What was Stalin’s wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva like?

Russia Beyond (Public Domain)
This woman committed suicide under mysterious circumstances when she was only 31 years old. What caused her death? Rumors of her husband’s infidelity or the horror of repression?

When Nadezhda Alliluyeva married 40-year-old Stalin as a young schoolgirl, she hardly suspected that her husband would soon become the “father of nations”. She was spoken of as a modest, but proud and purposeful girl. She did not seek power and did not dream of the status of First Lady. It is still not known for certain what broke her: the difficult nature of her husband, the inability to live with a tyrant or simply psychological problems and jealousy that severely tormented her.

Family of friends of Lenin

Nadezhda Alliluyeva’s parents were well-known members of the social democratic movement. They were well acquainted not only with Stalin, but also with Lenin, who, for some time, was hiding from persecution in their apartment. However, the Alliluyevs had truly friendly relations with the future “leader of the peoples” and he often visited their house in Baku. A family legend has been preserved about how Stalin saved two-year-old Nadezhda in 1903: she was playing on the embankment and fell into the sea – her future husband pulled her out of the water.

In 1917, Stalin returned from Siberian exile to Petrograd and met a now grown-up Nadezhda there (the family had already moved to the northern capital). By that time, Stalin was a well-known party member with an established political career, while Nadezhda studied at the gymnasium (she never finished it and allegedly had complexes about her mistakes in Russian when she worked as a secretary).

Nadezhda in 1922.

Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Stalin and Nadezhda, later described her mother’s appearance as follows: “Her southern appearance sometimes made those who do not know Georgia well take her for a Georgian. In fact, such are Bulgarians, Greeks, Ukrainians – with the correct oval of the face, black eyebrows, a slightly upturned nose, swarthy skin and soft brown eyes in black straight eyelashes. True, my mother added something from the gypsies to this appearance – some kind of oriental languor, sad eyes and long, dryish fingers". Nadezhda really was not Georgian; a mixture of gypsy, Russian, German and Georgian blood flowed in her veins.

Despite the age difference, an affair broke out between her and Stalin. We do not know anything about how Joseph charmed the young girl. However, Irina Gogua, who knew the Alliluyevs closely, recalled: “…Once, Sergei Yakovlevich [Nadezhda Alliluyeva’s father] ran in, terribly excited, and said that he [Stalin] had taken Nadya away. Nadia, it seems, was not even 16 years old. It was, in my opinion, after the October Revolution. He took her to the front…” They got married in 1918 (officially - in 1919) - Nadezhda was 17 years old, Stalin - 40.

Nadezhda Alliluyeva and Joseph Stalin in 1917.

Strict mother and kind father Stalin

After moving to Moscow with the government, Nadezhda began working in Lenin’s secretariat, but soon had to leave both work and social activities – in 1921, the couple had a son who they named Vasily. In addition, in the same year, his son from his first marriage, Yakov, moved in with Stalin’s family. Nadezhda affectionately accepted the withdrawn boy, but his relationship with his father categorically did not work out.

Nadezhda with her son Vasily, 1922.

Nadezhda did not like the role of a housewife. Shortly before the birth of her daughter Svetlana in 1926, she wrote to a friend: “I am very sorry that I tied myself again with new family ties. In our time, this is not very easy, because, in general, there are a lot of new prejudices and if you don’t work, then, of course, you’re already a ‘broad’ […] You must have a specialty that gives you the opportunity not to be with anyone running errands, as is usually the case in ‘secretary’ work, but to do everything related to the specialty.” When the children grew up, she returned to work and party activities, while studying at the industrial academy, where she learnt French, studied music and was fond of photography.

She was demanding and even strict with her children. Svetlana Alliluyeva recalled her parents like this: “She rarely caressed me and my father always carried me in his arms, loved to kiss me loudly and juicy, call me affectionate words [like] ‘sparrow’, ‘fly’. Once, I cut through a new tablecloth with scissors. My God, how painfully my mother spanked me on the hands! I cried so much that my father came, took me in his arms, comforted me, kissed me and somehow reassured me!”

Joseph Stalin with his kids, Vasily and Svetlana, 1935.

After reading the correspondence of the spouses, one might think that their relationship was ideal: Stalin calls his wife ‘Tatka’, is interested in her academic success, children and ends each letter in the same way - with a ‘kiss’. Nadezhda answers him in the same way, carefully asking about health and business. 

But in fact, Nadezhda was tormented by jealousy: “There is no news from you […] You probably got carried away on your trips […] I heard about you from an interesting young woman that you look great […] that you were wonderfully cheerful and disturbed everyone […] I am very glad,” she wrote to her husband in one of the letters. He justified himself: “You are hinting at some trips. I inform you that I have not gone anywhere (absolutely anywhere!) and I am not going to go.” According to her sister, Nadezhda even wanted to leave Stalin and, in 1926, having taken her children, she left for Leningrad, intending not to return to her husband. The story, however, ended in reconciliation.

Mysterious death

According to Irina Gogua, Nadezhda could hardly endure her husband’s rudeness and temper: “…Nadia, in the presence of Joseph, resembled a fakir who performs barefoot on broken glass in the circus with a smile for the public and with terrible tension in his eyes. She never knew what would happen next, what explosion to expect. He was a complete jerk.”

Joseph and Nadezhda with Kliment Voroshilov and his wife Ekaterina, 1932.

Then, a fatal quarrel took place on November 8, 1932. During the celebration of the anniversary of the October Revolution, Stalin shouted to his wife: “Hey, you, drink!” To which she replied: “I’m not a ‘Hey’ to you!”. Versions of various sources differ: someone said that Stalin threw bread crumbs at his wife, after which Nadezhda left; others that Nadezhda remained at the table, while Stalin left to be with his mistress.

Returning to the Kremlin apartment at night, Nadezhda Alliluyeva shot herself. Nobody heard the shot and the body was found only in the morning, when the housekeeper went to wake Nadezhda. Svetlana Alliluyeva later wrote in her memoirs that Nadezhda allegedly left her husband a note full of reproaches, almost of a political nature, but there is no evidence of this. According to contemporaries, Stalin was shocked, saying that he himself no longer wanted to live and, two and a half years later, he told his relatives: “She did very badly, she crippled me […] crippled me for life.” Svetlana wrote that Stalin was very angry with his wife, considered her suicide a betrayal and, during the memorial service, pushed the coffin away from himself.

Vyacheslav Molotov, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, later denied this and claimed that Stalin blamed himself for the death of his wife: “Stalin approached the coffin at the moment of farewell before the funeral - tears in his eyes. And he said very sadly: “I didn’t save her.” I heard it and remembered it: “I didn’t save her.” Molotov also said that this was the first and last time he saw Stalin cry.

The newspapers announced that Nadezhda Alliluyeva had died of appendicitis. The silence gave rise to a rumor that Nadezhda was killed on the orders of her all-powerful husband, but both contemporaries and historians agree that it was, in fact, suicide.

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