In Milan Kundera's book "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" there's a mention of Stalin's son, Yakov, who, reportedly, committed suicide.

Quoting from the book (emphasis mine):

Not until 1980 were we able to read in the Sunday Times how Stalin's son, Yakov, died. Captured by the Germans during the Second World War, he was placed in a camp together with a group of British officers. They shared a latrine. Stalin's son habitually left a foul mess. The British officers resented having their latrine smeared with shit, even if it was the shit of the son of the most powerful man in the world. They brought the matter to his attention. He took offense. They brought it to his attention again and again, and tried to make him clean the latrine. He raged, argued, and fought. Finally, he demanded a hearing with the camp commander. He wanted the commander to act as arbiter. But the arrogant German refused to talk about shit. Stalin's son could not stand the humiliation. Crying out to heaven in the most terrifying of Russian curses, he took a running jump into the electrified barbed-wire fence that surrounded the camp. He hit the target. His body, which would never again make a mess of the Britishers' latrine, was pinned to the wire.

Is there any evidence that can support this story, or is just part of author's fiction?

  • 6
    There's a section on Wikipedia about his death.. It seems he was killed by the guards, either for disobedience or attempting escape. Since The Unbearable Lightness of Being is fictional, presumably Kundera took liberties with history.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 13:07
  • 3
    @Semaphore: the Wikipedia article also says that "Until recently, it was not clear when and how he died. According to the official German account, Dzhugashvili died by running into an electric fence". It is a fiction, but Kundera didn't know it.
    – Taladris
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 14:12

4 Answers 4



Currently, declassified files show that Dzhugashvili was shot by a guard for refusing to obey orders.

  • 4
    In Soviet Russia, Suicide commits you.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 17:18
  • Nazi Germany, you mean?
    – llama
    Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 17:25

It seems the best argument for the suicidal aspect of his death is presented by this report from The Telegraph:Revealed: how Stalin's brutal massacre at Katyn shamed his PoW son into suicide. Some of the same elements are involved such as the electric fence, and the disputes with British officers. But the main gist of this article is the suicide aspect of the 'attempted escape', and its speculation over the cause:

Now it has been disclosed that the Russian artillery lieutenant was so overcome by shame at the news of his father's massacre of 15,000 Poles at Katyn in 1940 that he committed suicide by flinging himself on to the camp's electric fence.

...The disclosure, given credence by Professor John Erickson, the world's leading authority on the Soviet-German War, has been published in the latest edition of the Soviet Military Journal.

About the conflict with the British:

A decade ago Professor Erickson and the Russian investigators had concluded that his death could have been suicide prompted by a violent confrontation between himself and a group of British prisoners of war. The new evidence, however, now firmly blames the Katyn massacre.

...and later,

"This evidence does go some way to exonerating the British officers whose taunts were believed to have pushed Yakov to breaking point," Erickson says, "but it also highlights the devastating effect the Katyn massacre had on Yakov. He could not live, I believe, with the accounts he was given of the massacre ordered by his father.

Concerning the shooting:

Though the official SS report at the time indicated that Dzhugashvili died after he was shot by a guard as he ran towards the wire, it is now known this was a fictional account compiled to impress Heinrich Himmler. "The guard certainly shot Yakov four times," Professor Erickson, who has viewed the evidence, confirms, "but it is now known that he fired the bullets into Yakov's already dead body."

So this historian believes the shame over the revelation of the massacre at Katyn, as well as conditions in the camp, finally accumulated to the point where Yakov couldn't take it any more.

"It is clear that Yakov, who had become close friends with the Poles and had made two abortive escape attempts with them, was so distraught when goaded with the news of his father's massacre of the Polish officers, which was revealed in German newspapers in 1943, that he took his life. Driven to despair by the horrific conditions in the camp - he was emaciated and on the point of starvation - and the strain of the propaganda campaign the Germans had involved him in, the news that his father had sanctioned the Poles' murder was the final straw."


"Though the Poles were killed at Katyn in 1940, their bodies were not discovered by the Germans until March 1943. When a camp guard showed Yakov the newspaper reports of the discovery, taunting him with the words, 'Look what you bastards did to these men. What kind of people are you?' Yakov was devastated. He was at the end of his tether. A month later, on April 15 1943, unable to live with the shame, he took his life."

  • I'm not sure a 1984 book can be based on a 2000 news article, though.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 14:15
  • 1
    No, the book seems to focus more on the British officer aspect. I meant the suicide aspect of his death. I'll edit to clarify that. The question isn't really where did the book get its ideas, but did he commit suicide...
    – justCal
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 14:18

I found this website which gives what seems to be a transcript of the Sunday Times article.

The article is based heavily on the statements of the British soldiers who were in conflict with the Russians over political issues. I don't know how credible their claim that "he refused to clean the shitter" is. They also suspected the Russians were given "preferred treatment" by the Germans.

The German Wikipedia article on him indicates a very difficult father-son relationship. The son became an engineer without his father's help and worked in an automobile factory before joining the army to become an artillery lieutenant.

The Gestapo reported that he'd had a prison psychosis and his death appeared to be a suicide.


Yakov Stalin is not Anna Karenina. There is another version. https://history.wikireading.ru/266203 http://kv-journal.su/content/o-syne-stalina-yakove June 24, 1941. Yakov took command of the 6th artillery battery of the 14th howitzer regiment of the 14th Tank Division. July 16, 1941. Yakov's orderly - A. Kovalev: Yakov got the task of moving the battery closer to the front line. The column was bombed by the Luftwaffe. The horses, Yakov and the adjutant fell from the explosion of the bomb. However, allegedly, "Yakov" quickly recovered. This is already a lie. Mikhail Grigorievich Grigoriev, Colonel-General, commander of the first combination of ICBMs (Plesetsk Cosmodrome), First Deputy Commander of the Strategic Missile Forces of the USSR. He said that he saw Yakov died on the battlefield. Perhaps he did not see personally, because he fought 30 kilometers from Yakov. Stalin's adopted son, General Artem Sergeyev, claimed that Yakov Dzhugashvili had never been a prisoner, but died in battle.

The Germans interrogated "Yakov" between July 11 and 13 (the real Yakov was still at war)! The Germans did not know in which regiment Yakov fought! This is absurd! The name, rank and regiment are allowed to speak to any prisoner of war.

Doctor of historical sciences Sergey Devyatov: "There are about 10 photographs of Yakov Dzhugashvili in captivity. Specialists of one of the Defense Ministry's centers analyzed them. This is a very competent photomontage. ... when the photos were over, they made a mistake by giving a "mirror image" of one of the photos - on it there is a clasp on the jacket on the other, "the female side"." "In German documents, it is said that Yakov Dzhugashvili - the son of Stalin owned three languages: German, French and English. " The real Yakov at the institute and the academy did not study German and English."

Total: There are no photos (10 photos-it's not many) of the prisoner Yakov. Traces of photomontage 10 photos of the prisoner Yakov. No audio record of the prisoner Yakov. There are no video records of the prisoner Yakov. The note of the prisoner Yakov does not match. Witnesses in the camp never knew Yakov before the war. The Germans burned the body of the prisoner Yakov.

  • 1
    What does this novel have to do with the question?
    – jjack
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 17:04
  • 2
    I believe he is contending that the Yakov Dzhugashvili who was a PoW in the camp and died at the electric fence was an imposter pretending to be Yakov, perhaps for special attention?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 17:52

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