Editor’s Note: This piece appeared in the September 21 issue of National Review. Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators, is published tomorrow.
Svetlana Stalin merits a little space in this magazine. First, she was an important and fascinating figure of the 20th century. But second, she declared National Review her favorite publication — and gave to us financially. What would her father, Josef Stalin, have said? But that was the least of her offenses, from a Stalinist point of view.
I got to know Svetlana a bit, not in the flesh, but in preparing a new book, Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators. She is the most famous of all such sons and daughters, unless you count the sons who succeeded their father in “office.” I speak primarily of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti; Kim Jong-il in North Korea; Bashar Assad in Syria; and, back in North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Svetlana is famous for two reasons above all. The first is that she defected from the Soviet Union to the United States, causing a worldwide sensation. But the second is even more important: She was a memoirist, and a superb one. She got it all down, in three books, two of which should endure indefinitely, and the third of which is worthwhile.
In my book, I argue that Svetlana was great, or at least touched by greatness. I will tell you why here, but first I will give you a sense of her life, in barest outline. Remember, she took three volumes to relate that life — and others have written their own books about her.
She was born in 1926, when her father was firmly entrenched in the Kremlin. She had an older brother, Vasily, and an even older half-brother, Yakov. (Their lives rate their own books or chapters, believe me.) Josef Stalin adored his daughter, and she adored him back. He felt more tenderly toward her than he did toward any other human being. This was true during her childhood, at least. Things changed, as will be made clear. Svetlana’s mother was Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva (“Nadya”). She was not the maternal type. She was the Bolshevik type, devoted to Party and work, not to “bourgeois” interests such as family. Later in life, Svetlana could not remember that her mother had ever hugged, praised, or kissed her. Nadya thought that her husband coddled their daughter. Imagine, if you can, a household in which Stalin is the more loving parent.
Nadya killed herself in 1932, at age 31. Svetlana was six. She was told that her mother had died of a burst appendix. She would not find out the truth until ten years later.
After Nadya’s death, Stalin and his daughter continued to have a tender, playful relationship. You can imagine how Svetlana felt about her father: Not only was he her own adored dad — and it’s natural for little girls to adore their dad — he was the king of the whole wide world. In a memoir, she would write that she never heard her father’s name except with such words as “great” and “wise” attached to it. She was a bookish child, even an intellectual one. She went to school with other Kremlin children. She had a faithful, loving nanny, Alexandra Andreyevna. Basically, she was happy.
But shadows crept in. For example, her schoolmates would simply disappear, with some regularity. What happened? Their fathers had fallen from favor and been arrested (or imprisoned or killed). Sometimes, a schoolmate would give Svetlana a note to pass to her father. It had been written by the schoolmate’s mother, whose husband had been dragged away in the night. Could Comrade Stalin do something? The dictator got sick of these notes, and told his daughter not to serve as a “post-office box.” Worse — much worse — Svetlana’s own relatives disappeared: her aunts, uncles, and cousins. These were members of Nadya’s family. Stalin had taken her suicide, quite naturally, as a gross insult and betrayal. He punished her family for it. In one of those memoirs, Svetlana writes that it was hard to think of her relatives as “enemies of the people,” as the official propaganda had it. “I could only assume that they must have become the victims of some frightful mix-up, which ‘even Father himself’ could not disentangle.” There would come a time, however, when she realized that it was all his doing. And he had an explanation for her: “They knew too much. They babbled a lot. It played into the hands of our enemies.”
It takes a very big imagination to slip into the skin of a girl whose beloved relatives, after her mother’s death, were killed by her own beloved father.
You and I can do our best to slip into the skin of such people as Svetlana Stalin. To be in sympathy with them. But it takes a very big imagination to slip into the skin of a girl whose beloved relatives, after her mother’s death, were killed by her own beloved father.
She was 16 when she found out about her mother — about the way she died. She read about it in a foreign magazine. She did not want to believe it, but she could. And “something in me was destroyed.” Something else happened at about that time: She had her first romance — a romance that was all wrong — which her father broke up in brutal fashion. From then on, he had very little to do with her. She barely saw him during the last ten years of his life.
