Yet Stalin’s world-historical triumphs were always embittered by private disappointments.8 Soon after Stalingrad, Stalin received two disturbing messages: a letter that denounced the debauchery of his son Vasily and revealed the seduction of his adored Svetlana, and a German offer to exchange his prisoner son, Yakov.
The unprecedented surrender of a German Field Marshal humiliated Hitler just as acutely as Yakov’s capture exposed Stalin: both dictators expected these embarrassments to fall on their swords. Now Count Bernadotte of the Red Cross approached Molotov with an offer to swap Yakov for Paulus. Molotov mentioned the offer but Stalin refused to swap a marshal for a soldier.
“All of them are my sons,” Stalin replied like a good Tsar, telling Svetlana, “War is war!”
The refusal to swap Yakov has been treated as evidence of Stalin’s loveless cruelty but this is unfair. Stalin was a mass murderer but in this case, it is hard to imagine that either Churchill or Roosevelt could have swapped their sons if they had been captured—when thousands of ordinary men were being killed or captured. After the war, a Georgian confidant plucked up the courage to ask Stalin if the Paulus offer was a myth.
He “hung his head,” answering “in a sad, piercing voice”: “Not a myth… Just think how many sons ended in camps! Who would swap them for Paulus? Were they worse than Yakov? I had to refuse… What would they have said of me, our millions of Party fathers, if having forgotten about them, I had agreed to swapping Yakov? No, I had no right…” Then he again showed the struggle between the nervy, angry, tormented man within and the persona he had become: “Otherwise, I’d no longer be ‘Stalin.’” He added: “I so pitied Yasha!”
A few weeks later, on 14 April in a POW camp near Lübeck, Yakov, who courageously refused to cooperate with the Germans, committed suicide by throwing himself onto the camp wire. At the Little Corner that night, oblivious to Yasha’s heroism, Stalin worked with Molotov and Beria before heading off to dinner at about 1 a.m. He did not find out the truth for some time but when he did, he regarded his son with pride. Once at Kuntsevo, he left his own dinner and was found looking at Yasha’s photograph.
“Did you ever see Yasha?” he asked the Georgian after the war, drawing out the photograph. “Look! He’s a real man eh! A noble man right to the end! Fate treated him unjustly…” He ordered the release of Yakov’s wife Julia (though she returned damaged by the trauma). Like Nadya, Yakov forever troubled him.1
Stalin now received a letter from the leading documentary film-maker Roman Karmen that denounced Colonel Vasily Stalin for the seduction of his wife and flaunting his debauchery. This letter opened a can of worms that ruined Stalin’s relationships with both drunken Vasily and treasured Svetlana. Stalin started to look into their lives and what he found shocked him profoundly.
By the climax of Stalingrad, Vasily was back in Moscow, living a life that was a caricature of the decadent wassails of aristocratic swells in Pushkin’s Onegin. Spoiled by the sycophancy of his own Tsarevich’s court, scarred by a mother’s loss and a father’s irritation, over-promoted and arrogant yet also terrified of his eminence and wildly generous to friends, Vasily took over Zubalovo, once the home of his ascetic mother and severe father, and turned this mansion (rebuilt after its dynamiting) into a pleasure dome of drinking, dancing and womanizing. The Tsarevich’s set were glamorous film stars, screenwriters, pilots, ballerinas and freeloaders, a sort of Stalinist “Ratpack”: Karmen and his beautiful actress wife, Nina, were the centre of it along with the dashing poet Konstantin Simonov and his film-star wife, Valentina Serova. Stalin knew them all personally and liked Simonov’s best-selling collection of love poems With You and Without You.
“How many copies are you printing?” Stalin asked Merkulov.
“Two hundred thousand,” replied the secret policeman.
“I read it,” joked Stalin, “and I think it would have been enough to print just two: one for her and one for him.” Stalin was so pleased with this joke that he repeated it throughout the war.
The fun at Vasily’s orgies was often rather desperate. He was “permanently drunk” and often hit his wife Galina who had recently given birth to their son, Alexander. He was always drawing his revolver and firing at the chandeliers with his daredevil friends. Frustrated by Stalin’s ban on his active missions, reckless of his own safety and that of his companions, Vasily enjoyed flying planes drunk, an aerodynamic version of Russian roulette. When he wanted to show off to his sister’s pretty friend Martha Peshkova, he arrived drunk in Tashkent and insisted on flying her to see Svetlana in Kuibyshev. “He flew me, legless, and with a drunk crew,” she recalls. “Even though there was ice on the wings, they drank the spirit instead of using it for de-icing, so the plane would not keep its height. Finally we had to crash-land and glided into a haystack in a clearing.” Martha was terrified. Vasily hiked to the nearest collective farm from where he despatched a rescue mission and was fêted in the local Party Chairman’s house. He was so drunk that the Chairman’s wife locked Martha in her room to protect her. Even his friend Vladimir Mikoyan, killed at Stalingrad, complained of Vasily’s “drinking, wilfulness and outbursts of rudeness: what a cretin!”
