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Stalin: His Daughter & His Crimes

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Laski Diffusion/Getty Images
Joseph Stalin and his daughter Svetlana, Moscow, 1933

In her revealing biography of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, Rosemary Sullivan portrays a woman who was never able to find herself. Her yearnings for a lifelong partner were never fulfilled and she was constantly disappointed in her choices of places to call home. Yet she carried on with determination until 2011, when she died of cancer at the age of eighty-five, with a handful of devoted friends who stuck by her despite her unpredictable temperament, and an American-born daughter who loved her unconditionally until the end.

It is no wonder that Svetlana could not lead what most of us think of as a normal life, since she lived in the shadow of one of the most ruthless dictators of the twentieth century. (Her older brother, Vasily, died of alcoholism at age forty.) But Sullivan’s biography takes us beyond this obvious truth and helps us understand, through Svetlana’s stormy history, the nature of regimes that are as brutal as Stalin’s was.1

When her mother, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, committed suicide in 1932, Svetlana was six years old. She was then at the mercy of her father, who, as she wrote, became the “final, unquestioned authority for me in everything.” By this time Stalin was well on his way to total dictatorship of the Soviet state. He still had political enemies to get rid of—Nikolai Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, and Leon Trotsky among others—but they would soon be vanquished. Kamenev and Bukharin were sentenced to death in show trials during the Great Purges in the 1930s, and Trotsky (exiled in Mexico) was assassinated on Stalin’s orders in 1940. In the meantime, Svetlana became Stalin’s “little hostess” and “housekeeper,” who wrote mock orders to him and other Politburo members. She was thrown into the bizarre milieu of his social life, such as it was—the gatherings, with vodka and Georgian wine and often music, of Stalin and his henchmen, who were willing to do anything, including murder, in order to gain the favor of their leader.

For Svetlana there was a deeply sinister element in these occasions. Sullivan reproduces a famous photograph of her at around seven or eight, looking very uncomfortable on the lap of Lavrenty Beria, at the time party chief of Georgia, but soon to become the head of the NKVD (the secret police). There is also a lesser-known photograph in the Russian archives, dating to about the same time, of Beria reclining possessively with Svetlana in his arms during a vacation with Stalin on the Black Sea.2 Beria, who was later to be accused by numerous sources of being a sexual predator who habitually raped women, some very young, was a constant figure in Svetlana’s life until Stalin died in 1953. There were never suggestions that he abused her, but his implicit possessiveness of her at this young age may well have felt threatening.

With this upbringing, it is understandable that Svetlana had such evident difficulties in establishing relationships with men—she married and divorced four times—when she reached adulthood. In fact, Stalin’s treatment of his daughter is very telling. Khrushchev recalls in his memoirs a drunken evening at Stalin’s dacha, Blizhnaia, when the men were dancing with each other, and Svetlana, then in her mid-twenties, appeared. Stalin forced her to participate, much against her will. When she tried to stop, saying she was tired,

Stalin grabbed her by the forelock of her hair with his fist and pulled. I could see her face turning red and tears welling up in her eyes. I felt so sorry for Svetlanka. He pulled harder and dragged her back onto the dance floor.

Unfortunately for Svetlana, Stalin’s personal cruelty to her family was devastating. In the years leading up to World War II and afterward, he had most of her close relatives, those she depended on for solace and love, either shot or sent to the Gulag. They included Aleksandr Svanidze, Stalin’s brother-in-law from his first marriage, and Aleksandr’s wife Maria, both arrested during the purges for “anti-Soviet activities” and later executed; Nadezhda Alliluyeva’s beloved older sister, Anna Redens, sent to the Gulag in 1948, and her husband, Stanislav Redens, a high-ranking police official, executed in 1940; Svetlana’s first cousin on her mother’s side, Kyra Alliluyeva, arrested in 1948, and Kyra’s mother, Zhenya Alliluyeva, arrested in 1947 on bogus charges.

Svetlana and the members of her mother’s extended family blamed Beria for persecuting them, although this did not prevent Svetlana from spending a great deal of time at Beria’s dacha with his wife Nino and son Sergo when she was growing up. She even fell in love with Sergo and wanted to marry him, but he was already betrothed to Marfa Peshkova, the daughter of the writer Maxim Gorky. Svetlana, who had trouble controlling her passions, confronted Peshkova, saying that she had always loved Sergo. This unsuccessful effort to break up their engagement caused her to lose the friendship of both of them.

Beria had a personal rivalry with Stanislav Redens and was eager to have him eliminated as an “enemy of the people.” But Beria would never have dared to move against Stalin’s brother-in-law without the direct approval of the Soviet leader. Indeed, the evidence is overwhelming that Stalin was the driving force behind the persecution of Nadezhda’s family. Stalin also had Svetlana’s first lover, the Jewish movie director Aleksei Kapler, arrested during the war and sent to a gulag in Siberia after Kapler published a love letter—to a thinly disguised Svetlana—in Pravda. Stalin demanded that Svetlana give him all of Kapler’s letters and told her, “Your Kapler is a British spy. He’s under arrest.”