She went to Moscow University, and soon received a marriage proposal from a classmate, Grigory Morozov. He was Jewish. This could spell trouble. She went to her father to tell him about the proposal. It was May, and the weather was splendid. Father and daughter sat outside. For a long time, he just stared at the trees, saying nothing. Suddenly, he said, “Yes, it’s spring. To hell with you. Do as you like.” He set one condition on the marriage: that the groom and husband never set foot in his house. Indeed, Stalin never met his son-in-law.
Svetlana and Grigory had a son, but their marriage broke up after three years. Svetlana then married someone else — someone far more suitable, in Stalinist eyes. He was a Kremlin prince, Yuri Zhdanov, son of the late Andrei Zhdanov, who had been a member of the dictator’s inner circle. They had a daughter. This marriage lasted two years.
“My father died a difficult and terrible death,” writes Svetlana. In a kind of reunion, she was at his bedside for three days. Stalin’s regular doctors were in prison — he was purging everyone, in that last period — but there were others, working busily, applying leeches to his neck and head. He died on March 5, 1953. (So did Sergei Prokofiev, the composer, who received less fanfare.)
Four years later, Svetlana did something she had long wanted to do: change her name. Adopting the family name of her mother, she became Svetlana Alliluyeva. “I could no longer tolerate the name of Stalin,” she writes. “Its sharp metallic sound lacerated my ears, my eyes, my heart.” The name “Alliluyeva” is akin to “Hallelujah,” meaning “Praise ye the Lord.” It came to fit Svetlana better than it had her mother, whose god was Communism. In 1962, Svetlana was baptized in the Orthodox Church. Explaining this step, she writes, “The sacrament of baptism consists in rejecting evil, the lie. I believed in ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ I believed in truth without violence and bloodshed. I believed that the Supreme Mind, not vain man, governed the world. I believed that the Spirit of Truth was stronger than material values. And when all of this had entered my heart, the shreds of Marxism-Leninism taught me since childhood vanished like smoke.”
In 1963, she met an older man named Brajesh Singh, an Indian Communist — who was losing his faith in Communism. They fell in love and wanted to get married. For this, they needed the state’s permission, so Svetlana went to see Kosygin, in her father’s old office. He denied her. Svetlana and Brajesh lived together, however, in an unofficial marriage. He died in 1966. She wanted to fulfill his wish to have his ashes spread on the Ganges — so she went to see Kosygin again. Remarkably, he let her go to India, for one month. Off she went, urn in hand. It was a shock to be out of the Soviet Union, and a pleasant one. On a fateful Monday, Svetlana walked into the U.S. embassy and requested asylum. An American on duty said to her, “So you say your father was Stalin? The Stalin?”
She was flown to Rome that very night. From there, she went to Switzerland. She was enchanted by this country, as most people are, and she would gladly have stayed there. But the Swiss government required that she not involve herself in politics in any way — and that was unacceptable to her. “To remain silent for another forty years could have been achieved just as well in the U.S.S.R.,” she writes. She wanted to explain, to one and all, “why I was cutting myself off forever from the Communist world.” On April 21, 1967, she landed at Kennedy Airport in New York. Upon bounding down the steps from her plane, she said, “Hello! I’m happy to be here!”
Svetlana was restless, moving from place to place, and religion to religion. She became disenchanted with America, with life.
She had not come empty-handed. She carried a manuscript: Twenty Letters to a Friend, which she had composed in the summer of 1963. She wrote the book at great speed: in just 35 days. It is all about her life, an outpouring of memories and thoughts, a testament. It became a bestseller. In 1969, she had another bestseller, Only One Year — about everything that had happened to her since her defection.
The early 1970s saw a very strange episode, in a life of very strange episodes. The widow of Frank Lloyd Wright, the great architect, invited Svetlana to stay with her. She herself had had a daughter Svetlana, killed in a car crash. She felt a mystical connection to this new and famous Svetlana. Her own Svetlana had been married to Wesley Peters, the architect’s senior apprentice. Mrs. Wright wanted the new Svetlana to meet Peters and like him. She did. They were married in three weeks. Now Stalin’s daughter was “Lana Peters.” She and Wes had a baby, Olga. The marriage broke up shortly after.
