Stalin’s Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan, Fourth ESTATE, £25
Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Joseph Stalin, not only had the courage to defect from Russia but also the ability to describe the experience of growing up in her father’s monstrous shadow. Her book, Twenty Letters to a Friend, published soon after her defection in 1967, became a sensation.
Though she left Russia and ultimately converted to Catholicism, Svetlana could never escape her father’s legacy. Her mother had committed suicide when she was six. Her maternal uncle and his wife were executed by Stalin in the purges of the late 1930s. Her first romantic interest was summarily sent to the gulag for 10 years. Her half-brother was killed by the Nazis during the war and her older brother became an alcoholic.
It is a tribute to Svetlana’s strength of character that, despite the disasters that dogged her life, she was never quite crushed by them. Like her father, she possessed an indomitable will that kept her going through all adversity. Her biographer provides a sympathetic and thoughtful portrait of a gifted yet deeply troubled woman, recognising her subject’s warmth, generosity, simplicity and candour, while remaining honest about her failings.
If Svetlana felt people had “betrayed” her, she could fall into a rage (again, like her father) and write them vindictive letters. She would also act on impulse, only to realise later that she could not cope with the consequences. Her invariable response to an untenable situation was to run away from it – she moved 30 times in America after her defection.
Sullivan observes: “It is astonishing that she survived at all.” After reading this 600-page story of her life, one is forced to agree. A lesser personality could not have done so.
Those who got to know Svetlana in the States, and who managed to remain faithful friends despite her capricious behaviour, all noted the loneliness at the heart of her life. A person of immense emotional neediness, she would constantly demand more of people than they were able to give. In romantic relationships she would rush to marry as the “solution” to her problems – she was married and divorced three times in Russia when still in her 20s. She made a final, disastrous fourth marriage in America, after knowing her suitor for a mere three weeks.
Perhaps Nikita Khrushchev, who assumed power after Stalin’s death in 1953, made the most accurate remark of Stalin’s attitude to his daughter: he “loved her … but his was the tenderness of a cat for a mouse”. The book’s cover shows Stalin with his arm around Svetlana’s neck when she was a child. She is smiling at the camera while he is looking down – almost as if he is about to throttle her. He wrought havoc with her emotions. Always manipulative, he was often absent for weeks at a time, sometimes affectionate, sometimes brutally cold and scornful and then demanding.
Svetlana wrote that only “little by little” in early adult life did she come to see that her father “had sacrificed everything human in him to the pursuit of power”. As a child, she could never understand why people she knew and loved sometimes “vanished” without explanation. Then she realised the bitter truth: “Not only that my father had been a despot and had brought about a bloody terror, destroying millions of innocent people, but that the whole system which had made it possible was profoundly corrupt … A man who aroused fear and hatred in millions of men – this was my father.”
There was a huge price to pay for her impulsive decision to seek refuge in the American embassy in New Delhi in 1967. She had to leave her son and daughter from her first two marriages behind in Moscow. They felt their mother had abandoned them – much as Svetlana felt her own parents had abandoned her – and she was never to regain their trust.
The one consistently positive element in the book, otherwise filled with emotional or financial disasters, is the love of Svetlana for her third child, Olga, the daughter of Wesley Peters, an American architect at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Foundation, whom she had been tricked into marrying by Lloyd Wright’s scheming widow, Olgivanna.
Although Olga had endured a nomadic, somewhat unstable childhood, she emerges as strong-willed, cheerful and sane. Loyal and loving towards her exasperating mother, she conscientiously kept in touch when they were apart and made Svetlana’s last years in the States more comfortable and less lonely than they would otherwise have been.
Sullivan tells a story of compelling interest, answering the reader’s implicit question: how does one survive the upbringing that Svetlana had, with the constant presence of spies, informants, secret police, fear, instability and neglect that had marked her childhood? She is not sensational or judgmental, allowing Svetlana to speak for herself wherever possible. Sullivan’s conclusion that her subject was “at core an emotional orphan, with a tragic fragility … who did not know what love was” sounds sadly accurate.
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