(Stalin and Svetlana during her early teens)

When one thinks about the demonic characters that dominated the twentieth century most people do not focus on the impact their lives have had on their offspring.  But with Rosemary Sullivan’s remarkable new biography, STALIN’S DAUGHTER: THE EXTRAORDINARY AND TUMULTUOUS LIFE OF SVETLANA ALLILUYEVA we have just such a book.  Sullivan’s narrative and analysis is thoughtful and reasoned and by the conclusion of her 623 page effort the reader will feel they have entered a surreal world that explored not only Stalin’s child, but the author of the cult of personality that dominated Russian history from 1924 until his death in 1953.  What emerges is a portrait of a child who is raised in the ultimate dysfunctional family.  Svetlana had to endure the suicide of her mother, Nadya in 1932, the erratic emotional roll a coaster that was her father, and the demands of being the daughter of a man who was responsible either directly or indirectly for the deaths of between 20 and 40 million people. This leads to a flawed adulthood that saw four marriages, countless love affairs, and a wandering nature that saw her abandon her own children when she first defected to the United States in 1967, later returning to the Soviet Union in 1984 and again in 1986, then traveling to England and finally dying in the United States in 2011.

Sullivan has done an extraordinary job in piecing together Svetlana’s life.  Relying on her subject’s own published writings and private papers, interviews, and other documents she has prepared an incredible story that would be difficult to imagine.  Sullivan begins by describing Svetlana’s defection to the United States which she correctly begins a pattern of escapism and the need to fill an emotional hole in her psyche that is repeated throughout her life.  From this point on Sullivan successfully transitions to a description of a childhood growing up in the Kremlin and her interactions with her mother, Nadya, a deeply flawed woman who finally succumbed to the pressures of dealing with an abusive husband by committing suicide when her daughter was only six.  What amazed me was Sullivan’s description of the environment which Svetlana was raised.  Stalin’s household mirrored that of Tsarist royalty that the Bolshevik revolution was designed to replace.  Nannies, special schools, summer homes, pseudo palaces, tennis courts were all part of the picture.  Svetlana spent little time with her mother, and Sullivan remarks that her father was more affectionate toward her than her mother.  The result was that Svetlana became an emotionally needy child, a state of mind that would dominate her actions for the remainder of her life.

Sullivan is able to weave the major events of the Stalinist regime into her biography.  Purges, collectivization, show trials of the 1930s, the Nazi invasion of June, 1941, the devastation caused by World War II, and the Cold War are all portrayed in detail through the lens of Stalin’s daughter and the effect they had on her life.  The disappearance of family members and others who made her childhood secure made it very difficult for Svetlana as she had no idea why things were happening.  Her mother’s suicide was especially difficult, and once she learned the truth as to what occurred during the war her view of her father radically changed and she began to perceive him as the monster that he was.  Stalin’s impact on his daughter’s emotional life was profound as he prevented her from pursuing certain relationships, forced her to attend Kremlin events with his cronies late at night in the Kremlin and perform for them, forced her to attend certain schools, but most importantly played a game of withholding his parental love on and off throughout her childhood.

(Svetlana defects to the United States in 1967)

It is not surprising that Svetlana evolved into a very confused and emotionally flawed individual prone to impulsive actions to fill the vacuum in her life.  “Her first love, the prominent screenwriter Aleksei Kapler, was sent to labor camps when Stalin learned of their courtship.  Her half-brother Yakov, with whom she was close, perished in a German P.O.W. camp after Stalin refused a prisoner exchange to save him.  Her remaining brother, Vasili, died of alcoholism two days short of his 41st birthday.” (New York Times, “Stalin’s Daughter,” by Rosemary Sullivan, by Olga Grushin, June 12, 2015) Svetlana married Grigori Morozov, a Jewish college student when she was eighteen.  Stalin hated Jews as he always believed that there was a Jewish conspiracy against him throughout his life.  There was no marriage celebration and Stalin did not meet him before the wedding.  By eighteen, Svetlana was pregnant.  As her marriage deteriorated and she went through three painful abortions she sought the emotional support of her father that was not there.  In this instance and others, Sullivan points out that Svetlana “grew disparate as she did not know how to be alone.  Alone she felt totally exposed.  She thought she would be safe if only she could entwine her life in another, but then, once she had achieved this, she would feel suffocated, a pattern that would take decades to break, if she ever succeeded.” (136)

