The Sons Also Rise

What is it like to grow up as the child of a dictator?

Books History
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.”

Svetlana would spend the rest of her life as a political football, veering from committed anti-Communist — even donating $500 to William F. Buckley’s National Review, apparently her favourite magazine — to advocate of a “third way” between the US and the USSR. 

Of course, many of the children considered by Nordlinger fall somewhere between the “loyalist” and “defector” ends of the spectrum and those in the middle are among the most interesting. Some are loyal but basically apolitical. Take Saadi Gaddafi, who appeared too preoccupied with football to be of much use to his father. He managed to juggle his obligations as head of the Libyan Football Federation, and captain of Tripoli and the national side. Referees gave him preferential treatment and commentators were forbidden from mentioning any other player by name when dear Saadi was on the pitch. He hired two men disgraced for drug offences, Argentine footballer Diego Maradona as personal coach and Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson as personal trainer.

Saadi’s brother, Saif al-Islam, preferred politics to football. Nordlinger concludes that he was genuinely conflicted, torn between political reform and his father’s rule. He was convinced the two could be reconciled, or that, after his father’s death he could manage a smooth transition to liberal democracy. Many in the West believed him. That, we now know, was not how it would happen. Reform came a little too quickly for Saif’s liking and he sided with his father, parroting the party line even as the regime crumbled. In July a Libyan court sentenced him to death for war crimes. 

Nordlinger’s subjects are of as much psychological interest as historical. Take the two Ceausescu sons, Nicu and Valentin. While Nicu tried to out-monster his monstrous father, Valentin has lived a comparatively placid life as a nuclear physicist. “Here, you get into ancient debates concerning ‘nature’, ‘nurture’ and much else,” writes Nordlinger, before cautioning that “those claiming to have the answers” on such matters should be treated with scepticism.

Unsurprisingly, much bad parenting is on display in Children of Monsters. Megalomaniacs, it seems, tend not to make it home for a family meal every evening. Illegitimate or unwanted children are cast aside. Were any of these bad men good fathers? Idi Amin, or to give him his full title, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, had 60 children. Given that Amin had Kay, his fourth wife, killed, it would be absurd to call him a family man. But his son Jaffar described Amin in a 2007 interview with the Daily Mail as “a playful man . . . he was always Big Daddy to us”. After his brutal rule of Uganda came to an end, he lived in exile in Jeddah with 35 of his children in a 15-bedroom house. According to Nordlinger, “Amin enjoyed family outings, taking the wheel of his Chevy Caprice Classic station wagon. He and the family loved to grocery-shop at Safeway.” Quite a thought; an especially cruel dictator traipsing his brood around the Jeddah branch of Safeway (who knew there was such a place?) on the weekly shop.

However grizzly their own crimes, all of Nordlinger’s children of monsters were victims before they were villains themselves. However far they tried to run from their father’s shadow, none managed to escape it. Even Svetlana would only ever be known as “Stalin’s daughter”. If only more dictators had taken Larkin’s advice: “Man hands on misery to man./It deepens like a coastal shelf./Get out as early as you can, /And don’t have any kids yourself.”