Book review: Stalin's daughter led a life in constant pursuit of happiness
"Wherever I go, whether to Australia or some island, I will always be the political prisoner of my father's name." Such was the lament of Svetlana Alliluyeva, whose life sentence it was to be the only daughter of Josef Stalin.
Born in 1926, she grew up with enormous privileges. Some called her the Princess of the Kremlin; there was even a perfume, Breath of Svetlana, named after her. To Stalin, she was his "little sparrow". Lavrenty Beria, the notorious head of the secret police, bounced her on his knee, and she in turn playfully bossed around Stalin's henchmen.
But grimness lurked all around, as the dictator signed death warrants and consigned millions to the gulag. Even her own relatives were not immune: uncles, aunts and cousins were executed or imprisoned. Her mother committed suicide in 1932 (an event still shrouded in some mystery) and a teenage boy with a crush on her was sent off to prison camp.
Svetlana spent a lifetime coming to terms with the cruelties wrought in her father's name. Her defection to the West in 1967 made her a cold war celebrity with a sinister pedigree. She could never quite escape the sobriquet "Stalin's daughter".
"You can't live your own life. You can't live any life. You exist only in reference to a name," she mused.
In a poignant biography, Canadian writer Rosemary Sullivan tells Alliluyeva's story with sympathy and sharp psychological insight. Sullivan does not cast Svetlana's life as an unmitigated tragedy or as a treacly triumph against the odds. There were certainly many setbacks, financial and emotional. She left two children behind in the Soviet Union; she was a compulsive mover, always in search of the next best place. She endured three divorces and several broken relationships. She struggled in the West and could never let go of her homeland. She returned, briefly, to the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
But this proud, stubborn, sincere, volatile, polarising woman, blessed with a sharp intellect and abundant literary gifts, was propelled by a rare life force. "She had an undaunted optimism, honed by years of surviving so many cruel bereavements, so many disappointments and losses," Sullivan observes. "Somehow, she continued to believe in the future."
If anything, Svetlana was a survivor. After Stalin's death in 1953, a seismic event, Svetlana pursued literary studies and friendships among the intelligentsia. She took her mother's last name. A love affair with a terminally ill Indian communist took her to India to scatter his ashes. She defected at the US embassy in New Delhi. What unfolded next is something out of a cold war thriller, as US officials scrambled to get Svetlana out of India before the Soviets found out what was afoot.
Her story made her a hot property, and she signed a book contract that earned her millions. But such a windfall made her a target. She found herself mixed up with Frank Lloyd Wright's widow, who ran a cult-like fellowship of the architect's disciples. She married one of them, Wes Peters, but it ended in shambles and financial distress because she gave him huge sums to try to get him out of debt.
As Sullivan notes, it is sadly ironic that Svetlana, raised in a world founded on mistrust and suspicion, was "an emotional orphan with a tragic fragility that always threatened to sink her". She was forever in search of the ideal partner, only to fall short. But her last marriage gave her a beloved daughter, Olga, who gave her full support to the author.
Stalin's Daughter soars on details culled from dozens of interviews and impressive archival research from KGB and CIA files. The glimpses into the Stalin household are invariably fascinating.
Sullivan deserves credit for making the wanderings of Alliluyeva - who died, almost penniless, in 2011 - not only comprehensible, but also unforgettably moving.
Stalin's Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper)
Tribune News Service