Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union for more than three decades, using the threat of violence and death as a significant tool in keeping enemies at bay. The death toll from his regime is difficult to estimate and, of course, Stalin’s government didn’t keep track of its crimes. But most agree that the number of lives taken is in the millions, and likely north of 10 million dead depending on whether one counts the victims of famines or not. (Wikipedia has a good outline of the estimates, here.) Regardless, it’s safe to say that most Soviets — even those close to Stalin — rightfully feared him. Including one named Vasily Dzhugashvili.
Even though he was Stalin’s son.
Dzhugashvili was born in 1921, just a year before his father became the singular leader of the Soviet Union. Dzhugashvili’s mother, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, was Stalin’s second wife — the two married in 1919, when Alliluyeva was either 17 or 18 years old and Stalin was a 41-year-old widower who already had a 12-year-old son. The marriage was relatively short-lived, and not because of the age difference. In 1932, Alliluyeva died under suspicious circumstances — the official cause of death was appendicitis, but that doesn’t explain why her body was found holding a gun. (And besides, the timing seemed odd — she and Stalin had just had an argument, publicly, at a dinner party.) Dzhugashvili was only eleven at the time of his mother’s death. His sister Svetlana was only 6.
Stalin didn’t step in as the primary caretaker of his two children from Alliluyeva. Instead, he barely recognized their existence, at least insofar as his relationship to them was concerned, and had guards and servants acts as guardians. Vasily, nevertheless, found success in the Red Air Force, rising in rank much more quickly than most others — he was a Commander of the Air Force before his 30th birthday. And by the late 1940s, Vasily Dzhugashvili was also the president of VVS Moscow, the Air Force’s sports club. Dzhugashvili was therefore in charge of a very public, very visible element of Soviet national pride. And on January 5, 1950, a tragedy put that at risk. That day, most of the hockey team — 11 of 13 players, plus the team doctor and a masseur — were in a plane crash on the way to a match. The plane had tried to land despite extreme weather conditions — “a heavy snowstorm with strong wind” per Wikipedia. All 19 people, including the six-person crew, died.
In most cases, a tragedy like this would have resulted in a national day of mourning and a state funeral. But in this case, the exact opposite happened –Dzhugashvili hid the crash from his father. It’s unclear, but Dzhugashvili may have been to blame for the tragedy — in 1952, he’d be dismissed from the Air Force for another tragedy in which he allowed the planes to fly despite bad weather, and this may have been another example of his bad judgment. Either way, Dzhugashvili feared his father’s wrath. So Dzhugashvili decided to cover up the accident, pretending it never happened. That required a team, though, so the next day, Dzhugashvili made sure he had one in place. As the New York Times reported, he “immediately recruited a new team, and his father apparently never knew the difference.”
Perhaps Stalin just wasn’t much of a hockey fan — or, perhaps, the replacements were good enough to complete Dzhugashvili’s ruse. They’re certainly evidence to that end. In 1951, a national annual hockey tournament called the Soviet Cup debuted in the USSR, and VVS Moscow came in second place. The next year, VVS Moscow won the cup.
From the Archives: The Disaster Drafts: The details behind the U.S. pro leagues’ contingency plans in case tragedy strikes.
Related: “The Black Book of Communism,” an absolutely enormous (nearly 900 pages long) attempt to catalogue the death toll of Stalin’s regime and others’. Originally released in 1999 and a best-seller, it has its fair share of critics, but nets out to 4.3 stars on average over 138 Amazon reviews.