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.
The Birth of Stalin’s First Son
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.
Military Career and Capture
Because of his father, though, Yakov did have a military career and was an officer in the Red Army.
When Nazi Germany invaded the USSR during World War II, at the Battle of Smolensk, they captured him.
One would generally think that a powerful ruler would do whatever is necessary to retrieve his offspring from the enemy. This was not the case with Stalin and Yakov. Despite the Germans offering to trade Yakov for a German field marshal, or Hitler’s nephew, Stalin refused both trade options.
It’s reported he said that he would not trade the field marshal, as he was higher ranking than Yakov, and also that his son was no different than the “millions of sons” the Germans had captured.
In addition, Stalin did not entirely believe that his son had been captured. In fact, he thought that his son had given himself up, surrendering at the urging of his wife (whom Stalin later imprisoned and interrogated because of this).
In order to save himself the embarrassment, the capture story was circulated (though Russian documents found in 2003 seem to confirm the surrender, rather than the capture).
In the Red Army, surrender was seen as the equivalent of treason, causing Stalin to hate his son even more. Surrender was taken so seriously in the USSR that prisoners of war sent back to their home country after the war were better off not going back to the USSR at all. Hundreds of thousands of these prisoners received not a warm welcome when they reached Russia in 1945, but rather a 25-year sentence to Siberia or, at worst, execution, for their “treasonous” actions.
Regardless of how he got there, Yakov did end up in a Nazi German concentration camp. The Nazis saw this as a huge marketing opportunity, and spread their propaganda regarding Yakov far and wide.
They dropped leaflets via plane on Soviet soldiers, 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!”
Different rumors circulated regarding Yakov’s death, but until recently it’s not been fully confirmed how and when he died.
Some thought that he may have committed suicide by running into an electric fence, or even jumping from a prison window onto an electric fence. Others thought that he may have been murdered. More recently, though, it’s thought that Yakov was shot by a guard for not obeying orders.
It’s reported Yakov was taking a stroll around the camp and was ordered back to his barracks. When he did not obey and went on to taunt the guard, the guard shot Yakov in the head. Stalin learned of his son’s death far before modern historians, and it is said that he felt this was at least a slightly honorable death in the light of the situation.
It was British officers taking control of Nazi archives who ran across a paper trail depicting Yakov’s death. However, it may be that these documents were slightly falsified by the Germans, as they indicate Yakov was not shot by a guard for disobeying orders, but rather shot during a failed escape attempt after an argument with fellow prisoners.
While the British thought about giving the papers to Stalin as an act of good will, they did not, as they did not want it questioned how and where they found the papers, as it had not been revealed to the Soviets at that time that the British and American forces had acquired German archives.
Sadly, Yakov was not the only family recipient of his father’s anger. Yakov’s brother, Vasili, also had a military career, in the USSR air force, but received the same criticism that Yakov always had, and he drank himself to an early death.
One of Stalin’s wives, Nadezhda, supposedly killed herself after having too much of her husband’s cruelty, the final straw being forced to sit across him at the dinner table while he tauntingly flicked cigarettes in her direction.