When her father finally died in 1953, Svetlana’s unstable psychological profile produces feelings of guilt that she was not a good daughter and that she could have done more to help their relationship.  Grief can distort one’s feelings and true to her nature her own willful blindness distorted her view of reality.  Following her father’s death Svetlana disavowed politics and tried to keep herself as anonymous as possible.  However, this goal was constrained by the fact that she was deemed as “state property” by the new government.  People’s reactions to her would always be filtered by their view of her father.  A greater impact on her life was Nikita Khrushchev’s “DeStalinization Speech” on February 25, 1956 before the Twentieth Party Congress in which the Soviet leader laid bare Stalin’s crimes.  Svetlana was terrified that she would be identified with her father and hated, so as usual she withdrew into isolation.  By 1957 she would change her name from Stalina to her mother’s maiden name, Alliluyeva.  She would become a gossip target because of her failed marriages and sexual affairs, reflecting the contempt that developed in Soviet society for her father.  Svetlana suffered from a compulsive need to turn each love affair into marriage.  No matter how many bad relationships she suffered she always held on to the belief that marriage would provide a bulwark against inevitable loss.  Sullivan is correct in arguing that “at core she was an emotional orphan with a tragic frailty that always threatened to sink her.” (222)

Sullivan explores the most important aspects of Svetlana’s journey as she prepares her first memoir TWENTY LETTERS TO A FRIEND.  The book explores her “cruel bereavements,” disappointments and losses as she describes her childhood and personal relationships.  The book revealed no state secrets and had no political agenda apart from condemning the Stalinist regime.  The book would become her financial ticket for the future, especially after she falls in love with Brajesh Singh, an Indian raj who was chronically ill.  They would marry, and Svetlana’s desire to return his ashes to India after he died leads her to defect to the United States.  The author’s discussion of Svetlana’s defection to the United States after visiting India are fascinating.  The diplomatic machinations among the Indian, Italian, Swiss and US governments reflect the political dynamite she represented visa vie the Soviet Union.  The work of George Kennan, the esteemed American diplomat and historian, who oversaw Svetlana’s life for decades is accurately described as he locates a publisher for her work and deals with the fallout from her defection and the complexity of her plight.  Sullivan’s analysis of Svetlana’s psyche are credible as she describes all aspects of her journey from abandonment of her family in Russia, to her settlement in the United States , and the Soviet campaign to defame her as a capitalist who was playing on her father’s name to become rich.

(Svetlana speaks to reporters in New York in 1967, not long after her defection)

Svetlana’s journey throughout this period was rife with emotional and financial failure as she had no clue how to manage her life.  This inability to control herself would lead to numerous personal disasters that make the reader feel a great deal of pity for Svetlana.  Sullivan’s descriptions of Svetlana’s many love affairs from the prism of her constant anxieties and fear of loneliness is eye opening.  She examines each love affair whether with the Princeton historian Louis Fischer or her four husbands and their impact on her personality and self-worth.  The most devastating relationship was her marriage to William Wendell Peters, an architect who was tied to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation at Taliesan located in Arizona, a communal situation controlled by a cult leader, Olgivanna Wright, the famed architect’s wife.  Svetlana’s marriage would result in financial ruin, a daughter, Olga, and divorce.  Svetlana’s life after Peters was dominated by how to raise her daughter which contributed to her wanderings that would eventually lead her to England, a return to the Soviet Union, back to England, and eventually the US.

Throughout the book the image of her father seems to dominate.  The author’s discussion of Svetlana’s second book ONLY ONE YEAR encapsulates her situation as she continued her struggle to maintain her reputation against Soviet attacks.  The book is more than a recapitulation of her voyage from India to the US.  She revisits her past as she excoriates her father’s actions and makes the argument that her father was solely responsible for events.  She lays part of the blame with those who cooperated without whom the events of the 1930s could not have occurred.  She commits the blasphemy in Soviet Communist Party eyes of linking her father’s behavior with Lenin, who she argues created the atmosphere for Stalin’s crimes to be carried out.  It is interesting to witness how the Soviet government’s attitude toward Svetlana evolves throughout the 1980s and 1990s as Mikhail Gorbachev tried to implement glasnost and perestroika.  Even as leaders of the Soviet Union devote less and less attention to Svetlana’s situation over time, she remains paranoid about what they might do to her to the extent that when she is approaching the end of her life she wants to make sure that the Russian government cannot take advantage of her demise.

(Svetlana at a roadside near her home in Wisconsin a year before she died)

Sullivan describes a woman who is caught in a cycle of emotional disasters throughout her life as she tries to establish meaningful relationships.  Svetlana rebounds from one crisis to another as her confidence suffers from extreme highs and lows.  Her impulsive nature and naiveté born of a need to fill the emotional abyss that dates back to her mother’s suicide appears to the underlying psychic motivation of her erratic behavior.  For Svetlana setting the historical record straight concerning her life’s story came to dominate her life once her marriage to Peters collapsed. In the end Svetlana’s perceptive nature in dealing with Russian history is offered as she correctly warns the west of who Vladimir Putin really is and what he hoped to achieve.  From her viewpoint, a restoration of Russian power by appealing to Russian nationalism, a prediction made in the late nineties and early two thousands that has come to pass.  In the end Svetlana Alliliuyeva’s life can be seen as a tragedy born of events and personalities that she could neither control nor understand.  Sullivan has written an exceptional biography dealing with another victim of Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror, his own daughter.


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