You Can’t Choose Your Family

The Gist:  Nearly all dictators’ children take advantage of their status, often in defiance of the stated motivating ideology of the regime, sometimes in defiance of basic human decency.

A review of Children of Monsters by Jay Nordlinger.

Winston Churchill was no fan of his son-in-law, Vic Oliver. Oliver had fought for Britain’s enemy Austria in World War I, was a mediocre entertainer, and had already been divorced (maybe twice) before becoming secretly engaged to Churchill’s daughter. At one point, “trying to make innocent conversation, Oliver asked [Churchill] what figure [of World War II] he admired most. Churchill answered, ‘Mussolini.’ Astonished, Oliver asked why. Said Churchill… ‘Because he had the courage to have his son-in-law shot.’”

You, like Churchill, may have fantasized about exercising certain powers in your family beyond those permitted in a democracy. Jay Nordlinger writes for the National Review where he often finds just the right anecdotes to illustrate both points and people in stories both of national and human interest. In his book Children of Monsters, Nordlinger relates inhuman interest stories as he sketches the fates of the sons and daughters of dictators, the “more drenched in blood” the more interesting how their progeny might have turned out. How far does the apple fall from the rotten tree? What if what father knows best – what your family values – is evil? The result is entertaining, ironic, and strange. But mostly chilling.


Figure 1. “Children of Monsters” was an alternative working title for the Star Wars saga which, given the latest sequels, works even for the revisionists who properly understand the series.


One immediate example: Hideki Tojo was the strident nationalist leader of Japan during World War II and perhaps the primary advocate for the preemptive attack on Pearl Harbor: his daughter married an American and lived most of her life in Honolulu!

Though Nordlinger provides some background on each gruesome father, some are more notorious than others, so you might want to consult Wikipedia for a fuller account of their crimes. Albania, for example, was disastrously led for over 40 years by Elver Hoxha, a totalitarian Communist so extreme that he broke with the Soviet Union when it condemned Stalin and the People’s Republic of China when it abandoned Mao. Without mass-murdering allies, Hoxha insisted on total self-reliance (i.e. total isolation) and, with the very limited national resources of the poorest country in Europe, amidst housing shortages and any number of other pressing policy problems, he directed the construction of over 750,000 concrete bunkers. For context, Albania is a little smaller than the state of Maryland and never had more than 3,000,000 people. So Hoxha built more than 60 bunkers per square mile, 1 bunker for every four people, all costing more than three times as much concrete as France’s Maginot Line. Nordlinger reports on this as well as his principal subject: Hoxha’s son, despite his father’s ban on private cars, generously permitted himself a Mercedes, and, as the Cold War came to a conclusion (and with it, Hoxha’s slave labor camps, murders, and all-around repression), the Hoxha heir insisted, “The worst evils of the capitalist society are coming to Albania: unemployment, prostitution, corruption, high prices, and inflation.”

No Inflation

Figure 2. “Oh no,” he thought. “Not inflation!”


You may wonder how many scions chose to honor their father. Practically, if a child had the opportunity – that is to say, that they were not, as so many were, abandoned by their father – every child took advantage of the privileges of being the dictator’s offspring. At the very least, that meant enjoying a standard of living well above the normal citizen. Francisco Franco ruled Spain for four decades after winning its civil war: his only child married into Spanish royalty which, given the incestuousness of European monarchies means that Franco’s great-grandson, Louis de Bourbon, is considered by Legitimists (but not Bonapartists) to be France’s rightful king. 

Sometimes the dictator doesn’t even have to be in power anymore: A Mussolini son became a jazz pianist, first playing after World War II under an assumed name before “discover[ing] his real name was a draw, not a repellent… He played with many of the greats of the day, including Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie. He married Maria Scicolone, the sister of Sophia Loren.” Their daughter became a Playboy covergirl – and then a neo-fascist Italian legislator, though Nordlinger notes “it’s sometimes hard to tell the ‘neo’ from the old-fashioned variety.”

Of course, the very act of better living often defies the stated motivating ideology of the regime. The first two children of the Romanian Communist dictator Ceaucescu chose careers in science over politics (though no doubt helped by selective state patronage). When the regime collapsed, Ceaucescu daughter Zoia was arrested in a house filled with jewels, cash, and art – and infamously asked “Do you have room in the police truck for my poodles?” In a similar vein, a granddaughter of Chairman Mao was listed in 2013 as one of the richest women in China and had three children – in violation of the one-child policy.


