Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

From the Kremlin to Ladbroke Grove

Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva


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I never met Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter, and before reading this excellent biography I never really understood what she had suffered or achieved. Nonetheless, at various times her peregrinations touched on my own. I was in Delhi in February 1967 when she, by a spectacular oversight of the Soviet leadership, was allowed to fly out with the ashes of the Indian Communist Brajesh Singh, the only man to have given her years of happiness. She took the opportunity to defect, eventually travelling on to the USA. In the spring of 1985 I was living on Chavchavadze Avenue in Tbilisi (a street that leads out of town from the university, and then inhabited by both the party elite and free-thinking intellectuals), when Svetlana brought her American-born teenage daughter, Olga, to live in the USSR; her neighbours reported that Olga, who knew neither Russian nor Georgian, cried herself to sleep at nights. In the early 1990s I occasionally gave talks to elderly émigrés at the Pushkin Club in Ladbroke Grove. Svetlana was living just up the hill in accommodation subsidised by a charity. Recently, I found out that my wife’s late mother, a lecturer in English at Moscow University, was largely responsible for teaching Svetlana her excellent (if accented) English.

In Delhi I wrongly assumed that the arrival of Stalin’s daughter heralded either a breakdown of the Soviet system or a breakthrough in the West’s relations with Russia. On reading Svetlana’s first book, Twenty Letters to a Friend, which she smuggled out of India in the urn that had contained Singh’s ashes, disappointment set in: the book was undermined by her blaming Lavrenti Beria (who had dandled her on his knee) for leading Stalin astray. In Tbilisi the Georgians’ disapproval of her impetuous return and decision to subject an American teenager to the Soviet system was easy to share, and in Ladbroke Grove the sight of the elderly, destitute Svetlana seemed to testify to the futility of her flight to the West.

All these reactions are proved wrong by Rosemary Sullivan: Svetlana emerges as a remarkable, largely generous, sometimes heroic figure. Whatever she inherited from her pathologically cruel and vindictive father and from her neurotic, suicidal mother she did her best to overcome (her brother, Vasili, succumbed and destroyed himself with drink and sex; her half-brother, Yakov, who grew up fostered in Georgia and did not meet his father until he was a teenager, was captured by Germany during the Second World War and effectively committed suicide by provoking his German captors to shoot him). Svetlana’s childhood and youth were as traumatic as any of Euripides’s tragedies: her mother shot herself when she was six; Stalin had nearly all the maternal aunts, uncles and cousins of his children arrested and, in many cases, shot. Svetlana’s first love was badly beaten and sent to the Gulag; her first husband was erased from her passport after they divorced; her second husband was the withdrawn son of one of Stalin’s cronies. She barely saw her father after she ceased to be a living doll that he could play with: her most searing memory is of Stalin in his death throes on the floor, soaked in urine, threatening her with a raised left hand. Yet after his death she negotiated a career for herself and refused to be a mascot for the party or for anyone else. In the prestigious Gorky Literary Institute she stood up for the first dissident writers to fall victim to the Brezhnev regime. She dared to live openly as Singh’s partner.

It must have been hard to be the daughter of one of the 20th century’s most notorious figures. The daughters of senior Nazis chose either (as Gudrun, Himmler’s daughter, did) to defend their fathers against all the evidence or to disassociate themselves from them (as Bettina Göring did by self-sterilisation). Had they chosen to follow medieval dynastic traditions, 20th-century tyrants could have spared their daughters this choice. But would a world in which Stalin married his daughter off to Churchill’s son have been any better? Compared with others in her situation, Svetlana did well.

Not until Svetlana reached the American embassy in Delhi did anyone have a bad word to say about her. Only when she left did her children by her first two marriages – Joseph Morozov and Katya Zhdanova, who never received her loving letter of explanation – and the Soviet propaganda machine turn against her, calling her a nymphomaniac and a mentally unstable puppet of the CIA. The American political establishment under President Johnson was reluctant to receive her lest she disturb the thaw they fondly imagined was about to ensue in relations with the USSR. A number of well-meaning American diplomats, journalists and intellectuals did, however, come to her aid, ensuring that she had enough money from the sale of Twenty Letters to a Friend to give her independence.

Alas, there was no effective support system for any Soviet defector in the late 1960s. Svetlana was vulnerable. She had some characteristically Russian qualities – for instance, saying what she thought whenever moved to anger. She had personality traits that some fancied were inherited from her father: suspecting conspiracies against her, regarding accidental slights as deliberately hostile acts. In reality, it was her inexperience with handling money in a capitalist state that undid her: whether as Stalin’s daughter or an ordinary Soviet citizen, she was used to a world where everything was given or withheld by the state and money was meaningless. Like other defectors or immigrants from the East, she was defenceless against the racketeers and cults that sought to ensnare her. She was easy prey for a Slavic, if not a Russian, ideological dictator, in this case Olgivanna Lazovich, the Montenegrin widow of Frank Lloyd Wright, who ran a commune at Taliesin in Arizona. The commune was as eager for money as for distinguished converts and Olgivanna helped manipulate Svetlana into marrying William Wesley Peters, the commune’s architect. Most of Svetlana’s funds were swallowed up there and in a cattle ranch run by Peters’s feckless son. After a couple of years’ wealth, Svetlana spent the rest of her life living hand-to-mouth. With Olga, her daughter by Peters, in tow, Svetlana wandered all over the USA, and then to England, in search of a Quaker school for her.

In 1984 Svetlana was manipulated again, either by the KGB directly or by her son Joseph at the KGB’s behest. She returned to the USSR and spent eighteen months there, mostly in Georgia, where she found her grandmother’s grave, before managing to get permission for herself and Olga to leave. In the USSR her daughter Katya, an alcoholic volcanologist, refused all contact with her, and Joseph avoided her. By 1986, now calling herself Lana Peters, Svetlana was back in the USA. A year later she finally, after many brief affairs, found love with Tom Turner. Like Singh, however, Turner was terminally ill. After his death Svetlana fled to France and then to Britain, suffering a heart attack and fighting suicidal impulses. She settled for a life of obscurity, opening up only occasionally to journalists: few knew, for instance, that Stalin’s daughter was marching with CND in London. She returned to the USA to die in 2011. Her relationship with Olga, at least, was happy, unlike any other relationship in three generations of the Stalin family.

For all Svetlana’s impulsive, irrational and often self-destructive decisions, there were many occasions when her judgements proved her acumen. If the US State Department had taken her on as an adviser, they would have done better in their negotiations with the USSR in its final stages: her assessments of all Stalin’s heirs, including Gorbachev, and what they might deliver were more accurate than those of Ronald Reagan’s professional advisers.

Rosemary Sullivan is such a gifted biographer that she could probably have enthralled the reader with seven hundred pages on any woman who defected from the USSR to the USA. This book is based less on archive and periodical sources than on interviews, and Sullivan has been able to get people who would normally have clenched their lips to talk freely, as though to an intimate friend. Furthermore, bar a few minor lapses, Sullivan’s command of the background, from Russian history to Stalin’s own private and political life, equals that of professional historians. Her main achievement, however, is to rescue from oblivion and obfuscation the progress of a remarkable woman from a childhood of unimaginable horror to serene old age.

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