The Soviet ruler’s fa­vorite child, Svet­lana, sur­vived much, as told in this em­pa­thetic ac­count of her life

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Wendy Smith Smith is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor of the Amer­i­can Scholar and the au­thor of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and Amer­ica, 1931-1940.”

“Why is it that I can­not find my own right way?” Svet­lana Alliluyeva asked her­self in 1986. She had re­jected the con­fin­ing priv­i­leges of be­ing Joseph Stalin’s daugh­ter when she de­fected from the Soviet Union in 1967, writ­ing to the son and daugh­ter she left be­hind that “[i]t is im­pos­si­ble to be al­ways a slave.” But she also proved ille­quipped for deal­ing with “this mod­ern jun­gle of free­dom” in the West.

It took fewer than two decades for Alliluyeva to run through the $1.5 mil­lion gar­nered by her mem­oir, “Twenty Let­ters to a Friend,” most of it ab­sorbed by the debts of the man she im­pul­sively wed only three weeks af­ter they met in 1970. The mar­riage didn’t last even two years; she spent the next decade mov­ing back and forth across the U.S. and to Eng­land with their daugh­ter Olga in tow. When she de­cided, again on the spur of the mo­ment, to re­turn to Rus­sia in 1984, she ce­mented many peo­ple’s im­pres­sion of her as an un­sta­ble loose can­non.

A prin­ci­pal virtue of Canadian critic and bi­og­ra­pher Rose­mary Sul­li­van’s em­pa­thetic “Stalin’s Daugh­ter: The Ex­tra­or­di­nary and Tu­mul­tuous Life of Svet­lana Alliluyeva” is the vivid sense it of­fers of Alliluyeva as a woman buf­feted by forces be­yond her con­trol, in­clud­ing her un­ruly emo­tions, in a world where her sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance over­shad­owed her in­di­vid­ual qual­i­ties.

Yes, Svet­lana Stalina was a Soviet “princess” (a word se­ri­ously overused here as it is in ev­ery­thing writ­ten about her), fa­vorite child of the U.S.S.R.’s most pow­er­ful man. She was also the shell­shocked sur­vivor of her mother’s sui­cide in 1932, when she was only 6, and the dis­ap­pear­ance of sev­eral close rel­a­tives dur­ing the purges or­ches­trated later in that decade by her fa­ther.

Sul­li­van’s ac­count of Svet­lana’s youth de­picts her os­cil­lat­ing be­tween com­pli­ance and re­bel­lion. She wed once in de­fi­ance of her fa­ther’s wishes, once to please him; both mar­riages failed. Af­ter Stalin died in 1953, she hoped “to be treated as or­di­nary” and live qui­etly with her two chil­dren. She took her mother’s maiden name, Alliluyeva; she got a mas­ter’s de­gree in Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture and went to work at the Gorky In­sti­tute of World Lit­er­a­ture, qui­etly de­fend­ing the dis­si­dent writ­ers who emerged dur­ing the ten­ta­tive thaw that fol­lowed Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech ac­knowl­edg­ing her fa­ther’s crimes.

Yet Alliluyeva still felt no one truly saw her. “She sim­ply couldn’t trust peo­ple,” said one of her few close friends. At the sug­ges­tion of an­other, she be­gan writ­ing a mem­oir chron­i­cling a life filled with “cruel be­reave­ments …dis­ap­point­ments and losses.” Af­ter she fell in love with Bra­jesh Singh, a for­eigner un­der­go­ing treat­ment in a Moscow hos­pi­tal, he ar­ranged to have the manuscript of “Twenty Let­ters to a Friend” smug­gled into his na­tive In­dia. The thaw was over by 1965; it wasn’t safe even for his daugh­ter to write can­didly about the Stalin years.

The Leonid Brezh­nev regime re­fused to reg­is­ter Alliluyeva’s mar­riage to the ter­mi­nally ill Singh, although it in­ex­pli­ca­bly per­mit­ted her to take his ashes to In­dia. Sul­li­van sug­gests that her ap­pear­ance at the Amer­i­can Em­bassy in New Delhi on March 6, 1967, was a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally hasty de­ci­sion; Alliluyeva wanted to stay in In­dia, but the gov­ern­ment feared of­fend­ing the U.S.S.R. The Lyn­don B. John­son ad­min­is­tra­tion, though pur­su­ing im­proved Soviet re­la­tions, couldn’t re­sist the pub­lic­ity coup of giv­ing asy­lum to Stalin’s daugh­ter; it helped ar­range a lu­cra­tive book deal so she could be ad­mit­ted as a pri­vate cit­i­zen vis­it­ing her pub­lisher.

It’s not easy to do jus­tice to Alliluyeva’s tur­bu­lent years in the U.S. As in­tel­li­gent as she was volatile, she yearned to lead a nor­mal “Amer­i­can” life yet re­mained Rus­sian to the core, a warm and loyal friend who held im­pla­ca­ble grudges and was ca­pa­ble of bit­terly break­ing with any­one she felt had be­trayed her.

Sul­li­van does a nice job of con­vey­ing her sub­ject’s point of view with­out ac­cept­ing it as the last word. She rec­og­nizes the need­i­ness that fu­eled Alliluyeva’s love af­fairs and ill-judged fi­nal mar­riage as well as the lin­ger­ing guilt that en­abled the Sovi­ets to ma­nip­u­late her one more time when they al­lowed her son to make con­tact in 1982. His claim that he was se­ri­ously ill pro­voked her abortive re­turn to the moth­er­land; that too lasted less than two years.

Iron­i­cally, Alliluyeva seems to have found peace in her fi­nal two decades, when she was re­duced to living in char­i­ta­ble hous­ing in the U.K. and then in se­nior res­i­dences in the United States. Per­haps the strug­gle to con­trol her life had been too much for her and she was re­lieved sim­ply to let it go. Sul­li­van paints a mov­ing pic­ture of her warm re­la­tion­ship with Olga, who ap­par­ently never re­sented her root­less, rest­less child­hood, and quotes in closing from a ten­der let­ter Alliluyeva left her daugh­ter upon her death. “I am al­ways with you,” she wrote, “in lov­ing ways.” At last, Stalin’s daugh­ter could write en­tirely as a pri­vate per­son.

Laski Dif­fu­sion / Getty Images / Hulton Ar­chive

SOVIET LEADER Joseph Stalin is shown with his daugh­ter, Svet­lana, in Moscow in 1933.

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