Figure 3. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” – George Orwell


Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was an Arab Islamic socialist who deported Jews, introduced sharia law (whose Libyan version featured flogging as a punishment for homosexuality), and financed a murderous campaign of terrorism against Western “imperialists” and Israeli Zionists. Almost predictably, all of his sons spent significant time in the West. One was a drug addict who pursued a multitude of bisexual affairs. Another told his Playboy model girlfriend that he spent about $2 million a month, including arranging for private concerts for him and his friends by American pop stars. A third son partied across Europe, including a high speed police chase through Paris. Constantly feuding with police, he always claimed diplomatic immunity until he was finally arrested in Switzerland for physically assaulting servants. Libya retaliated by arresting innocent Swiss businessmen and banning Swiss companies. A fourth son, Saif al-Islam (“Sword of Islam”), got a PhD from the London School of Economics (global imperialism headquarters?), claimed a friendship with (imperialist?) British Prime Minister Tony Blair, had a long-time (Zionist?) Israeli girlfriend, and insisted, repeatedly, that he would not serve in his father’s regime “until Libya had a constitution and a ‘more democratic and transparent’ environment.” Which, understandably, made him the great Western hope for Libya as his life clashed with practically all of his father’s regime’s stated principles. And yet when his father’s regime was finally threatened by a rebellion, Saif returned home and vowed, “We will fight until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet.” The International Criminal Court has an outstanding warrant for his arrest for crimes against humanity during the Libyan Civil War. But today he’s a free man – and running for President of Libya.


Figure 4. Sadly, many children of democratic leaders defy the motivating ideology of liberty by becoming Communists. Meanwhile, pop stars play their hearts out for the cash of dictators while boycotting American states whose democratically elected leaders express mild disagreements.


Some children became strident proponents of tyranny much faster, almost always as part of a plan to take over after dad. Papa Doc changed the constitution of Haiti to make sure his son Baby Doc could become the youngest leader in the world at 19 (and continue the family business of corruption). Syria’s Bashar Assad was practicing medicine in the West when he had to come home after his brother’s death to take over as heir apparent. But no totalitarian dynasty has been as successful (in terms of sustaining familial power) as the Kims of North Korea.

Kim K

Figure 5. Even Kim Kardashian would be a better alternative for North Koreans – and Dennis Rodman could still visit anytime he wanted.


As often as not, dictators don’t really care about their kids. While Mussolini had some cause to execute his son-in-law, who had launched a coup and put Mussolini under house arrest, he had no cause to confine his first son to an asylum and then murder him. Mao appears to have not really cared for his 10+ children, needlessly abandoning a couple to die in the Chinese Civil War, offering others as hostages. Which is to say, he cared about as much about his own kids as he did the Chinese people. Ultimately, dictators care most for their own power: Iran’s ayatollah Khomeini forbade his son from becoming Prime Minister so his family could appear to be above the fray of politics – and responsibility – while maintaining power. 

The child who is an outright dissident is extremely rare. Zoia Ceaucescu, who had mouthed off when she was younger, and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi were considered some of the most vocal critics until their ignoble exposures. A daughter of Fidel Castro became a dissident – but she only met her father a couple of times. Perhaps the most interesting example is a grandson of ayatollah Khomeini who made numerous comments endorsing not only democracy but America’s invasion of Iraq. Predictably, as of the book’s publication, he is under house arrest.


Figure 6. That children of dictators are not generally dissidents will shock parents of teenagers 


All of which leads us to Stalin, whose offspring Nordlinger spends the most time with. He begins with a deadly insightful line about the Soviet regime: “It is said that Lenin liked children… There must have been limits to his liking, however: He sent children to concentration camps.”

