Yakov Dzhugashvili, Stalin’s elder son, served in the Red Army during the Second World War, and was captured, or surrendered, in the initial stages of the German invasion of the USSR. There are still many contradictory legends in circulation about the death of Yakov Dzhugashvili, as there are about all the important events in his life.
Yakov, born in 1907, was the son of Stalin’s first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze. His mother died a few months later, and he was raised by his maternal uncle, who urged him to acquire higher education. He travelled to Moscow, learned Russian (his native language was Georgian) and eventually graduated from a military academy. Yakov and his father Stalin never got along. Allegedly once Stalin referred to Yakov as a “mere cobbler”.
Their relationship came to a breaking point in 1925, when Yakov began living with the daughter of an Orthodox priest, Zoya Gunina. The outraged Stalin, however, refused to accept the young woman, who had formerly been a classmate of Yakov. As a result of the permanent conflicts, the deeply hurt young man attempted suicide. The bullet pierced his lung but missed his heart. This prompted the dictator to make the sarcastic remark: “You couldn’t even do this properly”.
Dzhugashvili was captured on 16 July 1941 during the Battle of Smolensk. It is unclear if Yakov was captured or surrendered. In February 2013 Der Spiegel printed evidence that it interpreted as indicating that Yakov surrendered. A letter written by Dzhugashvili’s brigade commissar to the Red Army’s political director, quoted by Spiegel, states that after Dzhugashvili’s battery had been bombed by the Germans, he and another soldier initially put on civilian clothing and escaped, but then at some point Dzhugashvili stayed behind, saying that he wanted to stay and rest.
From other sources, it appears that the retreating Yakov Dzhugashvili was handed over to the Germans by his father’s unhappy subjects, the Russian muzhiks, who hated the kolkhoz system and the Soviet power in general. In the first hours of capture the panic-stricken young man got rid of his officer’s insignia and hid among the masses of prisoners of war. Unfortunately for him he was recognized by one of his former comrades who immediately turned him in.
Soon afterwards the unshaven artillery officer, was interrogated by the Abwehr’s most trained Russian experts. All his words were carefully written down, although only part of these documents have been made public. In any case, from the records of the first interrogations we can conclude that Yakov Dzhugashvili did not abase himself in front of the Germans.
After a while, however, the cornered artillery officer inevitably became more open. He had a very bad opinion of his own division, and even about other units of the red Army, which had been insufficiently prepared for the war. He told his captors that the Red commanders behaved improperly in peacetime and often even during combat. He added that the rich peasants, the kulaks, who had formerly been “the protectors of tsarism and the bourgeoise”, dominated the Soviet system. When answering questions about his family it turned out just how loose his ties were with his father. He gave the year of the death of his stepmother, Nadezhda Alluluyeva, as 1934 rather than 1932, nor could he say exactly how old his younger brother Vasily was.
Stalin found out about his son’ capture when he received a package from the Germans that included a picture of his son. “The fool – he couldn’t even shot himself!” an angry Stalin complained to his younger son, Vasily. The rumor was that Stalin blamed Yakov for “surrendering like a coward” to the enemy. The Nazi German propaganda machine immediately showered the Soviet trenches with leaflets. These stated that, with the exceptions of “commissars and Jews”, they promised good treatment for those Red soldiers and commanders who surrendered unarmed.
Several leaflets featured a photograph of Yakov Dzhugashvili, smiling at the Wehrmacht officers surrounding him. Printed on the back of one of the propaganda publications was a copy letter he had written to his father. It had been extracted from him by the Germans immediately after his capture, and via diplomatic channels had been forwarded to its addressee:
“Dear Father! I have been taken prisoner. I am in good health. I will soon be sent to a camp for officers in Germany. I am being treated well. I wish you god health. Greeting to everyone. Yasha”.
Later in the war the Germans offered to trade him for a German officer held prisoner, some say Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, who had recently surrendered at Stalingrad, but Stalin adamantly refused such a deal, denying that he had a son who had been taken prisoner. (A story later circulated that Stalin had alleged that he would not trade a field marshal for an ordinary soldier.)
Over the next months the German secret services could obtain little new information from Stalin’s elder son, who was temporarily guarded in a villa in Berlin. Joseph Goebbels and his colleagues initially hope, however, that they could make a puppet of him and involve him in the Russian-language radio propaganda broadcasts. When their plan failed, Yakov Dzhugashvili, whose nerves by that time had obviously deteriorated, was taken on the orders of Himmler to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, after spending time in several temporary officers’ camps.
It was there that the Stalin’s elder son was shot dead, late in the evening of April 14, 1943, in circumstances that to this day remain unclear. According to one widespread version the prisoner unexpectedly started to walk out of the camp and deliberately, or accidentally, touched the barbed wire fence. Then one of the guards shot at him.
New declassified files show that Dzhugashvili was shot by a guard for refusing to obey orders. While Dzhugashvili was walking around the camp he was ordered back to the barracks under the threat of being shot. Dzhugashvili refused and shouted, “Shoot!” The guard shot him in the head.
It is conceivable that he committed suicide: he had had suicidal tendencies since his youth. Whatever the case, he was finding it hard to cope with the pressures exerted on him by visitors arriving from Berlin with cameras and tape-records. He even got into fight with his English fellow prisoners, who treated him disparagingly and on several occasions hurt him physically. Apparently, he had been involved in one such confrontation on the day he was killed. Either way, this was seen by Stalin as a more honorable death, and Stalin’s attitude towards his son softened slightly.