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Review: ‘Stalin’s Daughter’ by Rosemary Sullivan

Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary

and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

By Rosemary Sullivan

Harper

752 pages, $35

BY STEPHANIE SHAPIRO

It’s all there, right on the cover: little Svetlana, about 6 or 7 years old, her head twisted, just a little, her odd smile hinting that her father’s wrist against her neck might hurt, just a little, but that she’d better not let any pain show. Smile and make it look real. Could anyone have helped her?

Her dad, the brutal despot Joseph Stalin, after all, had ordered many deaths and would order millions more before his own death in 1953. Even Svetlana’s aunts and uncles stopped visiting: they were sent to prison, Siberia or execution. Her mother committed suicide when Svetlana was 6 years old, leaving scars that never healed. 

Stalin’s brutality was no secret. Svetlana told friends that the only person her father ever feared was his own mother. A bizarre story involving Stalin plucking a live chicken may or may not have been apocryphal. With Stalin, it was hard to tell.

The story goes that Stalin ordered someone to meet him one winter day, alone, in a courtyard where some chickens were kept. Stalin picked up a rooster by the neck, plucked all its feathers and put the shivering bird back on the ground with a bit of grain. Then Stalin walked away, with the rooster huddling against Stalin’s boots, trying to keep warm.

The moral, the tyrant explained, was that “this is the way to rule people. Take everything they have away from them and they will follow you for a little food.”

In the spy and counterspy shadow world of the Kremlin in the 1930s and ’40s, a bodyguard accompanied Svetlana to the special primary school she attended. He sat in the back of the classroom, all day every day. She was never alone.

This is only the beginning of a life story that ended in 2011, after decades of Svetlana Stalin’s trying to stay out of the clutches of the secret police. Right up to the end, she managed to avoid their grasp.

Among other complications, Rosemary Sullivan’s new biography sets out to correct myths about Stalin’s daughter that have arisen over the decades. It names other Soviet defectors who suddenly and mysteriously reappeared after years away from the motherland and quotes some of the agents involved by name. Even spies apparently brag once in a while.

Sullivan takes a fresh look at previous evidence – true, erroneous or planted by antagonists of Svetlana herself and of the rest of her family, including her father. The author documents numerous interviews with people having firsthand knowledge of various situations. Just the travel involved in tracking down these sources must have been daunting, let alone getting some of them to talk.

One persistent myth involved stories of an imaginary Stalin fortune stashed in Switzerland; others dealt with events and characters related to Svetlana’s lifelong scrutiny by Soviet police and intelligence agencies. Then there are the maybes, plenty of them. Sources even argue about whether Svetlana insisted on wearing a gold cross necklace in the atheistic empire, just to spite political rivals. The verdict: “maybe.”

Besides bringing clarity to events, from personal minutiae to those that dominated the world stage, Sullivan also lists characters in categories: Stalin’s ministers and officials; Svetlana’s husbands in the U.S.S.R.; lovers in the U.S.S.R.; and friends and lovers in the United States, among many headings.

Sullivan and her various colleagues and assistants, all listed by name in the acknowledgments, have managed put this mountain of data into comprehensible order. The writing is clear; further details wait in the notes, bibliography, lists and index. The story keeps moving along.

Just keeping track of the myriad times Svetlana moved in and out of various homes in several countries had to have been a tedious task for Sullivan and her team. Sullivan lists them all: was it a house, an apartment? Did she buy it or rent it? Was she just “staying” with friends or did the Soviet government provide living quarters, the better to keep track of her activities? It’s all there, and more. The attention to detail does not slow down the narrative; rather, it gives us a sense of how unsettled a life Svetlana led.

Svetlana’s defection from the Soviet Union in 1967 and her life in the United States until her death in 2011 are widely known, vaguely, in the background. She re-defected to the Soviet Union in 1984, managed to escape again and then lived in England for several years while her U.S.-born daughter Olga attended a Quaker school near Cambridge. She ended her days in Wisconsin.

Leaving her two elder children in the Soviet Union, Svetlana had fled to the United States in a tragically comic series of events and lies, reluctantly aided by the CIA. Once here, she eventually married Wesley Peters, a follower of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. They lived in a kind of commune, run with an iron hand by Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Wright. Svetlana soon signed over to her husband and the Wright foundation the money she had put together from sales of her memoir. Later, she found occasional work as a translator. She gave birth to little Olga in 1971.

She spent the rest of her life dealing with lawsuits for and against her; staying a step ahead of harassment by the Soviets, especially the sadistic Lavrenty Beria and his secret police apparatus; trying to provide Olga with a decent education; working at reconciliation with her children who had remained in the Soviet Union; and moving from one home to another, one country to another.

Her death of cancer in a Wisconsin hospital was out of public view. Traumatized as a child by seeing her mother’s dead body, she ordered the hospital not to allow Olga to visit, sparing her daughter the same unhappiness. As it turned out, Olga didn’t get there in time, anyway.

Svetlana also had taken the precaution to have legal papers drawn up denying her son any access to her body. Even beyond the grave, she was a magnet for drama and struggle.

Sullivan has painted a full portrait of Stalin’s daughter. We meet a real person, struggling to make a life, in these pages. Despite a recent uptick in writing about Svetlana, Sullivan keeps her focus on her subject and away from scholarly disputes. If there’s anything a reader might want to know beyond the information here, academic interest in Svetlana and especially recently in her father, abounds. A resurgence of interest in the Stalin years is even being used in Russia to support recent actions of Vladimir Putin. Excuses are offered for the excesses of Stalin, his henchmen and his successors, and apparently by extension for those of Putin.

What we learn in this highly personal narrative helps us see through the national legacy of propaganda, past and present. From false-fronted Potemkin villages of Catherine the Great’s time to the bare-chested Putin in recent publicity shots, they’ve seen it all. Svetlana Stalin saw it close up.

She managed to evade forever those who sought her out for whatever purposes. Even in her 80s, she depended on local small town police to escort uninvited “autograph seekers” with heavy accents from the parlor of her nursing home. The long arm of tyranny reached out for her long after she might have been considered irrelevant, but the issues examined here are not likely to lose meaning any time soon. Rosemary Sullivan has poked into the shadows of the past and cast some light on how they affect us t

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.