How Stalin became a Catholic

Tolstoy once remarked that we die as we live and that we can’t expect to die a good death except through living a good life. A friend has just sent me the obituary of Svetlana Stalin, daughter of the dictator, who died peacefully at a nursing home in Wisconsin on November 22 2011. This obituary, from the Christmas issue of The Catholic, published by a small community of religious from the Orkney Islands, describes the turbulent and often sad life of this woman, whose mother was driven to suicide by her father when she was six and whose father later brutally rejected her when she married without his consent.

Married three times, giving birth to three children, two of whom she became permanently estranged from, she lived in Cambridge for some years. It was there, in 1982, “on a cold December day, the feast of St Lucy… the decision to enter the Catholic Church came to me very naturally”, as she writes in her memoirs. This decision had been influenced by a long friendship/correspondence with an Italian Catholic priest and the support and kindness of a Catholic couple she had met in America.

Svetlana writes that after her conversion “Only now I understand the wonderful grace that the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist produce, no matter what day of the year, and even on a daily basis. Before, I was unwilling to forgive and repent, and I was never able to love my enemies. But I feel very different from before, since I attend Mass every day.

The Eucharist has given me life. The Sacrament of Penance with God whom… we abandon and betray each day, the sense of guilt and sadness that invades us then, all this makes it necessary to receive it frequently.” This woman, whose childhood had been blighted by the loss of her mother, adds “I was taken into the arms of the Blessed Virgin Mary…Who else could be my advocate but the Mother of Jesus? She suddenly drew me close to her…”

The obituary includes Svetlana’s recollection of the death of Stalin himself. It seems he suffered a stroke on the night of February 28 1953. She writes, “The death agony was terrible. He literally choked to death as we watched. At what seemed the very last moment he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry and full of fear of death. Then he suddenly lifted his left hand. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace…”

This description reminded me of another article, from the pages of a Communist publication, “Revolutionary Democracy”, which was given to me on the 45th anniversary of his death by an Indian friend and fervent admirer of Stalin, whom I had known from my Cambridge (where else?) student days. After reading this account I felt astonished that anyone, most especially my gentle, scholarly and humane friend, could possibly admire a man, whose associates – more accurate, for Stalin, than the word ‘friends’ – and personal doctors were so petrified of him, so paralysed with fear, that none of them dared to help him during the three days he lay helpless and semi-conscious after his stroke. Panic, intrigues and poisonous rumours accompanied his deathbed.

As a 7-year-old at the time of his death, I remember asking the nun teaching us that morning in primary school whether Stalin would go to hell. It seemed a reasonable question in my eyes. I can’t recall her response, but by any standards Stalin did not have what one might call “a good death”.