Born 18 March 1907, Yakov Stalin (or Dzhugashvili) was the son of Joseph Stalin and Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze. Stalin certainly didn’t harbour particularly warm feelings for his son. Deprived of his father’s affections and upset by a failed romance, Yakov, or Yasha as Stalin called him, once tried to shoot himself. As he lay bleeding, his father scathingly remarked, ‘He can’t even shoot straight’.
Peace loving and gentle
His half-sister, Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Stalin and his second wife, Nadezhda, claimed in her book, Twenty Letters to a Friend, that Yakov never ‘took any advantage [as a soldier]; never made even the slightest attempt to avoid danger… Since my father, moreover, hadn’t any use for him and everybody knew it, no one in the higher echelons of the army gave him special treatment.’ Yakov, according to Svetlana, was ‘peace-loving, gentle and extremely quiet.’ But he wasn’t fond of his half brother Vasily (Svetlana’s brother) and disliked his ‘penchant for profanity’, and once turned on Vasily with his fists ‘like a lion’.
On 16 July, within a month of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Yakov was captured and taken prisoner (pictured). Stalin considered all prisoners as traitors to the motherland and those that surrendered he demonised 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.
Stick your bayonets in the earth
Families of PoWs, or deserters, faced the harshest consequences for the failings of their sons or husbands – arrested and exiled. 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 traumatised by the experience.
The Germans attempted to win over Yakov, offering to introduce him to Hermann Goring – but he remained steadfast and refused to co-operate. But although the Germans were unable to recruit Stalin’s son they still made propaganda capital out of him, 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’.
Yakov was placed in a more spacious hut than others within the camp and shared a bedroom with the nephew of Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister. In the adjoining bedroom were four British POWs, and the atmosphere between them all was strained. Yakov taunted the Brits for standing to attention when spoken to by the German officers, implying that they were cowards, and calling the British people as a whole ‘Hitler’s puppets’. One of the British prisoners was an Irishman, Red Cushing, who described his time as a POW with Yakov Stalin in an interview with the Sunday Times in 1980.
A Marshal for a Lieutenant
In 1943, Stalin was offered the chance to have his son back. The Germans had been defeated at Stalingrad and their Field Marshal, Friedrich Paulus, was taken prisoner by the Soviets, their highest-ranking capture of the war. The Germans offered a swap – 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 logic – why should his son be freed when the sons of other Soviet families suffered – ‘what would other fathers say?’ asked Stalin.
On 14 April 1943, the 36-year-old Yakov Stalin died. The Germans maintained they shot him while he was trying to escape. They released a photograph showing his bullet-riddled body caught in barbed wire.
But it is more likely that Yakov committed suicide by throwing himself onto the electric fence. After two years of incarceration and deprivation, the news of the Katyn massacre, and his father’s responsibility for it, weighed heavily on Yakov’s conscience. 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 publicised 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?’ said a German officer to him.
But it was an argument over toilets, according to Red Cushing, that was the final straw. Insults and fists were thrown. Then, said Cushing, ‘I saw Yakov running about as if he were insane. He just ran straight onto the wire. There was a huge flash and all the searchlights suddenly went on. I knew that was the end of him.’
Rupert Colley’s novel, The Black Maria, a chilling story set in Stalinist Moscow, is now available.