How Do You Solve a Problem Like Svetlana?
Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva
By Rosemary Sullivan
New York: HarperCollins, 2015, 752 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Lesley Rimmel
Rosemary Sullivan’s subtitle says it all: Svetlana Alliluyeva’s life was “extraordinary and tumultuous.” This is a hefty volume about a remarkable woman who seemed both familiar to me yet also sui generis. She endured countless tragedies, especially deaths and separations, partially relieved by interludes of relative happiness. She famously defected to the United States in 1967. But, as Alliluyeva complained, “Wherever I go, whether to Australia or some island, I will always be the political prisoner of my father’s name.” To the end of her life, she had to contend with the burden of being the only daughter (and only surviving child) of one of history’s “most brutal dictators,” writes Sullivan.With the help of Alliluyeva’s published writings, her voluminous correspondence, and interviews with many of those who knew her personally, Sullivan has crafted a solid biography that is nearly impossible to put down.
This monumental book begins with a preface outlining the arc of Alliluyeva’s eventful life, and it includes an extended family tree, helpful for keeping track of relatives and relationships. An expanded list of Alliluyeva’s most important friends, relatives, and other associates is appended to the main text.
The book unfolds as an almost Shakespearean drama, with Alliluyeva’s defection as the central dramatic point. Following the preface is a prologue that details the first days of her defection to the US Embassy in India, where she had gone to scatter the ashes of her would-be husband, Brajesh Singh, whom the Soviet government had refused to allow her to marry. Alliluyeva suddenly decided to take the opportunity to escape her treatment as a “national relic.” It was International Women’s Day, and she knew the Soviet Embassy staff would be too preoccupied with their libations to notice her absence until it was too late. This is an exciting and suspenseful chapter—but it does not spoil Sullivan’s extended treatment of the defection midway through the book, as I had feared it might. Instead, this device helps fortify readers for the tragedy-filled times to come.
The book next retraces Alliluyeva’s earliest years, “that place of sunshine,” as she called her childhood, to which she would “always turn … for solace.” What made those years so beguiling in Alliluyeva’s memory was the presence of her extended family, including the Svanidzes, Stalin’s in-laws through his late first wife Ekaterina, who had died shortly after the birth of their son Yakov, in 1907; and Stalin’s in-laws from his much younger second wife, Nadezhda (Nadya) Alliluyeva. In addition, members of Stalin’s circle often functioned as doting “uncles.”
There was only one missing link in this warm, “Chekhovian” household (as Sullivan describes it): Alliluyeva’s mother Nadya. She was a serious, even austere woman, devoted to being a good Communist and always endeavoring to upgrade her education and qualifications (a trait Alliluyeva would share), a disciplinarian who was often away from home because of work obligations. The only letter Alliluyeva ever received from her, at age six, was one admonishing her to behave better. It was 1932, a time of extreme stress in the country, with the first Five-Year-Plan of rushed industrialization and forced collectivization of agriculture creating violence, starvation, and resentment among the population. At a celebration of the fifteenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution for Kremlin leaders and their families in November, Stalin and Nadya suddenly had strong words, after which she returned to her apartment and shot herself to death.
Alliluyeva, at six-and-a-half, could only register her mother’s death as abandonment. She could not help identifying with her father, who (in his way) coddled her and made believe that she was his “little hostess,” manipulative as this was. Not until ten years later did Alliluyeva—under orders during the Great Patriotic War (World War II) to polish her English and study American history—find out the truth about her mother’s suicide, in a British newspaper. Along with the deaths of many of her relatives in the Great Terror of the late 1930s, for which she was discovering her father was largely responsible, the revelation was “shattering,” writes Sullivan. It led to her gradual break from her father and identification with the long-gone and ever-mysterious Nadya, although learning of the suicide did not remove Alliluyeva’s feeling of abandonment.
By the time Alliluyeva was a teenager, she was trying to pull away from the family confines in the Kremlin. Stalin was, like most parents, concerned about the men she dated. But unlike most teenaged girls, Alliluyeva had to put up with a bodyguard always tailing her, secret police agents rifling through her belongings and listening in on her phone calls—as well as the sentencing of one of her lovers to a labor camp. Life in this gilded cage brought her additional loneliness, which she tried to assuage through marriages: she had a great capacity and need for love. In both her personal and professional lives, she yearned for partnerships—but Stalin and his successors were always trying to thwart them. Her first marriage at eighteen to a Jewish friend of her brother’s did not win the blessing of the anti-Semitic Stalin, whose reactionary sexual politics led him to see Alliluyeva as “damaged goods” in any case. The marriage of these two young people lasted three years and brought them a son. Two more Soviet husbands (and one daughter) followed, with each union a year shorter than the previous one. There were numerous romances, all with top literary intellectuals, who appreciated Alliluyeva’s depth of thinking. When at last Alliluyeva—free of her father, who died in 1953—found the man she considered her “soulmate,” Brajesh Singh, he was already dying. The aftermath of Singh’s death set the scene for her hasty decision to defect. She did not even have time to consider how leaving would affect her son and daughter.
Alliluyeva’s life was almost evenly divided between the Soviet Union and the United States, and her life, work, and loves were equally turbulent in both countries. Her defection to the US was a huge media event, and the previously private Alliluyeva handled press conferences with aplomb. She published her first book, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967), a memoir in epistolary form of her family in the USSR; it achieved great success and, as her American handlers had hoped, helped to ensure that she was not dependent on US government financial support. She made many friends, including with literary figures and senior American specialists on Soviet affairs, such as the US diplomat George Kennan. His warm correspondence with Alliluyeva reveals an unexpected side of the usually distant Kennan, who helped set her up in Princeton, where she lived for a few years, until the late 1968 break-up of her tempestuous relationship with the author Louis Fischer, her neighbor.
