Twenty Letters to a Friend
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 her purposes, enormously negotiable. She has considerable literary talent and has organized her book with great skill. The letter form is miraculously right, allowing her to move in and out of different periods of her life without formal strain. She is a good reporter of the actual events of her life and re-creates the atmosphere of her childhood with a pleasant and convincing naturalness. Her Kremlin is not political—it is, instead, the great house in which the poor, lonely little heroine lives. There she had everything Soviet society could confer, even the death, suicides, and disappearances. Stalin demanded this of his immediate family just as of the Soviet people as a whole.
Svetlana had private tutors, nurses, summer houses, home movies, pocket money—all turned a bit gloomy and morose in keeping with the character of her father’s reign, but interesting nevertheless. She says that her father was austere in his habits and private life, and the atmosphere about him does represent the style of the new class he created—created, destroyed, and created again, with a compulsive attachment to bureaucratic structure and a fear and hatred of the bureaucrats who ran it. Dachas were built and seldom used, gardens planned and left to ruin because there was no time for them; servants and bodyguards and ugly, dark halls. Stalin had known real poverty and there is in the life he made for himself and the style he allowed the bureaucracy to enjoy no attempt to imitate the wild, frenzied luxury one finds nowadays in the suddenly elevated leaders of poor countries. There is instead something suburban and just barely middle-class in the luxuries of the Soviet elite. But the privileges are real, if not inspiring.
Stalin demanded, in Bukharin’s phrase, a “corpse-like obedience,” but his daughter is not a corpse. She has a high conception of possibility and that curious, somewhat heavy self-confidence of those who have known hereditary advantage. She tends to fall in love with commoners (Jews) and the monarch threatens, but in all this there is, or so I read it, again that sturdy, grinding sense of self and the self’s rights that sustain her to a remarkable degree. There is in the daughter if not coldness, at least coolness, about family members and she has just enough necessary blindness: the blindness necessary to survive in the Stalin household. Blood ties were dangerous and in the end Svetlana had only her old nurse. And what a prophetic curiosity it is that she first knew of her mother’s suicide when she read it in an old copy of Life in 1942, when she was seventeen years old, and ten years after her mother’s death.
Stalin did not, apparently, have the ability to love and it is hard to feel Svetlana meant much to him even though she naturally longs to believe in his love and treasures whatever meager, affectionate memories she can call upon. His letters, quoted in the book, are written to a very young girl, but even allowing for that, they are brief, general, and read like those dutiful, very short notes children, rather than parents, are required to produce. Stalin’s children were always reminders of his painful experiences with their mothers: he treated them as he treated “his people,” with caprice, vindictiveness, suspicion, and extinction. Svetlana’s half-brother, by Stalin’s first wife, was a casualty of his father’s great cruelty and finally, in a German prison camp where he had been captured, killed himself by rushing onto an electrified fence. Stalin had refused to intervene on his behalf and indeed took the position that captured Russians were traitors and punished them and also their surviving Russian relatives.
VASILY, the other son and Svetlana’s full brother, came to a miserable end. His story is a terrible one and in its particular squalor and waste has its counterpart in American experience. Vasily was a spoiled, foolish, greedy alcoholic, corrupted by his position as Stalin’s son and corrupting everything about him. He shared, in full measure, his father’s violent, hateful nature. Svetlana tells his story with supreme candor—and a sympathy that is only “technical.” (She feels he was “ill” and needed “treatment.”) When Vasily was brought to his father’s deathbed, “he was drunk, as he often was by then, and he soon left. He went on drinking and raising cain in the servant’s quarters. He gave the doctors hell and shouted that they had killed or were killing our father.” He was made chief of aviation of the Moscow Military District when he was so far gone “he could no longer fly his own plane.” In Svetlana’s list of the misdeeds and dishonesties practiced by Vasily, many are surprisingly familiar to us. “He was surrounded by shady characters from the sports world, masseurs, and soccer players, trainers and ‘promoters’ who put him up to all kinds of ‘deals’ such as tampering with hockey and soccer teams and having swimming pools and Palaces of Culture and Sport put up at public expense.” What is this except the very worm in the Capitalist apple? Svetlana says that throughout the period before Stalin’s funeral, Vasily was in “a dreadful state and his behavior was appalling.” Later, after arrests and jail and wanderings and squalid decline he died. “He’d been on a strenuous drinking bout with some Georgians and never regained consciousness. The autopsy showed that his body was completely destroyed by alcohol. He was only forty-one years old.”
