“Wherever I go, I always will be a political prisoner of my father’s name.” – Stalin’s daughter, speaking during an interview with Wisconsin State Journal, in 2010.
STALIN’S ‘LITTLE SPARROW’
Last week, news broke of the death of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, aged 85. Born Svetlana Stalina in 1926, Stalin’s only daughter by his second wife Nadezhda (who committed suicide in 1932), Svetlana adopted her mother’s surname after her father’s death in 1953, and would later claim that Stalin’s ‘loneliness’ after her mother’s suicide may have contributed to the ruthless barbarity displayed during his rule.
Stalin’s troubled relationship with his two sons has been well documented: his oldest son, Yakov, committed suicide while interned in a German concentration camp during the Second World War (after Stalin had refused to secure his release, in exchange for that of a prominent German General), while his younger son Vasili was a notorious alcoholic who died in 1962. However, Stalin appeared to dote on his only daughter, giving her the nickname ‘Little Sparrow’ . Svetlana’s early childhood was privileged and indulgent; she was feted as the ‘little princess of the Kremlin’, a ‘Soviet Shirley Temple’.
However, as she grew older and more independent, Svetlana too suffered at her father’s hands, later claiming in interviews that Stalin had ‘broken her life’. He had insisted that she study History rather than her preferred choice of Literature at Moscow University (Stalin contemptuously dismissed literature as ‘too bohemian’). He didn’t approve of her first love Aleksi Kapler, a much older Jewish filmmaker either, so Kapler was swiftly dispatched for a ten year stretch in a Siberian Gulag camp, where he died. In his later years, Stalin became distant and his behaviour towards Svetlana was described as increasingly violent and unpredictable.
DEFECTION TO THE USA
In 1967, during a trip to India, the world was stunned when Svetlana gave her KGB minders the slip and walked into the US Embassy to seek political asylum. Svetlana claimed she had defected due to the ‘denial of self-expression’ inflicted upon her in the USSR, publically burning her passport, condemning communism and denouncing Stalin as a ‘moral and spiritual monster’. However, she may also have been motivated by more personal concerns: after all she had lost many of her former privileges after Stalin’s death as the implementation of Destalinisation in the USSR meant the label ‘Stalin’s daughter’ became something of a curse rather than a blessing, and she had been further alienated by the Soviet authorities’ harsh treatment of her lover, Indian communist Brajesh Singh (who she was forbidden to marry) who had died in 1966.
Regardless of her true motivations, Svetlana’s defection was highly embarrassing for the Soviet communist party – there are suggestions that the KGB even considered the possibility of orchestrating a revenge assassination, while Svetlana herself later claimed that ‘my father would have shot me, for what I have done’ – and constituted a huge Cold War propaganda coup for the USA. After gaining US citizenship and remarrying in 1970, Svetlana adopted the name Lana Peters. She went on to write two memoirs, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967) and Only One Year (1969) – both became best sellers, making millions of dollars – and gave numeorus media interviews about her experiences.
Svetlana declared that her new life in the USA was ‘free, gay and full of bright colours’, but she frequently complained of loneliness and exclusion. This was exacerbated by the fact that she never settled in one place for very long and found it difficult to maintain lasting relationships. In 1984 she briefly returned to the USSR in a blaze of publicity, ultimately settling in Tblisi, Stalin’s Georgian hometown, but she returned to the USA in 1986. Svetlana settled in the UK for a while in the 1990s before returning to America, where she spent her final years. In later interviews, she claimed that she always felt ‘caught somewhere in between’ the USA and Russia, and that her life had been hampered because she had always been forced to live in her father’s shadow: ‘I don’t any longer have the pleasant illusion that I can be free of the label ‘Stalin’s daughter’’, she claimed in an interview conducted in 1990, and ‘you can’t regret your fate, though I do regret my mother didn’t marry a carpenter’. In other interviews, she defended Stalin – remembering how his face had shone with fatherly pride the first time she learned to drive a car, claiming she had loved and respected him, and that ‘many other Soviet officials’ also shared responsibility for the attrocities that had happened during his rule.
During the final years of her life, Svetlana settled in Wisconsin, where she largely faded from the public eye, until her death last week spurred a final flurry of media attention. For more insights into her life, see this fascinating obituary, published in the New York Times, while over at the London Review of Books, Inigo Thomas remembers her own meeting with Svetlana during her brief residence in London in 1992 in ‘Tea with Stalin’s Daughter’. Finally, over at the Financial Times, Simon Seabag-Motefiore’s article ‘Enduring Lessons of Stalin’s little sparrow’ provides a compelling account of Svetlana’s childhood, while also drawing wider parallels between her troubled life and the children of other notorious dictators: to be the daughter of a titan may be a burden, he concludes, but to be the son, a curse.