused, saying, ‘I will not trade a marshal for a lieutenant.” As harsh it may seem, Stalin’s reasoning did contain a certain logic—why should his son be freed when the sons of other Soviet families suffered— “what would other fathers say?”
On April 14, 1943, the 36-year-old Yakov died. The Germans maintained they shot him while he was trying to escape. But it is more likely that after two years of incarceration and deprivation, the news of the Katyn massacre was the final straw. Stalin had ordered the murder of 15,000 Polish officers in the woods of Katyn in May 1940. The discovery of the mass grave in March 1943 was heavily publicized by the Germans. Yakov, who had befriended Polish inmates, was distraught by the news. “Look what you bastards did to these men. What kind of people are you?” a German officer said to him (apparently without a trace of irony). He died by throwing himself onto an electric fence.
In March 1921, Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, gave birth to Vasily. Their second child, Svetlana, was born five years later. But in November 1932, Nadezhda, suffering from depression, shot herself (rumors persist that Stalin actually pulled the trigger in a drunken rage). Naturally, her death affected both children who, from then on, were brought up by a succession of nannies, but it seemed particularly to have disturbed the 11-year-old Vasily.
At the age of 17, Vasily enrolled in a prestigious aviation school, in spite of his poor grades. His father’s aides had to ensure his entry. Stalin once described Vasily as a “spoilt boy of average abilities” and advised his son’s teachers to be stricter with him.
Once enrolled in the school, Vasily used his name to obtain privileges usually reserved for the most senior members. Stalin, on hearing of his son’s abuses, ordered an immediate end to his special treatment.
As a young man, Vasily continually used his name to further his career, to obtain perks and seduce women. It was a trait that his father deplored. Vasily drank to excess and, again exploiting the family name, denounced anyone he disliked or barred his way. Amazingly, he managed to graduate as a pilot. Continually drunk, he would commandeer planes and fly them while inebriated. Vasily was married twice, but never managed to curtail his womanizing.
Promoted to the rank of colonel at the beginning of the war, Vasily was elevated numerous times, becoming a major general in 1946, a rank far beyond his merit or ability. His drinking, loutish behaviour and intolerable temper made him both unpopular and a liability. He had no sense of responsibility and Stalin once had to intervene by sacking his colonel son for “hard drinking, debauchery and corrupting the regiment.” Seven months later, however, he was reinstated.
Vasily was frightened of no one but his father, in front of whom he was often reduced to a stammering wreck. He lived in fear of what would become of him after his father’s death, believing (correctly) that Stalin’s successor, whoever it may be, would “tear me apart.”
Sure enough, following Stalin’s death he was dismissed from the air force and arrested for “misappropriation of state property”—using air force funds to finance his lavish lifestyle. He served seven years and on appealing to Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was released in 1960. But, within a year, he was back in prison, this time for causing a traffic accident. Ill-health secured his release within a year, but he was exiled to Kazan where he cut a lonely and rejected figure. His years of hard drinking caught up with him and he died on March 19, 1962, two days short of his 41st birthday.
And now, in the late hour of 2011, all of Stalin’s children have met their ends.
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