Review: Stalin’s Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan

2017: 6
3.5/5 stars
Published January 2015

Josef Stalin was an authoritarian dictator who was responsible for the lost of millions of lives, possibly, or more likely probably even more than were lost in the Holocaust. He was also a husband and father. His second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, was mother to a son, Vassili, and daughter, Svetlana and she died in 1932, likely by suicide which deeply affected a young Svetlana though she didn’t realize her mother’s death was suicide for some years. Svetlana was raised by a nanny and did not have much contact with her parents and after her mother died, her father continued to keep her at arms’ length most of the time, doling out small drips of affection now and then.

As she grew up, she became aware of her father’s policies and crimes, seeing friends and relatives imprisoned and disappear but as all Soviet citizens were aware, you kept your head down and your mouth shut. She went by her mother’s maiden name, Alliluyeva, which was not uncommon in that society. She married several times, had two children and after Stalin’s death, was awarded a pension and held down a job but in 1967 she defected to the west while in India where she had special permission to leave the USSR and had taken the ashes of her fiance to his home. It was a huge scandal and her character was decimated by the Soviet publicity machine.

She lived in the US, wrote a memoir, made a few friends. She married again and had another daughter in her 40s but the marriage didn’t last. Because of the way she was perceived, she generally went by “Lana Peters” and tried to keep who she really was quiet for her daughter’s sake and safety if nothing else. She often suspected the KGB of hoping to kidnap her back to the USSR.

She moved around a lot and also lived in England for awhile before going back to the USSR in 1984 even though she’d already become an American Citizen. She’d had to leave her first two children behind when she defected and had had no contact with them in over 15 years but apparently her son finally managed to get in touch and told her he was ill, would she return? She decided to return but then had very little contact with him anyway. She realized it could very well have been a KGB plot to get her back. She stayed for a couple of years but was able to leave again. She lived both in the US and the UK where her daughter went to school and finally back to the US where she eventually died in 2011.

Rosemary Sullivan has done a lot of research and spoken to a large number of people who knew Svetlana, including her daughter Olga and she seems to have had access to much of Svetlana’s correspondence,  excerpts of which are in the book as well. It’s an extensive biography and portrays a woman who was restless, mercurial, tempremental, mostly unhappy, but also intelligent and a talented writer. She moved a lot and I wonder if she was continually looking for something or running away from something. Her life is in turn interesting and frustrating to read about because it seems to me that sometimes she was the author of her own discontent or her own naivete.

I’ve read other descriptions of the woman that seem to contradict Ms. Sullivan’s descriptions but that only makes me think Svetlana had many sides to her and could present a different side to different people, probably keeping her real self closely guarded to all but the ones closest to her. And no wonder, since so many people rejected her and held against her the crimes of her father. She would be the recipient of hate mail, death threats and bullying and often used only for her connection to her father rather than for her own merits. An interesting biography of a woman who saw the USSR from the inside.

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