The Crown Jewels

Twenty Letters to a Friend

by Svetlana Alliluyeva
Harper & Row, 246 pp., $5.95

Svetlana Alliluyeva
Svetlana Alliluyeva; drawing by David Levine

I am not quite sure why the passing months make one feel less and less interested in Svetlana. Perhaps it is that everything she has experienced and remembered is now hard news, mercilessly distributed in every capital and hamlet. When you come now to the reading of her actual book there is, about some of it at least, the staleness of yesterday’s headlines; it is the eleven o’clock news telling you just as the seven o’clock news told you that when Stalin’s son failed in a suicide attempt the great leader screamed, “Even this he cannot do right.” (For my own part I “prefer” Stalin’s warning to Lenin’s widow that if she didn’t stop complaining he could “easily find someone else to be Lenin’s widow.”) More importantly, a resistance grows in our fertilized soil quite as naturally as that freedom of expression Svetlana came here to enjoy. This is our defense, for we have so often seen expression turn into unwanted evangelism and have discovered that he who tries, publicly, to find himself also finds the engulfing temptation, almost the necessity, of self-exploitation. Tragedy and courage, so profoundly covered for our information and pleasure, so exuberantly donated to the indifferent and interested alike, turn, the next dawn, into Pop. This is one of the oddities of our abundance.

Svetlana is a worthy and attractive person. Her memoirs have a great deal of interest and her general ideas none at all. Her first appearance on television was singularly calm, a triumph of virtuous determination and steady articulation. Those reassuring freckles, her aura of a sort of Soviet-induced moral rearmament could immediately be seen as readily adaptable to our own morality and purpose. For had not our own Virtue and Suffering, like hers, had its origin in the resistance to the same Soviet? She shares our urgent impulse to counter-revolution. She had, clarity, will, and all, been nurtured in the Kremlin, but she had chosen freedom. It was natural that she should flee to us. Still, that alone would be a bit spare and ideological. In addition she had buried her Indian lover, she had meditated on the Ganges, she had left her grown children, she had written it all down, she had found God. She arrived here, a capable messenger from the underworld, Pluto’s daughter, seeking light.

It is easy to make fun of her, to forget what she has suffered, and to be casual about her need for a new life and for freedom. It is perfectly right that she should come here if she wanted to do so. She did not trust the future in Russia, and had little reason to feel otherwise. The stupidity and the meanness of the bureaucracy die for a day, only to be reborn the next.

SVETLANA COULD NOT HAVE made it without her book. These pages are her crown jewels. And they are, for…

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