“What would it mean to be born Stalin’s daughter, to carry the weight of that name for a lifetime and never be free of it?”
“I want to explain to you, he broke my life.”
Even writing a biography showing the many sides of Svetlana Alliluyeva often ignored by media, multiple governments, and history, Rosemary Sullivan didn’t have much choice but to title it Stalin’s Daughter. That’s the long shadow Svetlana lived under her entire life, no matter how far or how frequently she wandered, married, or embarked on new careers or life phases. Sometimes while reading I would forget about the magnitude of that until something reminded me and it was a shock all over again. She refers to herself as being considered “state property” by the Kremlin.
Her father’s ghost haunted not just her but the country. She lamented, “He is gone, but his shadow still stands over us all. It still dictates to us and we, very often, obey.”
A few years ago I read brilliant Russia historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s exhaustive two-part biography of Stalin, Young Stalin and Court of the Red Tsar (I recommend both but especially the former, which is incredibly readable and revealing.) I needed a years-long break before another book delving exclusively into anything Stalin. I bought Svetlana’s biography when it came out and let it gather ebook dust for three years. I thought of it after watching The Death of Stalin, which, if you haven’t seen it, is fantastic and hilarious if a teensy bit historically inaccurate where I thought it should count.
Anyway, it motivated me to dust this one off. Despite being lengthy, it’s compulsively readable and surprisingly entertaining. I was stuck in an airport for 7 hours waiting for a delayed flight and figured I’d alternate between this and something lighter, but ended up reading this the whole time. I can’t give much higher praise than that. And it’s deserving subject matter – for as much Russian history as I’ve read, I’d encountered so little about Svetlana’s life. She’s more often than not relegated to the footnotes of Soviet history.
Sullivan begins with a thorough account of Svetlana’s childhood with important background about her mother, Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. Nadya committed suicide under mysterious circumstances, although as Sullivan explores the topic, it begins to seem less mysterious after all (I remember some ambiguity remaining after Montefiore’s account, so this was especially interesting). She also carefully fleshes out the complicated and chilly relationship between Stalin and Svetlana, which sets the stage for many of the emotional and psychological struggles and relationship difficulties that would occupy so much of Svetlana’s adulthood and her mental energies until nearly the end of her life. Stalin berated her, asked who would want her, and sent at least one of her boyfriends to the Gulag. Our parents’ disapprovals pale in comparison.
Father and daughter parted, each dissatisfied with the other. It was impossible to be with her father. He had sacrificed everything human in him to the pursuit of power. After seeing him, she always needed days to recover her equilibrium. “I had no feeling left for my father, and after every meeting I was in a hurry to get away.” This, however, was not entirely true. Svetlana could never wholly repudiate her father. His black shadow always remained over her, impossible to exorcise.
Sullivan explores Svetlana’s relations to the rest of her family, like her alcoholic brother Vasily and impressions of her grandmother Keke in Stalin’s native Georgia. And the people who shaped her most, like her nanny. Sullivan is nothing if not thorough in showing who Svetlana was, in every aspect of her character that she could glean something about, then letting this explain her later choices and the course her life ultimately took. It’s a telling psychological portrait.
Svetlana stayed in the Soviet Union much longer than I’d realized – she was 40 when she defected spontaneously while on a tourist visa in her last husband’s native India to scatter his ashes. There, she walked bravely into the American embassy and announced her intention to defect, calmly and coolly. This of course ignited an international diplomatic crisis, Svetlana being “the most famous defector ever to leave the USSR”. Not only problematic for the US but drawing Italy, Switzerland, and of course an enraged Soviet Union into the orbit of this monumental event.
She would later say this was the kind of gamble she always took. When she’d left the Soviet Compound in Delhi, she had only the address of the American Embassy.
“What I would need to do after, on the next day, I did not know about it and I did not think about it. Not planning ahead—as always—I only vaguely imagined what my new life would be….Sometimes at night I dreamed of the streets of Moscow, the rooms of my apartment; I woke up in a cold sweat. This was the nightmare to me.”
The nightmare was both what had happened in that city and the thought that she might be forcibly returned to it.
Her defection, seen as a triumph for the US and an embarrassment for the USSR, was a huge deal, with “more people to greet her at the airport than had been there for the Beatles in 1964.” She published her book about living in the Soviet Union, Twenty Letters to a Friend, which became a bestseller in post-Cold War America. But Svetlana struggled with fitting in and being at peace wherever she went.
