Joseph Stalin was one of the most feared dictators of the 20th century, causing the deaths of millions of his countrymen.
However, misfortune did not spare his own family, and the lives of his three legitimate children are tragic examples of a truly dysfunctional family.
Yakov Dzhugashvili was Stalin’s firstborn son, and has the dictator’s original last name as Stalin, meaning “man of steel” in Russian, was a name he later gave himself.
According to Foreign Policy, Stalin adored his first wife, but she died of typhus when Yakov was just an infant, and Stalin never seemed to care for his oldest son very much.
When Yakov, heartbroken over an unsuccessful love affair, tried to commit suicide but only wounded himself, Stalin’s sole disdainful comment was, “He can’t even shoot straight.”
Later, Yakov would marry a dancer named Yulia Meltzer, who was Jewish.
This originally angered his resolutely anti-Semite father who thought the marriage might have been a deliberate attempt to incense him, though Stalin did warm to her eventually.
When World War II began, Yakov was commissioned as an artillery lieutenant and ordered by his father to “go and fight.”
Less than a month after the war started, Yakov was thought to be captured by the Germans who used the detainment of Stalin’s eldest son to spread anti-Soviet propaganda; however, The Independent reports there is evidence suggesting that Yakov actually surrendered voluntarily to the Germans.
As a result of Yakov’s imprisonment, his wife Yulia was mistreated, which was common for the families of POWs at that time in the Soviet Union.
Stalin is known to have said, “There are no prisoners of war, only traitors to their homeland,” and families were treated accordingly.
Yulia’s children were taken away from her and spent two years working in a gulag. It is thought that her poor treatment may have been compounded by the fact that she might have encouraged Yakov to surrender to the Germans, but it is not certain.
When the Soviet Union captured Hitler’s nephew, the Nazi leader wanted to exchange him for Yakov, but Stalin, again showing little regard for his son, refused to trade a lieutenant for a field marshal, which is a much higher rank.
In 1943, at the age of 36, Yakov died in prison in Germany. Officially he was reported to have died attempting to escape, but it is thought that he committed suicide by voluntarily electrocuting himself on the prison fence. This may have been a reaction to one of his father’s atrocities known as the Katyn massacre.
Vasily Dzhugashvili was the dictator’s second son, and though not as despised by his father, also suffered much misfortune.
His mother committed suicide when he was 11 years old, and his father said of him that he was a “spoilt boy of average abilities, savage, not always honest.”
Despite his grades, at 17 he was able to enroll in pilot school and used his father’s position to secure his advancement, even though he was both a drunk and a womanizer according to Foreign Policy.
Taking up his father’s self-styled last name, Vasily Stalin rose to the rank of Major General, but he was never very popular as his promotions were not due to his ability or effort, and he persisted in being an alcoholic.
When Stalin died, Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov, the next leaders of the Soviet Union, considered Vasily dangerous simply because of his heritage.
He spent the rest of his life in and out of prison for various offenses but was eventually released and exiled to Kazan due to his poor health. He died in 1962, a few days shy of his 41st birthday, due to the effects of a lifetime of alcoholism.
Stalin’s youngest child and only daughter was Svetlana Alliluyeva. Stalin adored his daughter, calling her “little sparrow,” and she was a child celebrity in the Soviet Union, likened to Shirley Temple.
She was only 6 when her mother, also Vasily’s mother, committed suicide, but she did not learn the truth until she was a teenager, having been told at the time that her mother died of appendicitis.
She then took her mother’s last name, Alliluyeva, having originally been born Svetlana Stalina. According to the New York Times, Svetlana’s father tightly controlled her life. When Stalin learned that Svetlana’s first love was a Jewish filmmaker, he sent the suitor to Siberia for 10 years.
Although she wished to study literature at university, he forced Svetlana to study history and political thought.
When she married another man, also Jewish, Stalin refused to ever meet him and even slapped her when she told him. The couple divorced in 1947.
Stalin died in 1953, Svetlana no longer had as many privileges as before, since the Soviet Union wanted to distance itself from Stalin’s atrocities.
When she fell in love with an Indian communist she was not permitted to marry him by Soviet officials, but after he died in 1967, they eventually agreed to let her return his ashes to India.
While on that trip she went to the U.S. embassy and defected from the Soviet Union.
Svetlana left two failed marriages and two children, aged 22 and 17, behind when she defected. In interviews, she talked about being lonely, and eventually went on to marry again and have another daughter.
At her marriage to William Wesley Peters, she changed her name to Lana Peters. After divorcing her third husband, Svetlana moved frequently, first within California and then to England.
Distraught that the Soviet Union would not let her older children visit her, in 1984, Svetlana moved back to her homeland, this time denouncing the United States. However in 1986 she left again, finding Soviet life not to her liking.
By this time she was impoverished and continued to move frequently, rarely staying in one place for more than two years at a time.
Lana Peters, also known as Svetlana Alliluyeva and Svetlana Stalina, died from colon cancer in the state of Wisconsin in 1991 at the age of 85. Although she lived longer than both of her brothers combined, she did not seem to have a happy existence. She was controlled for much of her life and then constantly uprooted herself and distanced herself from various members of her family.
Stalin caused much misery in his home country; but, despite his near limitless power, he was not able to spare his children from leading tragic lives. Perhaps living in the shadow of a dictator is an inescapable fate, or at least it seems to have been for this family.