Joe Stalin died on March 5, 1953. I was almost twelve years old at the time.
While such things rarely mattered to kids in middle school, then called junior high, Stalin’s death was the talk of the school yard at recess.
A few kids said “Who’s Joe Stalin?” Most of us however knew him as the devil incarnate of the Soviet Union. He was especially well known among those Italian kids who had socialist or communist/anarchist relatives. Like me.
“Uncle Joe” as he was known during the war when the Soviet Union was bearing the brunt of the fighting against Hitler’s fascist armies became the evil communist again after the war was over. By the time the Korean War broke out he was arch enemy number one in the West.
Now this is not to say or even infer that he wasn’t. Stalin transformed the massive Russia of peasants and farmers he inherited from Lenin into a mighty industrial powerhouse and the world’s second military power, albeit at the cost of tens of millions of lives. He was a paranoid murderous dictator of the first rank.
Stalin was born in 1879 in Gori, Georgia, the son of a cobbler and an illiterate peasant woman. He irst practiced his craft in a village shop but later in a shoe factory in the city. Stalin’s father died in 1891. Stalin’s mother, Ekaterina, a devoutly religious peasant sent her teenage son to the theological seminary in Tpilisi (Tiflis), Georgia, where Stalin prepared for the ministry. Shortly before his graduation, however, he was expelled in 1899 for spreading subversive views.
Stalin then joined the underground revolutionary Marxist movement in Tpilisi and his eventual rise to the leadership of the communist party of the Soviet Union is history.
“Although always depicted as a towering figure, Stalin, in fact, was fairly short. His personality was highly controversial, and it remains a mystery. Stalin was crude and cruel and, in some important ways, a primitive man. In political life he tended to be cautious and slow-moving, and his writing style was much the same. Stalin was at times, however, a clever speaker and a fierce debater. He seems to have possessed boundless energy and an amazing ability to absorb detailed knowledge.”
Stalin had two wives and three children. The eldest, Yakov was born to Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze in 1907. Svanidze was, along with his mother, Stalin’s great love. They wed in 1906 and had been married only 16 months when she died of tuberculosis at age 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’.
In March 1921, Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, gave birth to Yasily. Their second child, Svetlana, was born five years later. In 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 like tens of millions of others in Stalin’s Soviet Union, his children did not live happy lives.
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 war in the East in June 1941, serving as a lieutenant in the artillery. On the first day of the war, his father told him to ‘Go and fight’. On 16 July, 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’.
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 were 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.
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 – 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 logic – why should his son be freed when the sons of other Soviet families suffered – ‘what would other fathers say?
On 14 April 1943, the 36-year-old Yakov died. The Germans maintained they shot him while he was trying to escape. Other sources indicated that he died by throwing himself onto an electric fence.
Stalin’s younger son, Vasily joined an aviation school at the age of 17, despite obtaining 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 ability. His drinking, loutish behaviour and intolerable temper made him both unpopular and a liability.
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 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 drunkenness and 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 19 March 1962, two days short of his 41st birthday.
Stalin’s daughter Svetlana was born on 28 February in 1926 and was undoubtedly his favorite. Stalin was to her a loving father and called her “Birdie.” He lavished her with gifts and brought her the latest American films.
Her teenage days were marked with the war. Once, when she was 18 years old, while setting the table for dinner in the Kremlin, she met Winston Churchill. According to “The New York Times”, they had pretty interesting conversation.
She became the darling of the nation, similar to Shirley Temple in the United States. Thousands of babies were named after her. She worked as a translator in English and literary editor. The first of five marriages she entered was with schoolmate of her brother Vasily, but she soon divorced and married Yuri Zhdanov with whom she had a daughter. Later she married Ivan Alexandrovich, a prominent Soviet scientist.
In 1962, she decided to be baptized in the Orthodox church, along with her daughter. For a while she lived in India where she got married for the fourth time, and when she was ordered to return to Russia, she immediately asked for political asylum in the United States. There she published “Twenty Letters to a friend,” a book in which she wrote about her father’s life and the Kremlin, and the book caused a sensation. Some say she earned about $2.5 million from the book.
Her fifth marriage was with William Peters in 1970 and she gave birth to a daughter, Olga. She took the name Lana Peters, which she maintained even after the divorce. From America, she traveled to Cambridge, England where her daughter was studying.
She unexpectedly returned to Moscow in 1984, where she was welcomed with enthusiasm by the government which immediately returned her USSR citizenship but she did not stay.
She settled in Wisconsin in 1992, and lived in a monastery for a short time. She died on 22 November in 2011, due to the colon cancer. In the following year, the FBI removed the label ”Classified” on the documents with information about her life in America.
And thus the unhappy lives of the children of Stalin of the USSR. I guess Svetlana’s was the best.