Her life in America was fascinating to read but melancholy, a common sense throughout. She had a lot of help from George Kennan, the American diplomat to the Soviet Union, in getting settled in the country where she’d eventually naturalize and die, with restless forays to France, the UK, and even back to the Soviet Union in between.
An American teacher described meeting Svetlana in a supermarket, illustrating an episode that showed how she had to learn “everything about American domestic life…from scratch” when she asked this bystander how to make an ice cream cone for her daughter. They became friends, and she captured something crucial about what Svetlana was seeking:
I felt very strongly not to violate her privacy because one always read about the fear Svetlana had that she was only Stalin’s daughter. I mean I think women in general know that we are always in the shadow of a man up to a point, but being in the shadow of a monster who killed more people, I mean ten times more people than Hitler did … Svetlana wanted to disappear. And she always said she had two children but they were not free children. She wanted a child late in life here, a child born in a free country…. That was the phrase she used. I remember that.
One feels deep sympathy for Svetlana. The emotional and psychological burdens she lived under must have been torturous, enough to break a person. I felt such sympathy when she moved constantly – just reading about so many moves was exhausting – ever in search of somewhere she’d feel better, or could fit in. Sometimes she evokes significant frustration too: in her romances where disaster is clearly coming from the start, her inept handling of money, her indulgence in restlessness, seemingly not realizing that moving wouldn’t fix her.
I can barely touch on her vast, desperate love life. She was married five times and had three children, two who she left behind in the Soviet Union when she defected and a daughter, Olga, late in life in America.
A friend at the time…described her as “one of the loneliest women I have ever known.” Another friend…said, “Her search for happiness was boundless.” A die-hard romantic, she longed to meet someone who wouldn’t think of her as Stalin’s daughter.
Olga was from her marriage to architect Wes Peters (described as looking “like a peacock, but his face was stern”) within a cult-like colony, Taliesin, run by Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow Olgivanna.“How had Svetlana landed herself at a place in America that echoed her father’s oppressive world with its “cult of personality?” This bizarrest of life chapters was one of those parts of history where you have to remind yourself what you’re reading is true (many such moments here.)
Wes deflected to the domineering Olgivanna, who saw Svetlana as a surrogate for her own dead daughter who’d been previously married to him and – creepy – happened to be named Svetlana. An eerie Rebecca-esque moment occurs when Svetlana searches for the previous Mrs. Svetlana Peters’ grave:
There it was, Svetlana Peters, her own name on the gravestone, and with it the name of the dead child, Daniel. She had seen photos of the child, and he looked like her Olga, who resembled her father. Perhaps truly paranoid now, she began to be afraid of driving with Olga, afraid of a car accident. She knew she was falling under the spell of an idée fixe, but she couldn’t stop herself.
Whether or not you’re interested in Russian history or even Svetlana specifically, this book tells some enthralling stories.
I’m very bothered in histories when an author imagines what might’ve gone through a subject’s mind. Sullivan had such a wealth of source material available – Svetlana published multiple books and was a prolific letter writer and quite communicative about her life to friends, to name just some of what Sullivan draws from – that when she made a projection, it felt fitting.
For example, describing this scene that haunted Svetlana’s friends in Princeton, New Jersey, in the course of her problematic relationship with journalist Louis Fischer:
One thinks of Svetlana at that door, banging for an hour until she broke the glass and her hands bled, and imagines that she was beating in fury against all the ghosts of her past who had failed her: her mother, her father, her brother, her lovers. And now, this new life.
Or when she was hidden by nuns at a Swiss convent and having recently seen The Sound of Music, Sullivan muses that Svetlana must’ve made the funny connection herself. It’s one of those delightful little details of history that this book is full of.
The book’s weakness is that Sullivan sometimes provides an excess of details that don’t contribute much to the narrative – who drove what, when and how bureaucratic moves were made, etc. Otherwise it’s well paced with more details that illuminate rather than detract and interspersed with the kind of writing extracts or recounted conversations that give an excellent picture of a life in its historical context. Kennan describes Svetlana as having “iron in her soul” and despite her many setbacks and difficulties, it’s clear she did.
People were interested only in the Kremlin Svetlana, in what she might say about Stalin. She knew she could make a fortune writing about Stalin, but she refused to be her father’s biographer. She wanted to tell her own story.
Deserving biography packed with detail, personal source material, and fascinating twists of history. 4/5
The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva
by Rosemary Sullivan
published June 2015 by Harper