On 21 March 1921, Joseph Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, gave birth to Yasily Stalin, or Vasily Dzhugashvili. Their second child, Svetlana, was born five years later. On 9 November 1932, Nadezhda, suffering from depression, shot herself. Naturally, her death affected both children who, from then on, were brought up by a succession of nannies and security guards but it seemed to particularly disturb the 11-year-old Vasily.
At the age of 17, Vasily joined an aviation school, despite only obtaining poor grades. His father’s aides had to ensure his entry. Stalin once described Vasily as a ‘spoilt boy of average abilities, a little savage… and not always truthful,’ 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 womanising.
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 ability, and ultimately commander of the Soviet air force within Moscow. His sister, Svetlana, in her book Twenty Letters to a Friend, wrote, ‘He was pushed higher and higher. Those responsible couldn’t have cared less about his strengths and weaknesses… Their one thought was to curry favour with my father.’ Hardly surprising given the environment they had to work under. Even high-ranking men such as Lavrenty Beria ‘spoiled and corrupted Vasily, just as long as they needed him’.
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 son for ‘hard drinking, debauchery and corrupting the regiment’. Seven months later, however, he was re-instated.
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 that Stalin’s successor, whoever it may be, would ‘tear me apart’.
Sure enough, following Stalin’s death, Vasily was ‘terrified’ and those that had once fawned round him ‘didn’t need him any more and they abandoned and forgot him’.
The Defence Ministry ordered him to take up a post outside of Moscow. Vasily refused, insisting he remain in Moscow. On refusing to accept an order, he was dismissed from the air force and arrested for ‘misappropriation of state property’ – using air force funds to finance his lavish lifestyle. It seemed everyone he’d ever caused offence, threatened, denounced and abused lined up to offer their evidence. Meanwhile, no one spoke in his defence.
He served seven years in prison. On appealing to Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, with a barrage of letters promising to reform his ways, he was released in 1960. But his promises mounted to nothing – he started drinking and causing havoc and, within a year, was back in prison, this time for causing a traffic accident.
The cycle started anew – again having promised to mend his ways. Khrushchev secured his release, gave him a Moscow apartment, a dacha, a car and restored his rank of general. Again, it didn’t last long and he was soon back in prison – his third spell.
Ill health secured his release within a year, but he was exiled to Kazan where he cut a forlorn and rejected figure. His years of hard drinking caught up with him and after another bender, he died on 19 March 1962, two days short of his 41st birthday.
‘His life was tragic in a way,’ wrote his sister.