Historical Notes: The Death of Stalin's Son

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Enraged by a quarrel-with his fellow inmates, a Russian prisoner burst from his barracks room in the Nazi concen tration camp at Sachsenhausen, 30 miles northwest of Berlin. It was the evening of April 14, 1943. Picking his way carefully between the maze of trip wires, the prisoner reached the camp fence, then turned around and defiantly called to a nearby SS guard: "Don't be a coward. Shoot, shoot." When the prisoner made a grab for the fence, the guard fired one bullet. It instantly killed the elder son of Joseph Stalin.

The U.S. State Department last week released the captured Nazi archives that gave those long-hidden details of the death of Yakov Dzhugashvili, Stalin's only child by his first marriage. As a 33-year-old artillery lieutenant, Yakov was taken prisoner near Smolensk in World War II's early days. Stalin was so enraged that he had Yakov's Jewish wife thrown into prison on suspicion that she had somehow weakened his will to fight. Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Stalin's second marriage, remembers that her brother Vasily (who died in a drunken auto accident in 1962) brought home handbills bearing a picture of Yakov that the Germans had dropped over Moscow to prove that they had taken Stalin's son.

After German setbacks in early 1943, Hitler offered Stalin a deal to swap Yakov, who had resisted Nazi blandishments to defect to the German cause, for the German field marshal who surrendered at Stalingrad. Stalin turned down the proposal, replying: "You have in your hands not only my son Yakov but millions of my sons. Either you free them all or my son will share their fate." According to his Russian cellmate, it was the news that his father had refused to ransom him that drove Yakov to despair and his suicidal attempt to escape.

A Father's Feelings. After the war, Stalin offered a $250,000 reward in East Germany to anyone who could provide details of how Yakov died. Apparently there were no takers; Svetlana remembers in her Twenty Letters to a Friend that Stalin knew only that Yakov had been shot, but had no official explanation of where or how. In 1945, U.S. and British intelligence teams found in Berlin the German dossier on Yakov, which consists of a letter by SS Commander Heinrich Himmler confirming Yakov's death, an autopsy report, depositions from guards and fellow prisoners, and pictures of the young man stretched out on the camp fence.

U.S. and British diplomats decided, however, to withhold the information from Stalin in order to spare him any personal pain. It was a gentlemanly thing to do; but Stalin had never had much use for his sensitive and with drawn son. He hounded and beat the boy so unmercifully that in the Kremlin one night in the late 1920s, Yakov tried to shoot himself. He only managed to inflict a serious head wound, and Stalin afterward taunted him that he was incapable even of killing himself. It might have impressed the old man to know that his son finally mustered the courage to do the job, even with German help.