Joseph Stalin married twice. His first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze, died in December 1907, aged 22, from typhus. His second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, died, having shot herself, on 9 November 1932, aged 31.
As a two-year-old, Nadezhda, or Nadya, Alliluyeva was reputedly saved from drowning by the visiting 25-year-old Stalin. When staying in St Petersburg (later Petrograd), Stalin often lodged with the Alliluyev family. He may have had an affair with Olga Alliluyeva, Nadya’s mother and his future mother-in-law.
In March 1917, Stalin returned to Petrograd from exile to join the unrest following the February Revolution and the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. By then Nadya was 16 and she fell for the romantic revolutionary with his sweep of jet-black hair.
Mr and Mrs Stalin
Following the October Revolution of 1917, Nadya became Stalin’s personal assistant as he embarked on his job as the People’s Commissar for Nationalities and joined him in the city of Tsaritsyn during the Russian Civil War. They married in 1919 and had two children: Vasily, born 1921, and Svetlana, born 1926. (In 1967, Svetlana was to defect to the US, became known as Lana Peters and died in Wisconsin on 22 November 2011).
Nadya found life in the Kremlin suffocating. Her husband, whom she once saw as the archetypal Soviet ‘new man’, turned out to be a quarrelsome bore, often drunk and flirtatious with his colleague’s wives. A manic-depressive and prone to violent mood swings, Stalin’s colleagues thought her ‘mad’.
In 1929, bored of being cooped up in the Kremlin, Nadya enrolled on a course in chemistry. She diligently went to university each morning by public transport, shunning the official limousine. Her new-found student friends, not realising who she was, told her horrific stories concerning Stalin’s collectivization policy. When she confronted her husband, accusing him of ‘butchering the people’, he reacted angrily and had her friends arrested.
Days before her death, according to her daughter, Nadya confided to a friend that ‘nothing made her happy’, least of all her children.
On the evening of 8 November 1932, Stalin and Nadya hosted a banquet to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution. They often argued and this party was no different with Nadya accusing Stalin of being inconsiderate towards her. His response was to humiliate her in front of their guests by flicking cigarettes at her and addressing her ‘hey, you!’ Molotov’s wife chased after her and together they walked round the Kremlin grounds until Nadya calmed down and retired for bed.
The following morning, servants found Nadya dead – she had shot herself with a pistol given to her by her brother, Pavel Alliluyev, as a present from Berlin. (Pavel, who was there that morning and comforted his grieving brother-in-law, would die in suspicious circumstances six years later, aged 44. Most of the Alliluyev clan would suffer early deaths on the orders of Stalin. His daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, wondered whether Stalin would eventually have had her own mother arrested).
Reproach and accusations
Nadya had left a note for Stalin which, according to Svetlana, was both personal and ‘partly political’. Although she never saw it, Svetlana described it as being ‘full of reproach and accusations’. Stalin certainly took his Nadya’s death badly, believing that she had taken her own life to punish him. His anger and grief seemed genuine and he was unable to bring himself to attend her funeral or, later, visit her grave.
The public were told that Nadya Alliluyeva had died from appendicitis – as was her daughter, then aged 6. It wouldn’t have been good for Stalin’s image to have had a wife who had committed suicide. Svetlana found out the truth quite by accident a decade later.
On the day of her State funeral, Stalin muttered, ‘She went away as an enemy’.
Gathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century is now available.