Stalin’s first couple children were illegitimate, one the product of his rape of a teenage girl when he was in his late 30s. He denied them, along with his third child Yakov who was legitimate, the honor of using his adopted name – “Stalin” means “Man of Steel.” Yakov was so distressed over his father’s disapproval that he attempted to kill himself with a gun but only suffered a non-fatal wound. “His father snorted, ‘He can’t even shoot straight.’” Yakov recovered and joined the Red Army to please his dad. He was promptly captured by the Germans, who hoped to trade the heir for a captured General. Stalin not only denied that he had such a son but also that “there was really such a thing as a Russian POW.” Insisting that anyone captured by the Germans was a traitor, he arrested his daughter-in-law. Eventually, Yakov’s second attempt at suicide succeeded: “he threw himself on an electric fence, in April 1943.” The tragedy of Stalin’s kids would not end there.

Super Stalin

Figure 7. If only that Man of Steel had thrown himself in front of a locomotive… 


Stalin’s final two children were from his last wife who “was the Bolshevik type: devoted to Party and work, not to ‘bourgeois’ interests such as family. Svetlana could not remember that her mother had ever hugged, praised, or kissed her… We might pause to imagine a household in which Stalin is the more loving parent.” She apparently committed suicide while her kids were pre-teens, though Nordlinger says that she may have been murdered, and “serious people take this suspicion seriously.” As a result, “Svetlana was raised by a nanny and other generally civilized women; Vasily was given over to brutish bodyguards.” 

Svetlana initially had the better bargain. Her father treated her tenderly, nicknaming her “the boss,” and inisting senior Politburo members address her as such. But,

“With some regularity, her schoolmates would simply disappear. They would be there one day, and not the next. Their fathers had fallen from favor, being arrested, imprisoned, or killed. Sometimes, a schoolmate would give Svetlana a note to pass to her father. It had been written by the schoolmate’s desperate mother, whose husband had been dragged away in the night. Could Comrade Stalin do something? The dictator got sick of these notes, telling his daughter not to serve as a ‘post-office box.’” 

When she was 16, two seminal events occurred that irrevocably changed her relationship with her dad: She fell in love with a married 40-year old playboy – and she discovered the fate of her mother through her special access to Western media. Stalin dispatched his daughter’s paramour to the Gulag for a decade and would hardly ever speak to her again. After failing to get with another married man, she accepted a proposal from a fellow student. Seeking permission from her father to marry, Stalin was silent for some time before saying “‘To hell with you. Do as you like.’ He set one condition on the marriage: that the groom and husband never set foot in his house. Indeed, Stalin never met his son-in-law.” They were divorced within two years, and then she was set up for another two short-lived marriages with Kremlin-approved husbands.

In 1963, well after her father’s death, Svetlana fell in love with a visiting Indian Communist whom she was not allowed to marry. But when he died 3 years later, she successfully requested permission to scatter his ashes in India. Once there, Sveltana walked into the US embassy and defected (abandoning two kids to remain in the USSR). “Svetlana became a U.S. citizen and registered with the Republican Party. Her favorite magazine was National Review, she said—the conservative, anti-Communist journal founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955. She donated $500 to the magazine.” Svetlana’s strange story would not end there: the widow of the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright had had a daughter named Svetlana by another marriage who had died in a car crash. She felt a strange connection to Svetlana and invited her to visit the Wright estate, where she lived with her former son-in-law. Within 3 weeks of visiting, Stalin’s Svetlana was married to Wright’s stepdaughter’s widower. But that marriage would also fail, as her new family drained the finances she earned from writing books and operated, in her words, in ways reminiscent of the Kremlin. Incredibly, in 1984, Svetlana returned to the Soviet Union, stating she wanted to care for her alcoholic son and that she had “never enjoyed ‘one single day’ of freedom in the West.” Her daughter, “a die-hard Communist,” refused to even meet her. Svetlana was only there 18 months, returning to the United States: “‘I had to leave for a while to realize, ‘Oh, my God, how wonderful it is’’—the ‘it’ being America. All the things she had said against the West after her arrival in Moscow? She had been misquoted or mistranslated.” She died in Wisconsin in 2011 and I’ll leave it to you whether she fits the description of a proper dissident.