Yet for the young heroes and artistic stars during the war, Zubalovo was “like Heaven,” says Vasily’s cousin Leonid Redens, “because it was piled high with all that food and drink and far away from the fighting!” The Crown Prince had his pick of the girls at Zubalovo but when he began an affair with Nina Karmen, he fell in love with her and moved her into the mansion. Even though his wife Galina and baby had long since returned from Kuibyshev, along with Svetlana, and were meant to be living at Zubalovo, he flaunted the affair which, says Redens, “went beyond all bounds.” No one could stop the Tsarevich except the Tsar himself, so the aggrieved husband wrote to Stalin who was outraged. When he ordered the NKGB to investigate Vasily’s set, he discovered something that was enough to provoke any Georgian father to reach for his shotgun.
Svetlana, sixteen, living between the sterile austerity of the Kremlin apartment and the vapid degeneracy of Zubalovo, felt “lonely” and unappreciated both by her busy father and her “unpleasant” brother. But this freckled redhead had matured early into a curvaceous, intelligent and sensitive girl who resembled Stalin’s mother and possessed much of her father’s obstinacy and toughness. Indeed her Redens cousins thought Vasily, for all his faults, was “much softer and gentler.” A voracious reader and with fluent English, Svetlana found a copy of the Illustrated London News, perhaps at Beria’s house, which she often visited, with the revelation about her mother’s suicide: “Something in me was destroyed,” she wrote. “I was no longer able to obey the word and will of my father… without question.”
At one of Vasily’s parties during Stalingrad, a handsome, worldly and famous screenwriter named Alexei Kapler arrived at Zubalovo. Kapler, nicknamed Lyusia, was a suave and mesmerizing raconteur and Casanova, though married: “Oh he could talk and had the gift of communication with any age group, he was like a child himself,” wrote Svetlana. Stalin himself was his patron, supervising his own portrayal in Kapler’s scripts for the films Lenin in October and Lenin in 1918. Kapler brought a film to watch: Greta Garbo in Queen Christina. He was immediately charmed by Svetlana, imagining their situation resembled the movie. “She was the great lady and I was poor Don Alphonso. She was bold and unpretentious. I was forty and someone of importance in cinema” yet “she was surrounded and oppressed in an atmosphere worthy of a god.” To the clever but brooding Svetlana, he was like a character out of one of her Dumas novels.
“Can you do the fox-trot?” he asked. Svetlana felt awkward in her flat shoes—but “Kapler assured me I was a good dancer… I was wearing my first good dress from a dressmaker” with “an old garnet brooch of my mother’s.” She trusted him.
“Why are you so unhappy today?” he asked. Svetlana explained that “it was ten years to the day since my mother’s death yet no one seemed to remember.” The two were “irresistibly drawn to one another”—it was wartime “and we reached out to each other.” He lent her “adult” books and poetry about love which helped overcome her fear of the vulgarity of sex about which Vasily constantly told her: “I was afraid of this part of life presented to me in an ugly way by Vasily’s dirty talk.”
Their relationship was passionate but never fully sexual: “A kiss, that’s all,” remembered Kapler. Yet it was thrilling for Svetlana: “Romantic and pure. I was brought up that sex was only for marriage,” she revealed later. “Father would not think to permit me anything outside of marriage.” But the war had changed everything: at any other time, Kapler might have thought the better of seducing Stalin’s only daughter but “I thought she really needed me.”
“To me,” said Svetlana, “Kapler was the cleverest, kindest, most wonderful person on earth. He radiated knowledge and all its fascination,” introducing the schoolgirl to the exciting wartime freedoms: he took her to the theatre, lent her an illegal translation of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Vasily held wild parties at the Aragvi restaurant where they fox-trotted to a jazz orchestra. Svetlana breathlessly recounted her romance to Martha Peshkova at school every day: Kapler gave her an expensive brooch—a leaf with an insect on it.