Svetlana was restless, moving from place to place, and religion to religion. She became disenchanted with America, with life. Her fame was dimming, and she resented the daily chores of motherhood. She wrote a third memoir, The Faraway Music, a slipshod affair, expressing the new bitterness (and also telling some amazing stories). Svetlana actually thought of going back to the Soviet Union. Which she did, in 1984. She quickly regretted it, though. She got out as soon as she could, which was 18 months after her arrival. Landing at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, she said, “I had to leave for a while to realize, ‘Oh, my God, how wonderful it is’” — the “it” being America.
She was still restless, moving from place to place, in Europe and America. She knew poverty. For a while, she lived in Portland, Ore., where her daughter Olga was managing a vintage-clothing shop. Svetlana spent her last few years in a nursing home in Richland Center, Wis. She liked to sew and to read books. Pictures show her a rather beautiful old lady, who had weathered a lot. She who was born a Kremlin princess in 1926 — the princess of the whole, vast USSR — died in that Wisconsin nursing home in 2011, age 85.
So, there you have the life, in barest outline. Why do I call her great, or touched with greatness? First, there are the memoirs — the first two of them. She partially renounced them, in different moods. But they are brave, beautiful, and true. She ends Twenty Letters with a tribute to her nanny, who was “dearer” to her than “anyone on earth.” “If it hadn’t been for the even, steady warmth given off by this large and kindly person, I might long ago have gone out of my mind.” Svetlana’s books are teeming with stories and observations. But she is more than a storyteller or observer. She is a Sovietologist, to use a once-common term. She is enlightening — sometimes profound — on Stalin, the Soviet Union, and totalitarian society in general. She had great material, you might say. Yes, but no one would have wished the life for himself, just to have the material. Svetlana occasionally said that she wished her mother had married a carpenter.
About her father, she could be “conflicted” (to indulge modern psychological parlance). She once stayed at the home of David Pryce-Jones, the British writer who is now a senior editor of this magazine, and his wife, Clarissa. In his forthcoming memoir, Pryce-Jones tells us something important about their guest: “Having said point blank that she refused to talk about her father, she would come down from her room and talk exclusively about him, tormented that she couldn’t help loving a father who she knew was a monster.” Elsewhere, at another time, she said, “My father would have shot me for what I have done.” That is unquestionably true.
She made mistakes — her children would certainly agree — but she had a conscience. And that conscience broke through to see Stalin and the Soviet Union for what they were.
I believe that Svetlana did her best, under the circumstances — the circumstances of her almost unimaginable life. Could anyone have done better? Could anyone have turned out more “normal,” less crazy, more productive? She made mistakes — her children would certainly agree — but she had a conscience. And that conscience broke through to see Stalin and the Soviet Union for what they were. That was no great achievement, you might argue: Anyone, even a daughter, could see that Stalin and the Soviet Union were monstrous! Really? Consider a few things.
In Twenty Letters, Svetlana writes that the other top men in the Soviet Union — Khrushchev, Bulganin, et al. — were “under the spell” of her father’s “extraordinary personality, which carried people away and was utterly impossible to resist. Many people knew this through their own experience — of these, some admit it, though others now deny it.” Svetlana’s own relatives, whom her father persecuted: They remained worshipful of him (if they survived). They absolved him of everything. The guilty party must have been Beria or some other miscreant beyond the great man’s control. “Josef Vissarionovich” could do no wrong. This was the sort of effect that Stalin had on people, incomprehensible as it may be. But his lone daughter broke through the mesmerism, or “spell,” as she called it. Her conscience rose in rebellion against her father and his state — which makes her very rare among the sons and daughters of dictators, I assure you.
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In Only One Year, Svetlana writes, “Many people today find it easier to think of [Stalin] as a coarse physical monster. Actually, he was a moral and spiritual monster. This is far more terrifying. But it’s the truth.” She could have stayed quiet in Switzerland, enjoying a lovely bucolic life. But she went to a place where she could express herself and tell urgent truths. She was sometimes laudatory of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian dissident, and sometimes petulantly critical. But, to a large degree, she followed his maxim of “Live not by lies.” That is what is great about Svetlana Alliluyeva, née Stalin.
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