“Her father petted and loved her.... How could he already be at the same time one of the world’s bloodiest dictators?” asks Rosemary Sullivan in her ever-engaging biography, Stalin’s Daughter. And how – this is Sullivan’s ultimate challenge – can we sympathize with anyone so closely related to the dictator? From the late 1920s until his death in 1953, Papa Stalin oversaw the ruthless Soviet system imposed on Russia and its neighbors. Tens of millions of Soviet citizens died as a result of famine, war, imprisonment, or execution during his tenure.
But what if he were your father? Svetlana Alliluyeva (nee Stalina) wrestled with this fate throughout her long life (1926-2011). At first she was simply a little girl, raised with the Soviet elite in Moscow, almost as unconscious of her privilege as had been the aristocrats her father’s government had recently driven out or murdered. When her mother, Nadya Alliluyeva, killed herself when Svetlana was 6 years old, the girl didn’t know it was suicide until 10 years later. Eventually Svetlana knew that “The life of a man depended entirely on a word from my father,” and that he could be brutal even to her. At 16, when she announced she was marrying a Jewish writer, her father had him sent to the Gulag.
A dedicated student who never disdained household chores, Alliluyeva shunned special treatment. At the command of her father, she studied the history of the United States and after university became a translator of foreign classics. As she became aware of the injustices committed under Stalin’s direction, she deplored them: “[My father] knew what he was doing. He was neither insane nor misled. With cold calculation he had cemented his own power, afraid of losing it more than of anything else in the world.”
At the same time she couldn’t help feeling for Papa, and named her only son after him. In her famously restless love life, she sought a bliss and contentment that never lasted. She married several times and had three children, the last when she was 44 and living in exile in the US.
Sullivan opens the biography in the middle, in 1967, when Alliluyeva, age 42, went on a pilgrimage to India to pay her respects to her deceased lover, Brajesh Singh (the government hadn’t permitted her to marry the former Communist official). She decided on the spot to defect to the US, despite her own children, ages 17 and 21, left back in Russia. President Lyndon Johnson’s administration feared her defection would disrupt relations with the Soviet Union, but after the Central Intelligence Agency helped stow her in Switzerland, American publishers offered her so much money for her memoirs that the government let her in on her own dime.
Alliluyeva took to American life with gusto, mastering everything except financial planning. Though she had a temper and could be overbearing, she won friends everywhere from all walks of life. No place, however, fulfilled her for long. She moved to England while her second daughter went to boarding school there, and 17 years after her defection, she suddenly longed for home and bolted to Russia, which repatriated her. After a year the Soviets were all too glad when she defected back to the US.
Although an accomplished writer of memoirs, she couldn’t or wouldn’t write the book that Western publishers wanted about her father. Instead, she chose to live and work humbly, sometimes on “charity” in public housing, and rejected CIA-sponsored funding that would’ve obliged her, she felt, to restrain her mouth and feet.
Of Putin’s new Russia, she was a shrewd critic: “Russia is quickly (in my opinion) sliding back into the past – with that awful former KGB-SPY now as an acting president!” Sullivan, Alliluyeva’s even-tempered biographer, writes straightforwardly and with common sense, neither detached nor overly intimate. She quotes often from Alliluyeva’s letters and interviewed dozens of Alliluyeva’s surviving family members and friends in the US and Russia.
Continuously engaged by her difficult but captivating subject, Sullivan deals fairly with a woman who perhaps seems best suited to a Greek tragedy. As a reviewer of Alliluyeva’s first book observed, “To be Stalin’s daughter and to remain human is itself admirable – and we have every evidence that Svetlana Alliluyeva remained so.”
Bob Blaisdell edited “Essays on Civil Disobedience” which will be published by Dover Publications.