This charismatic womanizer was moved by Svetlana’s plight but he also revelled in his new adventure, boasting to movie director Mikhail Romm that he was now close to Stalin. He was despatched to cover Stalingrad for Pravda, filing his “Letters of Lieutenant L from Stalingrad” in which he daringly paraded his affair with the words: “It’s probably snowing in Moscow. You can see the crenellated wall of the Kremlin from your window.” The cognoscenti were amazed at the folly of taunting a vindictive Georgian father on the front page of Pravda but to Svetlana, this was “staggering in its chivalry and recklessness. The moment I saw it, I froze” but “I sensed the whole thing might come to a terrible end.” At school, Svetlana showed Martha the article under the desk.
When Kapler returned, Svetlana begged him not to see her but, as he said, “I don’t remember who suggested the risk of that heart-rending farewell.”They met in an empty apartment near Kursk Station where Vasily’s pals had assignations. Her bodyguard Klimov sat anxiously next door.
Beria had already informed Stalin, who warned Svetlana “in a tone of extreme displeasure that I was behaving in a manner that could not be tolerated” but he blamed Vasily for corrupting her. Seething about Vasily’s debauchery, Stalin dismissed his son as air-force Inspector for conduct unbecoming, and ordered him to be locked up in the guardhouse for ten days, then posted to the North-Western Front. Vlasik, Stalin’s domestic panjandrum, suggested Kapler leave Moscow. Kapler told him to “go to hell” but arranged an assignment away from the city.
Meanwhile Merkulov handed Stalin the phone intercepts of Svetlana and Kapler’s conversations, a tool not usually available to the irate fathers of errant daughters. Stalin was enraged. On 2 March, Kapler was bundled into a car which was followed by a sinister black Packard “in which General Vlasik sat, looking very important.” At the Lubianka, Vlasik and Kobulov supervised his sentencing for “anti-Soviet opinions” to five years in Vorkuta.
The next day, already under pressure as Manstein’s counter-offensive retook Kharkov and threatened the success of Stalingrad, Stalin was so angry he got up hours earlier than usual. Svetlana was getting dressed for school with her nanny when Stalin “strode briskly into my bedroom, something he had never done before.” The look in his eyes was “enough to rivet my nurse to the floor.” Svetlana had “never seen my father look that way before.” Stalin, in a blazing Georgian temper, was “choking with anger and nearly speechless.”
“Where, where are they all?” he spluttered. “Where are all these letters from your ‘writer’? I know the whole story! I’ve got all your telephone conversations right here!” He tapped his tunic pocket. “All right! Hand them over! Your Kapler’s a British spy. He’s under arrest!” Svetlana surrendered Kapler’s letters and screenplays, but shouted: “But I love him!”
“Love!” shrieked Stalin “with hatred of the very word,” and, “for the first time in my life,” slapped her twice across the face. Then he turned to the nanny: “Just think, nurse, how low she’s sunk. Such a war going on and she’s busy fucking!”
“No, no, no,” the nanny tried to explain, fat hands flapping.
“What do you mean ‘no,’” Stalin asked more calmly, “when I know the whole story?” Then to Svetlana: “Take a look at yourself! Who’d want you? You fool! He’s got women all around him!” Stalin gathered up the letters and took them into the dining room where he sat at the table where Churchill had dined—and, ignoring the war altogether, started to read them. He did not appear at the Little Corner that day.
That afternoon, when Svetlana returned from school, Stalin was waiting for her in the dining room, tearing up Kapler’s letters and photographs. “Writer!” he sneered. “He can’t even write decent Russian! She couldn’t even find herself a Russian!” Kapler’s Jewishness especially riled him. She left the room and they did not speak again for many months: their loving relationship was shattered forever.
This is often presented as the height of Stalin’s brutality yet, even today, no parents would be delighted by the seduction (as he thought) of their schoolgirl daughters, especially by a married middle-aged playboy. Yet Stalin was a traditional Georgian steeped in nineteenth-century prudery and to this day, Georgian fathers are liable to resort to their shotguns at the least provocation. “Being a Georgian, he SHOULD have shot that ladies’ man,” says Vladimir Redens. Long after she wrote her memoirs, Svetlana understood that “my father over-reacted”: he thought he was “protecting his daughter from a dirty older man.”
Days later, Vasily and his retinue flew up to the North-Western Front where he finally flew one or two combat missions, but his outrages continued. In May, he set off on a drunken fishing expedition in which the pilots caught fish by tossing aircraft rockets into a pond with delayed fuses. One of the rockets exploded, killing a Hero of the Soviet Union.