The sad, strange life of Joseph Stalin’s daughter

Svetlana Alliluyeva spent a lifetime trying to escape the shadow of her father. Patricia Treble speaks to her biographer, Rosemary Sullivan

A rare photo of Marshal Josef Stalin holding his daughter, Svetlana. The photo was taken in 1937, at Stalin's country house in the suburbs of Moscow. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

A rare photo of Marshal Josef Stalin holding his daughter, Svetlana. The photo was taken in 1937, at Stalin’s country house in the suburbs of Moscow. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

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The first sentence of Svetlana Alliluyeva’s obituary was set from her birth in 1926, for she was the only daughter of Joseph Stalin, the notorious Soviet dictator, and one of the worst mass murderers in history. “Wherever I go, whether to Australia or some island, I will always be the political prisoner of my father’s name,” she said. Indeed, it’s by reading those obituaries that biographer Rosemary Sullivan decided there was a dramatic story that needed to be told. “Can you imagine living under the shadow of your father’s name—that name—for a lifetime?” Sullivan says. She spent 3 1/2 years researching and writing Stalin’s Daughter. The result is a compelling biography that reveals a complex, conflicted woman who was as stubborn as her father and as impetuously intelligent as her mother. In a life defined by tragedy and drama, she endured, even flourished. “What you must understand about Svetlana was that she had her father’s will, and his intelligence, she just didn’t have his evil,” said her nephew, and Stalin’s grandson, Alexander Burdonsky.

She could never escape her patrimony. Until his death in 1953, Stalin spent three decades imposing his paranoid will on the Soviet Union. At least 40 million people died. Svetlana Alliluyeva’s daughter, Chris, told of how her mother would fall into the night terrors of a child. “How could it not be, given the history?” asked Sullivan. While Alliluyeva was spared the starvation and privations inflicted on her countrymen, her childhood was marred by misfortune. Her early childhood—a magical time playing in the country with her grandparents–came to an abrupt end when her mother, Nadya Alliluyeva, committed suicide. Svetlana was just six. “She went away as an enemy,” she later recounted her father saying.

She was badly scarred by the sudden absence of her mother. Sullivan recounts a story told by Marfa Peshkova, granddaughter of writer Maxim Gorky. Svetlana was trying to dress her dolls in black fabric, telling Marfa, her childhood friend, “It’s Mommy’s dress. Mommy died and I want my dolls to be wearing Mommy’s dress.” With no guidance from her parents, Svetlana Alliluyeva was fortunate to have one ally, her nanny. “She had a Mary Poppins nanny, a woman who gave her love unconditionally, a moral sense,” says the writer. While her nanny gave her domestic normalcy, Alliluyeva lived in a “pseudo-czarist Bolshevik world, without the luxury but with all the protection.” In contrast to that domestic life were Stalin’s brutal policies of collectivization, which led to the Great Terror.

Soon, she understood her father’s power. Sullivan recounts how the 14-year-old noticed a friend crying at school. Galya’s father had been arrested during the night, and her mother had a letter she wanted Svetlana to give to Stalin. She did so that night, while Politburo members watched. Stalin was furious with her. “The NKVD [secret police] never makes mistakes,” he said. “Sometimes you are forced to go even against those you love.” Although Galya’s father was released, Svetlana learned a hard lesson: “The life of a man depended entirely on a word from my father.”

Her universe really began cracking when she fell for Alexei Kapler. “She knew it was dangerous,” Sullivan says. “She had a guard following her all the time, not just protecting her but watching, and in this love affair, which was a platonic love affair of a 17-year-old with a 39-year-old—and you wonder how this man had the courage or foolhardiness to pursue Stalin’s daughter—when her father discovered this, his days were numbered. He was arrested and she understood that her father did this.”

Undaunted, she fell in and out of love with dizzying regularity. In 1967, in the middle of the Cold War, she defected to the United States, published acclaimed memoirs that made her a millionaire, yet trusted the wrong people and ended up penniless. Each time, she picked herself up and moved on. She wrote to a friend, “I always believed in the romantic version of a man, and it took me a long time to see that person as he was.” Mexican diplomat Raoul Ortiz, who knew Alliluyeva during her stay in London, said in the book, “It is a mistake to think that Svetlana was running from something; rather she was always running toward something, a version of life that would be different, that would meet her expectations of what a contented life could be.”

In a section that reads like a mystery thriller, Sullivan recounts how Alliluyeva was “very well played” by Olgavana Wright, widow of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “She believed [Svetlana] had more than the $1.5 million she got for her book, but that she had Stalin’s [mythical] gold stashed during the Second World War,” the author says. “Olgavana was out for her money, and that was that.”

As she interviewed Alliluyeva’s friends and family—including her American daughter, Chris, who lives in Portland, Ore., and enjoys performing stand-up comedy—Sullivan marvelled at the woman’s enduring optimism: “When you cumulatively add up the tragedies she faced—the death of her mother at six; the arrest and later execution of her favourite aunt and uncle; the 10-year internment of her lover, an older man who had the temerity to woo Stalin’s daughter platonically; the later arrest of her aunts and cousin; the death of her deepest love, Brajesh Singh; the government’s refusal to allow her to marry him; then the problems that occurred in the United States—where did she find the fortitude to keep going?”

In addition to her CIA and FBI files, Sullivan was given access to all the files and letters collected by Robert Rayle, the CIA officer who escorted Alliluyeva to the West, and who became a lifelong friend. It was perhaps fitting that the most extraordinary event occurred in Russia. On the fourth night in Moscow, the author, her husband and two Canadian-Russian researchers were wakened at midnight in their rented apartment. It was the landlord. The police were downstairs. “We began to get very nervous,” she recalls. The police wanted to bring to the apartment the murder suspect who is believed to have killed a man in the apartment three months before. Finally, at around 2:30 a.m., eight officers, and the suspect, arrived. When the lead detective apologized for the lateness of the hour, the cops behind him were laughing. “In the old days we didn’t need to have to apologize,” one said in Russian.

While in Russia, Sullivan asked people whether they’d be interested in a biography of Stalin’s daughter. “No” was a common answer. “How boring,” another responded. They are wrong. Stalin’s Daughter is a captivating tale of intrigue, tragedy and survival.

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