The Tragic Lives of Joseph Stalin’s Children

We are all familiar with Joseph Stalin, the crazed Georgian leader of the Soviet Union for nearly thirty years between the mid-1920s and his death in 1953. To say his reputation is not good is an understatement.

In the late 1920s, Stalin turned the Soviet Union into one of the most totalitarian states in human history, with millions of people sent to the notorious Gulag prisons throughout Russia.

Following this, in the early 1930s, his policies resulted in a vicious famine that led to millions of deaths in Ukraine and widespread incidences of cannibalism.

And then, in the late 1930s, he began enormous purges of the government, administration, and Russian military, which resulted in approximately one million deaths. A great many people are familiar with these misdeeds. But what very few people are aware of is that Stalin had multiple children.

Joseph Stalin

Stalin’s Marriages

Let’s start with Stalin’s marriages. Stalin married Ekaterina Svanidze in 1906 when he was 28 years of age. Theirs was a happy marriage, and Ekaterina is generally credited with restraining the future dictator’s worst impulses during his early adult life.

They had one child, Yakov, who was born in March 1907. However, Ekaterina died when Yakov was less than a year old in November 1907.

Accordingly, Stalin remarried in 1919 to Nadezhda Alliluyeva, a woman half his age at the time. This second marriage was far less happy, and Stalin had many affairs.

With Nadezhda, he had two further legitimate children, a son called Vasily, born in 1921, and a daughter, Svetlana, born in 1926, before Nadezhda took her own life in 1932.

They had also adopted another child, Artyom Sergeyev, the son of Fyodor Sergeyev, a friend of Stalin’s who died in 1921.

Beyond these three legitimate children and one adoptive child, Stalin is known to have sired at least two illegitimate children and quite plausibly many more, as he engaged in a string of affairs and relationships both during his marriage to Nadezhda and in the years after she died.

The Life of Yakov Stalin

The eldest of Stalin’s children, his only child from his short-lived marriage to Ekaterina, Yakov, lived a difficult life. After his mother’s death, when he was just seven months old, his father left him to be raised by Ekaterina’s extended family.

He was brought to live with Stalin in Moscow as a teenager in the early 1920s, but his father largely ignored him, and young Yakov attempted to take his own life several times.

Yakov Stalin in German captivity

In later life, Stalin insisted that Yakov join the Red Army, the Soviet military. When the Germans invaded Russia in 1941 as part of the Second World War, Yakov’s father insisted that he join the fight.

He was captured within a month of the invasion commencing at the Battle of Smolensk. Stalin was furious when he learned this as he had ordered that any Russian soldiers taken alive were to be considered traitors.

Yakov was taken to Germany, where he was interred in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. He died there on 14 April 1943, but the details of his death are unclear, with some arguing he died trying to escape and others suggesting that Hitler had ordered his execution.

The Short Life of Vasily Stalin

The life of Stalin’s other legitimate son was just as short. Vasily was a pompous, self-regarding child who was also sent into the military by Stalin.

Vasily Stalin and Joseph Stalin

However, unlike Yakov, he was largely kept away from the front lines. However, he was successively promoted through the ranks and made a general in 1945 when he was just 24 years of age.

He continued to rise through the ranks based on nepotism in the late 1940s, developing a taste for alcohol and lavish living.

When his father died in 1953, his behavior became extremely erratic, and the Soviet government imprisoned him for several years. When he was finally released in 1960, his alcoholism became chronic, and he died from it in March 1962, a few days shy of his 41st birthday.

The Lives of Stalin’s Other Chiuldren

By contrast, her brother and half-brother Svetlana Stalin was doted on by her father.

When her mother took her own life in 1932, when she was just six years old, she was told that she had died from complications arising from appendicitis.

Joseph and Svetlana Stalin

Svetlana did not learn the truth until the early 1940s. As she grew up her father became overbearing, strongly disapproving of one relationship she entered and sending the man in question to serve five years in the Gulag.

He also disapproved of her short-lived first marriage and her second marriage to Yuri Zhdanov, the son of one of Stalin’s closest political allies, was effectively an arranged marriage. This marriage was dissolved shortly before the dictator’s death in 1953. As we will see, Svetlana carved out her own path after her father’s death.

Stalin’s other children went on to lead less tragic lives. His adoptive son Artyom fought in the Second World War, was decorated for his services at the Battle of Stalingrad, and became a lieutenant colonel in 1944.

He continued to serve in the Red Army after the war ended and considered Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of the Soviet Union in the 1980s treasonous. His last words before he died in 2008 at the age of 86 were ‘I serve the Soviet Union’.

Stalin never recognized his illegitimate children, though they were given financial and other aid. Konstantin Kuzakov, born in 1911, was the most notable, playing a significant role in the development of Soviet television, radio, and cinema. He later taught philosophy at the University of Leningrad.

Joseph Stalin’s children, at least his two legitimate sons, lived lives that reflected their father’s destructive nature.

One was neglected by the dictator, tried to take their own life several times, and then was sent to the front when war broke out in 1941, only to be captured and executed before he reached his fortieth year. The other just about reached his fortieth year, but it was a life stained by excess and alcoholism.

Svetlana’s life was much more stable. Tellingly, when her father died, she adopted her mother’s surname, Alliluyeva. In 1967 she defected to the United States and lived the remainder of her life there until she died in 2011

. Her children, the dictator’s grandchildren, are Americans. Thus, the dictator’s legacy is that some of his own family were turned against the Soviet Union.

Sources

Dimitri Volkogoniv, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy (London, 1991), pp. 149–151.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (London, 2003), pp. 188–199, 386–387.

Robert Service, Stalin: A Biography (London, 2010), p. 232.

Rosemary Sullivan, Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva (Toronto, 2015).

David Hearst, ‘Major General Artyom Sergeyev’, The Guardian, 24 January 2008.

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