Everyone knows Joseph Stalin, but most aren’t familiar with his familial life, particularly his eldest son, Yakov.
The tumultuous relationship between father and son created a story that spanned a difficult youth, the German invasion of the Soviet Union and a Nazi concentration camp.
Yakov was born to Stalin’s first wife, in 1907. He was born in what was at the time Imperial Russia, and his mother died of typhus only a few months after his birth.
Yakov was mostly raised by his other female relatives, his aunts and grandmother. He was encouraged at a young age to go to Moscow to seek out an education.
From his youth onward, Yakov and Stalin did not get along, with Stalin being quite judgmental of his son, looking down on him in almost every way. As a young man, Yakov attempted suicide after a disagreement with his father over Yakov’s Jewish fiancee.
Stalin did not approve of the marriage and after an intense argument, Yakov retired to his bedroom and attempted to shoot himself. However, Yakov survived and was treated for his wounds, but his father was prompted to make remarks on how his son couldn’t even kill himself properly.
Yakov did end up marrying the Jewish girl, a dancer who was already married. He helped her arrange a divorce before marrying her and having two children with her. Afterward, Stalin said that he no longer wanted to have any sort of a relationship with Yakov, as they had nothing in common. He called Yakov a thug and an extortionist.
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 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.
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 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 traumatised by the experience.
The Germans made propaganda capital of Yakov’s capture, dropping leaflets in the Soviet Union saying “Do not shed your blood for Stalin! His own son has surrendered! If Stalin’s son has saved himself then you are not obliged to sacrifice yourself either!”
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. But it is more likely that after two years of incarceration and deprivation, the news of the Katyn massacre was the final straw. 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. He died by throwing himself onto an electric fence.