Just as Stalin does not come through as much of a father, so Svetlana finds her real strength in defiance of her father and in the elaborate revenge upon him which her defection represents. Her analysis of his crimes is not complete, and sympathetic persons will say that she really did not know the extent of his guilt. Actually, there is probably very little she didn’t know about her father and one could even guess that her late discovery of her mother’s suicide was not quite genuine and that she guessed something much earlier. Still, it would not be especially edifying for her, a daughter, to make the final gruesome accounting, and she puts much of the blame on Beria, seeing him as an evil force manipulating Stalin’s natural suspiciousness. It was more likely that the truth was just the opposite: that Beria’s cruel, opportunistic nature was used by Stalin. Also, Svetlana feels that the “system” was really at the bottom of the terrible suffering in Russia. The whole Party apparatus oppressed the people and destroyed the goodness of life. She feels doubtful that the accomplishments of the Revolution have been worth the price. She identifies with Dr. Zhivago in her sorrow over the destructiveness of the Revolution.
YET ALL THAT makes one feel much less spiritual elation about Svetlana than about Pasternak is very much to the point. It is not her “position” nor her failure to show the full horrors that stop us. We could hardly demand more of her in the rejection of her country, her hatred of Communism and enthusiasm for her new life. In the end, it is the quality of her mind, the lack of genuine intellectual and imaginative force that causes one unease. A passionate simplification characterizes her observations whenever she departs from the concrete, remembered detail. She appears as an ambitious, disciplined person, very determined in the pursuit of self-realization, clinging to the grand and the abstract rationalizing emotions, simple and yet self-righteous, profoundly—“naturally,” if you will—conservative.
Her great themes are extreme simplifications: she begins her book with a hymn to Nature. The woods, the little villages where they “still draw their water from wells and do their cooking on kerosene stoves.” Over and over in her memoirs, nature descriptions hang in the wings, to be brought forth like a good character to sweeten a sordid plot. Nature is innocence, beauty, and goodness. It is Peace. “After such cruel bereavements, after so many disappointments and losses, after thirty-seven years of a foolish, pointless, hopeless double life, I see you shining, my beloved, chaotic, all-knowing heartless Russia. You comfort me and light the way. Nothing will ever blacken you in my eyes. If your goodness and truth hadn’t lit my way, I’d have given up long ago…” (A note is appended to this, saying that at the time it was written she had no thought of leaving Russia, and instead had hope for real improvement and democracy.) What is so off-putting about this rhetorical, contrived counterpoint of nature is that it prevents her from saying what she really feels. She doesn’t love her father and she doesn’t love Russia and she took her ultimate revenge on them by escaping to the enemy. America is not just another place, a refuge; it is a land many believe to be seized with a dangerous, phobic fear and hatred of her native land.
Her second theme is the presence of a universalist, non-denominational God, also waiting in the wings, commenting upon and making bearable the horrors of reality. After a moving, courageous description of her father’s death, which she rightly saw as a deliverance for her and for the people of Russia, she writes, “My father died a difficult and terrible death. It was the first and so far the only time I have seen somebody die. God grants an easy death only to the just.” Svetlana does not seem to be well acquainted with His ways.
She left Russia and came into an outside world of revolutionary violence. She does not have much to say to that world because she shares what seems to be the political exhaustion of her country, the draining away in their long inward and outward civil war with Stalinism of all revolutionary hope and interest. Her fatigue, her nostalgia for simpler times tell us the one thing Americans do not want to hear, since they believe the Russians to be filled with a menacing revolutionary zeal. What is most interesting about Svetlana is not her revelations about the perfidy of Communism, which are more fully given elsewhere, but her personal strength, that sense of an amazing integrated self she and other favored Russians who have visited the West seem to have. Perhaps the little people are less strong and show all the ill effects and personal diminishment of a life without political freedom.
Part of her strength and that of other Russians comes from the consolation of the Russian past. Stalin could not—or did not—destroy Russian culture. Literature seems to be the Soviet citizen’s hold on sanity. Literature keeps alive his sense of what is true and valuable, the knowledge of human feelings. The great modern tradition of the Russian novel and Russian poetry fortunately concerned itself with just those questions of suffering and morality and the place of man in society that Stalin made a most awful day-to-day anguish. There seems to be no reason to doubt that starving prisoners lived on the poetry of Blok, that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky filled the emptiness inside. Perhaps a more perfect industrialization will do away with all that, as it has here.
It is hard to know what lessons America is trying to learn or teach through the story of Svetlana. There is something sad and something absurd in the amplitude of our exposure to her thoughts. All those names popping off the pages of the Bangor or the Louisville daily: Kirov and Bukharin and Nadya Allilluyeva, all dead and all so suddenly resurrected, shadowy, somehow Americanized. As for Svetlana herself we can only hope that she will not, as Pasternak said of the Soviet exploitation of Mayakovsky, be propagated here “like potatoes at the time of Catherine the Great.”