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Daddy’s girl: The young Svetlana Stalin with her father in 1935

Philip Larkin was right. They do fuck you up, your mum and dad. Some more than others, though. That much becomes clear by reading Jay Nordlinger’s new book.

Children of Monsters asks a simple question about people in complicated circumstances: what must it be like to be the son or daughter of a dictator? Or to put it another way: what is it like to “bear a name synonymous with oppression, murder, terror, and evil”?

To answer these questions, Nordlinger casts his net wide, considering the children of 20 despots—from Mussolini and Ceausescu in Europe, to Mao and Kim in East Asia, Gadaffi and Amin in Africa, Hussein and Assad in the Middle East, and Duvalier and Castro in the Caribbean (despotism is a global phenomenon). In doing so, he presents a spectrum of responses to growing up with a tyrant for a father — and they are all fathers; the modern world still awaits its first female dictator.

At one end are those cut in their father’s mould. They include Nicu Ceausescu, son of Nicolae, who fits what Nordlinger calls the “picture of comic-book evil” of a dictator’s son. He had his father’s thirst for power, he was a drunk who rampaged across Romania, raping and running red lights, killing people in the process with complete impunity. He would have got on well with Uday Hussein, son of Saddam, who also falls into this gruesome category. One obituary described him as “Caligula-like” (“which may have been unfair to Caligula,” adds Nordlinger). This monster’s two preoccupations were rape and torture. He abducted brides from weddings and threw underperforming athletes off bridges. Reading Nordlinger’s account of what these men chose to do when they knew they would get away with it leaves one with a diminished view of human nature. Thankfully neither Nicu or Uday succeeded their fathers, both of whom were dealt the death penalty by the people who had to endure their murderous regimes. (Nicolae was shot on Christmas Day, singing the “Internationale” as the firing squad pulled the trigger.)  

Others have been given the chance denied to Nicu and Uday. The people of North Korea are currently being subjected to their third Kim. That dynasty’s rule may be the butt of countless jokes in the West, where many of its habits seem ridiculous, but Kim Jong-un’s grip on power remains tight and soaked in blood.

At the other end of the spectrum are the defectors, those who renounced the illegitimate rule of their own fathers. Nordlinger identifies just two children who have taken that brave decision: Svetlana Stalin and Alina Fernandez, daughter of Fidel Castro. Svetlana — who is the subject of a new book by Canadian biographer Rosemary Sullivan (Stalin’s Daughter, Harper) — was in Nordlinger’s view “touched by greatness”. She was treasured by her father as a young girl, but in time their relationship deteriorated. On March 6, 1967, on a trip to India, her first trip abroad apart from ten days in East Germany, she walked into the US embassy and requested political asylum. “So you say your father was Stalin? The Stalin?” asked the American on duty. The statement she wrote that day ended with these lines: “My children are in Moscow and I do understand that now I might not see them for years. But I know they will understand . . . Let God help them. I know they will not reject me and one day we shall meet — I will wait for that.” When she landed in New York she said: “I have come here to seek the self-expression that has been denied me for so long in Russia.”

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