Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had three children, two boys and a girl, born by his two wives. Neither of the three had a warm relationship with their father. His only daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva defected to the United States in 1967. When she was 16, Svetlana fell in love with a Jewish filmmaker Aleksei Kapler. As soon as he found out, Stalin sentenced Kapler to 10 years hard labor in infamous Siberian gulags. Her next suitor was a bit luckier, and was allowed to marry Svetlana, but was never introduced to Stalin officially.
While she was a student, she was instructed to study history and political thought by her father, although literature was her passion. Stalin regarded that childish and strictly forbade her being taught in that field. Svetlana died in Wisconsin, at the age of 85.
Svetlana’s brother, Vasily Dzhugashvili, was a great disappointment to his father. An average student, he managed to enroll in a pilot school, where he proceeded to become a drunk and a womanizer. Still, he kept getting promoted and ended his military career with the rank of a major general. After his father died in 1953, Vasily was considered a dangerous person by Stalin’s heirs, Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov, and was treated as such. He was sentenced to eight years and was released in 1960. His drinking finally caught up with him, and he died few days short of his 41st birthday.
Perhaps the most tragic fate of all Stalin’s children befell Yakov Dzhugashvili, Stalin’s oldest. His mother was Ekaterina Svanidze, who died of typhus when Yakov was just nine months old. It was said that the whatever humanity Stalin possessed died with her. He later stated ‘This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.’ Her death was so devastating for him that his comrades took his revolver away, in fear that he will use it to commit suicide.
Stalin never transferred those feelings to the son he had with Svanidze. Yakov once tried to commit suicide after a failed love affair, but only managed to wound himself. His father’s only comment was: “He can’t even shoot straight.”
Yakov Dzhugashvili married Yulia Meltzer, a famous dancer from Odessa who also happened to be Jewish. His father was a staunch anti-Semite and felt that this was a deliberate action against him on Yakov’s part. Still, he grew to like Yulia and was eventually pleased with his son’s choice.
When the Operation Barbarossa started, Yakov Dzhugashvili was commissioned as an artillery lieutenant. His father simply told him “Go and fight.” Yakov obeyed but was captured on July 16th, 1942, less than a month after the war started. Stalin view prisoners of war as traitors and the capture of his son didn’t change his mind. Families of POWs were routinely exposed to imprisonment and torture, and Yulia was no exception. Stalin sent her to a gulag, where she stayed for two years. Her children were taken away from her.
One of the reasons for such harsh treatment could be because allegedly, Yakov wasn’t captured, but in fact, actively sought to surrender to Wehrmacht. Der Spiegel magazine recently uncovered several documents from the Soviet archives that suggest this. The first evidence is a letter written by Alexei Rumyanzev, who was a political commissar in Yakov’s brigade. In a report to the Political Directorate, he praised Yakov as fearless and impeccable in his duties as a battery commander. But then he goes on to describe how, after an especially heavy German barrage on his positions, Yakov and one of his soldiers, Popuride, deserted.
“They buried their papers and put on civilian clothing,” the letter states. “When they reached the lakeside, Comrade Dzhugashvili told Popuride to keep going, but said that he wanted to stay and rest.”
This was interpreted as clear intent on Yakov’s part to surrender to Germans. Der Spiegel also cites a German report, detailing Yakov’s interrogation. The report says that he was very critical of the Red Army, claiming its actions were “stupid and idiotic” and its leaders “unwise.” He also made several anti-Semitic remarks, which came as a surprise to Germans, considering Yakov’s wife was Jewish. Apparently, Yakov said: “For them, making business deals is the most important thing. The Jew doesn’t want to work because he can’t.”
Later, his half-sister Svetlana wrote in her memoirs that Stalin believed Yakov was put up to surrender by his wife and that is why he treated her so cruelly.
Germans tried to use Yakov’s capture as a propaganda tool, dropping leaflets over Soviet positions, claiming that he is well and encouraging them also to surrender. ‘Follow the example of Stalin’s son,’ the leaflets said, ‘stick your bayonets in the earth.’
In 1943, Soviets captured entire German 6th Army at Stalingrad, together with newly-promoted Field Marshal Fredrich von Paulus. Together with Paulus, Soviet captured Leo Raubal Jr., Hitler’s nephew. Hitler tried to get Stalin to exchange either of them for Yakov Dzhugashvili, but Stalin refused, saying that “war is war” and that he won’t trade a field marshal for a mere lieutenant.
Just a few months later, Yakov died in prison. The official version says that he was killed during the escape attempt. However, there are some records that claim Yakov committed a suicide. During his time in war prisoners camp, he befriended a number of Polish officers who were there with him. About that time the Katyn massacre, where Stalin ordered some 15,000 Polish soldiers executed, was discovered. Taunted by the prison guards and feeling ashamed in front of his Polish friends, Yakov Dzhugashvili threw himself at the electric fence surrounding the camp. He died on April 14th, 1943, at the age of 36.