“Stalin really hated him. It took me several days of subliminal work to accept this. The standard interpretation may seem ridiculous, but it is probably the right interpretation. We have seen something of Stalin’s violent insecurity about his provenance. This insecurity was now turned on Yakov. Stalin hated Yakov because Yakov was Georgian. Yakov was Georgian because his mother was Georgian; Yakov was Georgian because Stalin was Georgian; yet Stalin hated Yakov because Yakov was Georgian. The racial and regional tensions within the USSR constitute an enormous subject, but Stalin’s case was, as usual, outlandish. We have to imagine a primitive provincial who (by 1939 or so) had started to think of himself as a self-made Peter the Great: an Ivan the Terrible who had got where he was on merit. Thus Stalin was Russia personified; and Yakov was Georgian. Yakov is said also to have been of a mild and gentle disposition, to his father’s additional disgust.
Raised by his maternal grandparents, Yakov joined the Stalin household in the mid-1920s. He spoke little Russian, and did so with a thick accent (like Stalin). Nadezhda seems to have liked him and fully accepted him. But Stalin’s persecution was so systematic that toward the end of the decade Yakov attempted suicide. He succeeded only in wounding himself; and when Stalin heard about the attempt he said, ‘Ha! He couldn’t even shoot straight” (Volkogonov has him actually confronting his son with the greeting, ‘Ha! You missed!’) Soon afterward Yakov moved to Leningrad to live with Nadezhda’s family, the Alliluyevs.
Like Vasily, Yakov joined the armed forces, as a lieutenant (rather than a field marshal), reflecting his more peripheral status. He was the better soldier, and fought energetically until his unit was captured by the Reichswehr. This placed Stalin in a doubly embarrassing position. A law of August 1941 had declared that all captured officers were ‘malicious traitors’ whose families were ‘subject to arrest.’ Thus Yakov came under the first category – and Stalin came under the second. As a kind of compromise, Stalin arrested Yakov’s wife. When the Nazis tried to negotiate an exchange, Stalin refused (‘I have no son called Yakov’). He feared all the same that the supposedly feeble Yakov might be pressured into some propagandist exhibition of disloyalty. He need not have so feared. Yakov passed through three concentration camps – Hammelburg, Lubeck, Sachsenhausen – and resisted all intimidation. It was precisely to avoid succumbing (Volkogonov believes) that Yakov made his decisive move. In a German camp, as in a Russian, the surest route to suicide was a run at the barbed wire. Yakov ran. The guard did not miss.”
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