“There never was a Vasiliy Stalin.”
Vasiliy Stalin (Son of the People’s Father or The Son of the Leader of the People) Syn Ottsa Narodov is a riveting and ultimately compassionate look at the life of Stalin’s troubled son, Vasiliy. This 2013 12-episode biopic, made for Russian television, covers the years of Vasiliy’s childhood, his first marriage to Galina, WWII, his second marriage to the daughter of Marshal Timoshenko, Stalin’s death and concludes in the 1960s. With each episode running approximately 55 minutes, this excellent, immersive biopic with a memorable musical score, takes its time detailing the life of Vasiliy, and even at a couple of points takes a few digressions and follows another story thread. At one point, for example, the plot follows Vasiliy’s sister, Svetlana’s romance with a journalist sent to Stalingrad. These digressions do not detract from the main storyline, but instead flesh out the complicated nuances of Soviet life under Stalin.
We see red-headed Vasiliy growing up in a remote home under the care of Sergei Efimov. Vasiliy is a bold, courageous boy who longs to fly, and so as a youth he trains as a pilot and rapidly rises in the Soviet Air Forces. Vasiliy presents many problems for his superiors who quake at the idea of disciplining this exuberant young man, but it’s through Vasiliy’s stellar military career that we see that while being the son of Stalin brings fast tracked rank (he made General in his 20s), Stalin is loathe to place Vasiliy in any danger as he would make a high-profile POW. In one scene, Stalin struggles with the German propaganda generated about POW Yakov, Stalin’s son from his first marriage.
It’s during the flight training and WWII scenes that Vasiliy really seems to hit his peak. He’s a great leader of men, and this is defined through a couple of scenes involving fellow pilots. In one scene, a trainee steals Vasiliy’s watch, and while the other pilots want to see the thief punished, Vasiliy’s judgement shows compassion, generosity, and wisdom. In another scene, Vasiliy goes unpunished by his fearful commanders who are terrified to punish the son of Stalin, but Vasiliy insists on joining his peers in lock-up. In yet another WWII scene, we see a dear friend of Vasiliy’s make an enemy of the wrong man and after a petty incident, the friend (Alexey Vertkov) is arbitrarily carted off to the convict brigade where the convicts/pilots fly damaged planes. Vasiliy throws caution aside and challenges authority and yet this is an instance in which his name cannot save his friend. Through this episode we see the chilling randomness of Stalin’s punishments–even of those who make a major contribution to the war effort. Repeatedly, we see Stalin pick up his phone to relay orders to Beria, and Beria (sexual predator and Chief of NKVD) always seems to already have the intel on everyone in the entire country.
The WWII scenes include some fantastic dogfights, and there’s no doubt that Vasiliy Stalin was a Soviet hero, and yet at the same time we see his marriage falling apart and his drinking escalating which hint at the idea that Vasiliy may not fare well in peacetime. In fact as we follow Vasiliy into his 30s, he loses that youthful enthusiasm and instead seems weary and yet still keen to find an active role in post WWII Soviet society. Whoever did the make-up for the film did a great job of aging Vasiliy.
While the film depicts Vasiliy’s three major relationships with women: Galina, the daughter of Marshal Timoshenko, and Kapitalina, an athlete, there are generous hints that Vasiliy was a womanizer. At one point his minders cannot find him, and when the question arises regarding whether or not he has a mistress, one minder answers that there are addresses of women all over Moscow. It’s through his relationships with women that Vasily is cruel and at his worst, while he is at his best in his relationships with men.
The film argues that Vasiliy was seen as a threat by both Beria (a very creepy performance) and Khrushchev (portrayed as an indecisive, insecure idiot), and the film explores Vasiliy’s years in prison and ends with him sent into exile. Vasiliy was ultimately his father’s son, and since Khrushchev was busy repudiating Stalin’s rule, his Cult of Personality and secret murders, it was probably inevitable that Vasiliy would be silenced.
Vasiliy and Svetlana were the product of Stalin’s second marriage to Nadezhda Alliluyeva. While official sources state that Nadezhada died of peritonitis, she was reportedly found dead of a gunshot wound following a public fight with Stalin. The film shows a brief flashback moment seen through Vasiliy’s memory with the gun laying on the ground next to Nadezhda’s left hand, and we may draw our own conclusions regarding the controversy of Nadezhda’s death. There are a couple of other controversial moments in Vasiliy’s life: an aviation accident is mentioned briefly and then the plane disaster involving the USSR ice hockey team is presented in an entirely different manner than the Wikipedia version of events. Similarly the film hints that Stalin’s death may not have been from natural causes, but this comes only from a doubt expressed by Vasiliy, and again, we are left to speculate about the truth for ourselves.
Vasiliy is ultimately a tragic figure whose connection to Stalin was a double-edged sword. While being Stalin’s son gave untold privilege and status,Vasiliy paid dearly for the connection after his father’s death, and the film makes it quite clear that being the son of Stalin was a role that bore tremendous baggage. In his youth, Vasiliy just had to mention his famous surname in order to reverse consequences, and one of the film’s two great ironies is that in the last decade of his life, Vasiliy Stalin became, to all purposes, an unknown man of no importance. The second great irony underscored by the film is the way Vasiliy leaves his children to be brought up by minders–a repetition of his own tragic history.
Russian actor Gela Meskhi as Vasiliy hammers out a terrific, sensitive performance as a troubled man haunted by his own demons. While the rest of the country was able to move on with the new post Stalin paradigm, Vasiliy could not– as to deny his name and his relationship with his father was too big a price to pay. Highly recommended for fans of Russian cinema. And Russian film fans, keep your eyes open for Gela Meskhi; this is a talent to watch.
Directed by Sergei Shcherbin