The break-up left her feeling humiliated and betrayed, and her behavior was extreme. One evening she drove to Fischer’s house while his editorial assistant/new inamorata was with him. Alliluyeva banged on the door and demanded that he return the letters she had sent him. After an hour with no response, she broke the glass panels framing the door. The police found her “bleeding and hysterical,” writes Sullivan. Enraged by the ensuing gossip swirling around her, Alliluyeva later drove her car into Fischer’s house. Sullivan does not merely recount such events; she comments on them with sympathy and sensitivity. She also stands back and asks difficult questions. Was Alliluyeva mentally unstable? Was she paranoid? Her angry letters later in life to those who had earlier helped her, such as Kennan, were vindictive, and the relationships did not fully recover. As for paranoia, no one who lived in Stalin’s time or even afterward could survive without a certain dose of fear and caution, and it could be difficult to turn off that sense of watchfulness, as many émigrés can attest. And the KGB still had Alliluyeva in its sights.
Once she settled into the US, people from all over the world began writing to her, which she appreciated. Not long before she left Princeton to tour America by car, she received a life-changing letter from Olgivanna Wright, the third wife and widow of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Olgivanna, a Montenegrin whose mother had once ridden to battle on horseback against the Turks, was now the head of Wright’s architectural movement, the Taliesin Fellowship, members of which spent summers in Arizona. Olgivanna—a self-styled mystic who had built up her own “cult of personality” (the term Nikita Khrushchev famously applied to Stalin)—insisted that Alliluyeva visit on her way to California. Olgivanna had lost a daughter, also named Svetlana, in an accident, and she believed that she and Stalin’s daughter were destined to meet. Alliluyeva took the bait, imagining that Olgivanna might resemble the late Nadya.
Alliluyeva found Taliesin strange, but she stayed on, and in three weeks she was married again, to Wesley Peters, Taliesin’s chief architect and the widower of the late Sveltlana. Olgivanna Wright had blamed Peters for her daughter’s death, and his guilt made him easy to manipulate. Furthermore, Wright believed the false rumors that Stalin had hidden gold in Switzerland for his daughter—and the foundation’s leaders intended to obtain that money for Taliesin, to maintain its opulent lifestyle. While the wedding she had engineered was taking place, her agents quietly maneuvered to get Alliluyeva’s financial resources for the Fellowship. In an unfortunate coincidence, not long after the marriage, Alliluyeva asked to have her own money transferred from a trust to her personally, so she could access it without having to go through lawyers and trustees, which she found demeaning—but which her advisers had felt (with good reason) was prudent. Stalin had taught his daughter to live frugally, so until then, she had barely touched the $1.5 million in her account. But once married, she believed that it was in her interest as a wife to pay off Peters’s debts; because of his out-of-control shopping sprees these had mounted to half a million dollars.
Alliluyeva then learned that the Foundation had contacted her lawyers and requested that her charitable trust make annual contributions of $30,000 to the Foundation. Infuriated, she denied the request, but the Foundation managed to find other ways of obtaining at least one payment of $30,000 (it charged Alliluyeva for apartment repairs that architectural apprentices had performed for free). Finally, Alliluyeva realized that Wright was using her for her money and fame. She moved out of Taliesin and into an apartment fifteen minutes away, leaving open the possibility that Peters might wean himself from Wright and move in with her—although she was also pushing for a divorce. Peters tried to delay it, primarily because he was still spending Alliluyeva’s money. Marathon efforts by Alliluyeva’s lawyers produced a divorce in 1972. The marriage had been doomed from the start. The two could not even agree on what they disagreed about. Alliluyeva asserted that she could not stand Taliesin because it was too communal, saying, “I believe in private property … that’s why I left Russia.” Yet Peters feared that “her mind had been conditioned by years of Communist training to the point she rejects the highly individualized life.”
Wright, in taking advantage of someone still learning her way around the American financial system, engineered probably the worst betrayal of Alliluyeva’s life. Sullivan describes Wright’s machinations in the passive voice, but it is obvious that she was behind the dealings, with Peters acquiescing. In the end, the money Alliluyeva spent to pay off Peters’s debts and those of his grown son was wasted on luxuries and the son’s failed farm. Alliluyeva would spend the rest of her life trying to keep herself and Olga, her daughter with Peters, afloat—whether back East, in England, or in the USSR. Olga became the great love of her life.
Both the Soviets and the Americans sometimes alleged that Alliluyeva was a “princess.” In the USSR she had always had food and shelter, which was not a given for millions during the Stalin years. She had attended an elite school. Later, she had access to (relatively) safe abortion, when it was outlawed for other women. For a short time, she even had possession of her passport, which was how she managed to leave the USSR legally. But unlike her brother Vasily, who expected to be treated like a crown prince, Alliluyeva rarely pulled rank, and then usually for a just cause. She was not afraid to get her hands dirty, and preferred to do her own work, even when that included scrubbing floors.
Stalin’s Daughter ends beautifully: I was sobbing in the library. It rarely hits a false note. There are few errors and little in the Soviet section that I would dispute, while I learned a lot in the American part. I strongly urge readers to choose the full version of the book (rather than the abridged paperback). Alliluyeva would have liked it—except perhaps for the title.
Lesley Rimmel teaches Russian and Eurasian History at Oklahoma State University, where she is also a core faculty member of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program. Her research interests focus on political and social violence in the Soviet Union.