The absolute worst children of dictators, however, were those who used their positions of privilege to wreak rape, torture, and murder without consequence.  As Nordlinger himself relates, “To study the children of dictators is to spend a lot of time with unpleasantness.” Whether by nature or nurture, “Vasily [Stalin] was a classic type of dictator’s son: the little tyrant of a tyrant, the little monster of a monster… Vasily used his privileged position to get everything he wanted: sex, power, riches, thrills. And, as frequently happens, it all ended very badly for him.” Totally unqualified, Vasily was rapidly promoted in the Red Army despite being “drunken, bullying, physically abusive, incompetent, and reckless.” Imprisoned after his father’s death, he died of alcoholism at 40. Similarly, Ceaucescu’s third child “preferred to rape his way through Romania.” After his parents compelled him to marry, he told his new wife “‘Now go live with my mother. She should f*** you because she chose you.’” This was the man Ceaucescu hoped to succeed him – and who the United Nations honored with a medal as chairman of International Youth Year.

Nobel Prize

Figure 8. Speaking of esteemed international organizations, Nordlinger’s other book is about the Nobel Peace Prize. 


The worst of the lot, though, was Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. If you are at all squeamish, skip this paragraph

“Uday was worse—probably much worse—than the others. Looking on, Vasily Stalin might have shuddered… About Nicu Ceauşescu, I wrote, ‘I could fill pages with appalling details.’ One could fill more with details about Uday. One obituary described him as ‘Caligula-like’—which may be unfair to Caligula. … He raped constantly. His goons would kidnap girls and women for him. He would simply point them out. He kidnapped and raped the daughters of ordinary men, of course. But he kidnapped and raped the daughters—including the underage daughters—of powerful men, too… One time, a girl had the audacity to complain about being raped and beaten. Uday ‘had her covered with honey and torn apart by hungry dogs,’ in the words of one news report. I mention these things—which maybe I should not—not because they are extraordinary or sensational, but because they were routine.” 

And this is only from the public record. Since domestic critics of dictators (and their families) have a nasty habit of disappearing without a trace, researching such a book can be a challenge. But Nordlinger, who sought interviews with as many living and available children as he could, does not intend a comprehensive encyclopedia. Instead, he provides a series of insightful vignettes, opening with a chapter about a Frenchman who claimed to be Hitler’s long lost love-child (and who grew a matching mustache to enhance resemblance). Moreover, Nordlinger offers something rare among writers: a thorough command of the English language that makes his voice recognizably unique, conversational in tone, and a pleasure to read. Though he is personally passionate about human rights, Nordlinger regularly displays a discerning sensibility, acknowledging, for example: “You and I would not have wanted to live under the shah. But we most likely would have been screaming for him to come back, after experiencing Khomeini and his gang.” Which, incidentally, is precisely the experience of one of my teachers of Iranian history in college, who fought the Shah in the streets, served in prison with the ayatollahs, and then had to flee the country when he realized how much worse they were.

One final story about a dictator I had never heard of until reading this book: Bokassa the First proclaimed himself, in a $90 million inauguration paid for by the French but the equivalent of a year’s national budget, the Emperor of Central Africa. Which was pretty grand until he bucked for a promotion and self-declared a new title: 13th Apostle of Christ. Which was all the more remarkable because he once converted to Islam in exchange for a bribe from none other than Moammar Gaddafi. Bokassa’s apostledom was hard to reconcile with his polygamy – and his practice simply to refer to each wife by her nationality, i.e. the Belgian, the Korean, etc. All of which would be amusing but for his requirement that all school children wear – and pay for – a uniform bearing his image. His impoverished population rebelled and were put down via massacre.

With leaders like these, it’s no wonder that “over the years, the toppled dictator, Ceauşescu, had figured in Romanian advertisements. This was only natural. Free Romanians could hardly help themselves. One of the ads was for condoms. It showed Hitler, Stalin, and Ceauşescu, and suggested that the world would have been better off if their fathers had used condoms.”

Children of Monsters

Figure 9. Click here to acquire Jay Nordlinger’s Children of Monsters, which tells stories entertaining, ironic, strange, and chilling about the offspring of some of the 20th century’s worst dictators. I should mention, incidentally, that in addition to having a gift for the English language, Nordlinger has a gift for friendship and I am honored not only to have been interviewed on his podcast but to call him friend. 


Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this article, share it with a friend: know any dictators who are concerned about how their kids might turn out? How about expatriates from former tyrannies who might want to know more about their former tyrants’ corruption? Or do you know anyone who would be fascinated by the family dynamics of some of the most notorious leaders of the 20th century?

Also, feel free to sign up with the box below to receive my email. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you aboard.

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