By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Rosemary Sullivan
Narration by: Karen Cass
“Stalin’s Daughter” is known by many names; Svetlana being the best known. Married three times, and divorced three times, Svetlana Alliluyva, aka Svetlana Stalin, aka Lana Peters lives most of her life adrift. Rosemary Sullivan offers a picture of a girl-of-privilege grown to a woman of intellectual ability and fragile identity. Raised in a repressive environment, Svetlana Alliluyeva escapes communist Russia to negotiate with life in a wide world; i.e. a world that offers measures of freedom and independence suffused with contentment as well as anxiety. Svetlana experiences the success Americans covet and communists fail to understand.
Sullivan characterizes Svetlana as an intelligent woman hampered by emotional immaturity and familial insecurity. Joseph Stalin, the megalomaniacal misanthropic leader of the U.S.S.R., is a mentally abusive, and mostly absent father. At the age of six, Svetlana loses her mother to suicide.
She is largely raised by relatives who often disappear during and after The Terror of the late 1930s. Svetlana believes, in those years, that Stalin’s sycophantic followers like Lavrentiy Beria are the source of midnight calls and banishments. Eventually, Svetlana realizes the ideas of Russia’s NKVD (secret police apparatus) actions and Gulag exiles are initiated and endorsed by Joseph Stalin. Sullivan explains that Svetlana acknowledges Stalin’s growing anti-Semitism, general paranoia, and brutality.
Svetlana sees her father intermittently. Stalin often ridicules Svetlana’s personal relationships and rarely praises her accomplishments. In spite of years of confused adolescence, two failed marriages, and recurrent family conflicts, Svetlana grows into adulthood as the Princess of “The Man of Steel”. A theme in Sullivan’s depiction of Svetlana is a determination to succeed on her own terms; accompanied by an unquenchable desire for praise, particularly from men.
Svetlana bares three children, a son and daughter from different Russian fathers, and a daughter from an American architect. Her two Russian children, Joseph Alliluyev and Yekaterina Zhdanova, are left in Russia when Svetlana seeks asylum in 1967. Stalin is dead. Krushchev replaces The Man of Steel and eventually, in 1956, repudiates Stalinism as a cult of personality. Krushchev is turned out of office for malfeasance and replaced by Alexei Kosygin and Leonid Brezhnev who are in charge at the time of Svetlana’s defection.
Svetlana requests a visa to travel to India for the dissemination of Brajesh Singh’s ashes after he dies in Sochi. Singh is Svetlana’s lover rather than husband because the Soviet Union refuses to allow them to marry.
Surprisingly, the government allows Svetlana to leave Russia to spread Singh’s ashes. While in India, Svetlana enters the American Embassy in New Delhi. It is unclear as to whether Svetlana plans or just makes a spur of the moment decision to seek asylum. Sullivan suggests it is more of a gambler’s decision than a thoroughly thought-out plan. That may be but it is arguably a determined intelligent woman who has carefully considered a way to escape a repressive government that she no longer believes in. Adding to an argument that Svetlana plans her defection is suggested by Singh’s effort to have her un-published manuscript secretly delivered to India.
Svetlana’s decision has momentous political ramification. President Johnson is in the midst of negotiations with the U.S.S.R. and has little desire to offer asylum to the daughter of the former leader of the second most powerful country in the world. However, after accommodating Svetlana in the embassy, later in Italy, and finally in Switzerland, the United States offers a temporary visa to Ms. Alliluyva.
George Kennan, the former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union., becomes a sponsor for Svetlana after reading the manuscript of her early life in Russia. Kennan is thrilled by Svetlana’s well written memoir of her life in Stalinist Russia. Kennan connects Svetlana with an American law firm to represent her to a publisher for the manuscript. The book, “Twenty Letters to a Friend” is tremendously successful and provides over 1.5 million dollars to Svetlana in 1960s American dollars.
This tremendous amount of money means little to Svetlana according to Sullivan. Money has little meaning to a person raised in a country that teaches all material value belongs to the State; i.e. a State intended to provide for the needs of its citizens. This mind-set nearly bankrupts Svetlana when she marries her third and last husband in 1970, William Wesley Peters, an acolyte architect of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Sullivan explains that Peters is part of a cult-like following of Frank Lloyd Wright’s last wife, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright. Sullivan implies that Olgivanna recruited Svetlana to become part of the Taliesin West School of architecture in Arizona. Sullivan argues that Olgivanna acts as a matchmaker between Peters and Svetlana to get access to Svetlana’s fortune. Peters appears as a pawn in Olgivanna’s plan and Svetlana, because of her naïve view of money, pays off over $500,000 of Peters’ debt. Sullivan suggests Svetlana believes she can lure Peters away from Ogivanna’s influence by ridding him of his debt obligations. Because Svetlana gave little thought to the value of money, Sullivan’s argument may be correct. In any case, Svetlana turns to Kennan for help and divorces Peters after two years of marriage. Most of her fortune is gone and she is once again alone except for a daughter that is born from her marriage to Peters. Sullivan suggests that Olga, the daughter, gives Svetlana a reason to live.
The last chapters address Svetlana and her American daughters return to the U.S.S.R. The politics of re-engaging with Russian communism seem predictable. This is in the eighties when the burden of the cold war military build-up is crushing Russia and driving the American economy into greater debt.
Part of Svetlana’s reason for returning to Russia is to escape the cost of living in the United States. She is nearly broke. Svetlana cannot afford the cost of Olga’s private school education in the west and she knows that education is free in the U.S.S.R. The homecoming is less than expected, and the difficulty of Olga’s adjustment to a new language and culture at age 14 is too great. Return to America is inevitable.
Aside from some editing errors, the author’s cursory examination of Svetlana’s books, and its meager information about fascinating people (like S. I. Hayakawa), Sullivan has written an interesting biography. “Stalin’s Daughter” is not a scholarly work but it offers some credible evidence for the life of a most unusual historic figure. It is a fascinating book that revises one’s opinion of Svetlana’s intellect and view of life. At the same time, it gives glimpses of American and Russian nationalism and the cult-like Taliesin West School run by Oligivanna in Arizona. “Stalin’s Daughter” offers a case study for the sins and failings of totalitarian and capitalist countries.