Understanding Stalin’s Daughter

stalin3Wow! What a book. Stalin’s Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan combines three things I love to read about—women’s lives, history and Russia. The book was heavy in detail as it follows the life of Svetlana Stalin over eighty-five years. True to the prediction of a palm-reader, her life was divided into three parts: her early years under her Father’s rule; her years as a young woman and mother, and her final years as a nomad following her defection to the United States in 1967.

Svetlana had some idea of her father’s power while she was growing up but it wasn’t until she got older that she realized the true degree of the horrors he had inflicted on his fellow Russians. Millions were executed or disappeared into gulags in Siberia on his orders, including members of his own and his wife’s family. Like many dictators, he was obsessively distrustful of everyone around him, assuming they were plotting his downfall or threatening the pursuit of communism. Born to an unaffectionate mother and a brute of a father, Sveltlana grew up in an atmosphere devoid of warmth and affection from anyone other than her nanny who shared her life for thirty years. Her mother committed suicide when Svetlana was only six years old and the truth was withheld from her until she was nineteen. Her aunts, her mother’s sisters, cousins and other family members were eventually all arrested and imprisoned under Stalin’s orders, often spending years in solitary confinement.

While she seemingly lived the life of a princess in the Kremlin, it was not easy. Her father was a mean, insulting bully who would drag his sleeping young daughter from her bed in her pyjamas at night and force her to dance on the table for the entertainment of his drunken, smoking cronies. As she became a teenager and young woman, he grew increasingly impatient and angry with her during their rare meetings. As an intelligent and challenging individual, Svetlana defied her father and married twice at a young age, producing a son Joseph from her first short-lived marriage and a daughter Katya from her second.

Svetlana's defection to the United States in 1967 was a major international incident.
Svetlana’s defection to the United States in 1967 attracted international attention with both the U.S. and Russia trying to put their own political spin on the event.

On an officially approved and chaperoned trip to India in 1967 to deliver the ashes of her dead common-law Indian husband, Svetlana made what seems to be an impulsive decision to defect. Her original hope to stay in India was politically impossible, so she gathered her little suitcase and walked into the American Embassy after hours, showed her passport indicating who she was and set in motion a series of keystone cops-style events that resulted in her being transported to the United States via Italy, accompanied by an American diplomat. She hoped to find a publisher for a book she had written and use the proceeds to support herself.

By this time, she had reverted to her mother’s maiden name, Alliluyev, in an unsuccessful attempt to distance herself from the sins of her father. She had numerous affairs before and after leaving Russia and not long after arriving in the United States, she fell prey to the avaricious schemes of Olgivanna Wright, widow of the late Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright operated a commune-like complex called Teliesin in Arizona and another in Wisconsin where students and followers of Wright’s strange personal doctrine lived and studied. By romantically matching the vulnerable Svetlana with her principal disciple, Wesley Peters, Wright and Peters were successful in relieving Svetlana of her entire fortune earned from her book deals.

As Lana Peters, she gave birth to her younger daughter, Olga at the age of forty-five.
As Lana Peters, she gave birth to her second daughter, Olga at the age of forty-five. Two grown children from earlier marriages remained in Russia.

A psychiatrist would have a field day analysing the actions and reactions of Svetlana Alliluyev over the course of her lifetime. She was incredibly needy and always in search of the love of a man to “complete her”. Realizing this fatal flaw in her character, she admitted, “All my life I was used to idealize and romanticize a man I loved, and it always took me a long and painful time to be able to see a man as he really is.” Sadly, while her marriage to Peters was brief, the union gave the forty-five-year old Svetlana, who now went by the name Lana Peters, a daughter Olga who eventually became her entire raison-d’être.

Life for Lana Peters was a series of extreme highs and lows. She was a gypsy who, with her young daughter in tow constantly moved homes, states and even countries in search of happiness and fulfillment. As an intelligent and educated woman (she earned her Masters’ Degree and had taught at the University of Moscow), she was constantly sabotaged by her own mercurial personality and the interference of those surrounding her. The author accurately characterizes her as having two modes: abject submission and total rebellion. Having never learned basic interpersonal skills as a child, she was always vulnerable to questionable influences. Unable to ever really understand the concept of or the ability to manage money, Svetlana spent the last half of her life in near-poverty, ultimately living in charity or government-provided accommodations in England and the United States.

The material for Stalin’s Daughter was painstakingly researched and documented in this book. Some readers may find it too detailed but I loved every page. Combined with the limited amount of reading I’ve done on Russian history and its people, it left me wanting more. As a woman, Svetlana was intelligent, educated, complex and totally unprepared for life outside what she had known in Russia. Her inside take on the various Russian leaders up to and including Putin was enlightening and provides a rare perspective on their individual characters. The author took pains to remain objective in her descriptions of the various layers that made up Svetlana Stalin. It was a fascinating read.

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