Yakov Stalin: In the Shadow of the Dictator

Should one be born rubbing shoulders with the great and the good, would one very likely have his or her life lane all mapped out from the start. Born into a monarch family, one is bound to follow the royal protocol and parade at notorious national events. Who is born to famous politicians has great odds to follow suit and engage in high-level education and later politics. And who’s born mixing with the upper reaches of dictatorship power spheres may well take the lead, eventually rising to power so as to draw out the regime’s legacy.

As it goes with general rules, there are always exceptions. Here’s one.

Yakov Dzhugashvili was Stalin’s oldest son. His mother, Kato Svanidze, died in 1907 when he was just about a year old: Stalin was deeply affected by the loss, which occurred two weeks before his 30th birthday. At her funeral, the mourning to-be-dictator said: “This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity,” presaging the murder of millions by the years to come. This did not make it easier for Yakov who was raised by his aunts and grandmother, never receiving any form of attention or affection from his cold-hearted father.

Soviet propaganda. Children were taught to sing “Thank you dear comrade Stalin for a happy childhood!” but would his own children agree? (Source: University of Oregon)

Nevertheless, Yakov would not just cut ties with his father. Sometime later, he introduced him to her Jewish fiancée, but a furious Stalin got her to flee the country. Heartbroken, Yakov tried to commit suicide: he pointed a gun lying around in his bedroom to his heart and shot, but missed its target: “He can’t even shoot straight” Stalin said, weary, while his son’s stepmother hurried to call the doctors.

Indeed, Stalin had, following a long period of grieving (and prison) married his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeya, in 1919. This probably wasn’t the match he had found with Kato, as both regularly argued – little by little, Nadezhda’s vision of her husband as a revolutionary spirit fighting for change cracked, for she met university friends who told her about the havoc of his policy. Stalin had indeed climbed the Soviet Union’s political ladder, and would take the lead at Lenin’s death, in 1924.

Nadezhda Alliluyeva and Stalin, along with Marshal of the Soviet Union Kliment Voroshilov and his spouse, Ekaterina Voroshilova. (Source: Wikimedia)

Frustrated to constantly argue with her stubborn husband, Nadezhda’s life worsened. Following an umpteenth dispute, she left in a flash a party where officials were gathered, on 9 November 1932. The next day, the Soviet people heard the news that she had died that night from appendicitis, though she had shot herself in their bedroom – no missing this time.

Apparently, another family member had learnt to shoot straight, since eventually Lientenant Yakov Dzhugashvili entered the Red Army. However, he was captured by (or surrendered to, as his furious father believed) German authorities in July 1941. Following a 2-year sentence, the latest offered to release him in exchange for the return of German Marshal Friedrich Paulus, captured in Stalingrad in 1943. To which Stalin allegedly replied: “I will not trade a Marshal for a Lieutenant.”

Yakov died a few months later, still imprisoned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He was 36 years old. As regards the cause of the death, there is room for doubt, especially in those times’ Soviet Union. He was said to have been shot by a guard after trying to escape the camp. A reason later revealed by Russian historians was that Yakov heard the news of the Katyn massacre, ordered by Stalin in the spring of 1940. (About 22,000 Polish had been murdered notably in the Katyn Forest, where corpses were found by Germans in 1943. The USSR denied responsibility until 1990.)

German propaganda used the capture of Yakov to weaken Soviets’ morale. That 1941 poster reads: “Do not shed your blood for Stalin! He has already fled to Samara! His own son has surrendered! If Stalin’s son is saving his own skin, then you are not obliged to sacrifice yourself either!” (Source: Wikipedia)

Apparently, Yakov, whose friends at the camp included Polish people, threw himself on an electric fence to end his life. He probably had too much warm feeling for humanity to bear any longer.



Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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