Biographers of Stalin have long speculated on what might have caused him to become such a morally depraved man. The eminent Russian historian Oleg Khlevniuk, in a new, carefully researched biography, dismisses the widely held belief that Stalin, a Georgian, was abused in his childhood by a drunken father and was brought up in dire financial circumstances:

By many measures, Stalin’s childhood was ordinary or even comfortable. A number of accounts attest that his father was not only a skilled cobbler, but also that he was able to read Georgian and converse in several languages, including Russian. His mother had received some home schooling and could also read and write in Georgian…. During [Stalin’s] early years, [his father] apparently was quite successful and his family was well provided for.

It is true that Stalin’s father was a drinker who occasionally beat his son and eventually abandoned his family, but his mother, Keke, Khlevniuk writes, was “a woman of strong character and a hard worker” who “did everything she could to facilitate [her son’s] education.” According to Khlevniuk, who cites excerpts from loving letters Stalin wrote to his mother in Georgia after he became the Soviet leader, he “felt genuine affection” for her.

Thanks to the determined efforts of his mother, Stalin, beginning at age nine, was able to attend the Gori Theological School from 1888 to 1894. The language of instruction was Russian, which would prove a huge advantage for him in making a career outside Georgia. By all accounts “Soso,” as he was called, was an excellent and ambitious student who was then able to go on to enroll in the Tiflis (Tblisi) Theological Seminary on a scholarship for the next four and a half years.

Khlevniuk describes how the stifling and repressive regime of the seminary, along with the strict enforcement of Russification—an insult to Georgian pride—created a spirit of rebellion in the young Stalin, as it did among many of his classmates. Stalin became infatuated with Marxism and joined an illegal social democratic group. Yet while his seminary experience may help us to understand how Stalin became a revolutionary Bolshevik, it does not explain why he later became what can only be described as a psychopath.

The suicide of Nadezhda Alliluyeva in 1932 may well have contributed to Stalin’s increasing lust for power and his paranoid distrust of those around him. By most accounts, the marriage of Stalin and Nadezhda, who was twenty-three years younger than her husband, had fallen apart. In his frequent outbursts of anger Stalin shouted obscenities at his wife. According to Sullivan, Nadezhda might also have been upset by reports of mass famine in the countryside, along with the growing political repression that Stalin and his fellow Bolsheviks were imposing. Svetlana herself eventually came to this conclusion. But Khlevniuk disagrees:

There is absolutely no hard evidence that Nadezhda objected to her husband’s policies…. Her letters give the impression that she, like the rest of the Bolshevik elite, was completely isolated from the suffering of tens of millions outside the Kremlin walls.

Whatever the reasons for his wife’s suicide—there were claims that she suffered from mental illness—it was a deep and humiliating blow to Stalin. He later told relatives: “She did a very bad thing…; she maimed me for the rest of my life.” Svetlana observed in her first book, Twenty Letters to a Friend, written in 1963:

Later, when I was grown up, I was told that my father had been terribly shaken [by the suicide]. He was shaken because he couldn’t understand why it had happened. Why had such a terrible stab in the back been dealt to him, of all people?

Sullivan writes that although Svetlana did not learn that her mother had committed suicide until she was a teenager, the tragedy also was a turning point for her: “Svetlana always divided her life into two parts: before and after her mother’s death, when her world changed utterly.” But one wonders how much Svetlana’s idealized vision of her mother corresponded with reality. Both Sullivan and Khlevniuk mention that Nadezhda Alliluyeva was distant with her children and entrusted them to nursemaids and governesses while she pursued an advanced technical education. In a letter written a month before she gave birth to Svetlana, Nadezhda expressed regret that she was going to be saddled with more family responsibilities.

Although Svetlana witnessed the disappearance of many close relatives, her privileged life as the dictator’s daughter shielded her from many of the horrors that were occurring in the Soviet Union. During the postwar years, Svetlana pursued her studies in modern history and later Russian literature at Moscow University with plans to do academic research. She had lovers, and married and divorced twice, bearing a boy and then a girl from the two marriages.

Meanwhile, her father was engaged in a fierce campaign of mass repression. According to Khlevniuk, between 1946 and 1952, seven million people (a million per year) were sentenced for political crimes. As of January 1953, two months before Stalin’s death, some 3 percent of the population was either in the Gulag or had been forced into internal exile. The situation was especially drastic in the newly annexed Baltic areas of the Soviet Union, where hundreds of thousands were executed or imprisoned during pacification campaigns.

How much did Svetlana know of these terrible abuses? Much later, in Only One Year, written in the United States five years after Twenty Letters, she claims that in 1948 she overheard a telephone conversation in which Stalin ordered the murder of the Jewish theater director Solomon Mikhoels, in a staged traffic accident. After that, she wrote:

It had become impossible to talk to him. I avoided meeting him, and he had no particular wish to see me…. I had no feeling left for my father, and after every meeting, I was in a hurry to get away.

In fact, Svetlana did continue to see Stalin and to send her “Papochka” (daddy), as she affectionately addressed him, loving letters. In Twenty Letters, Svetlana conveys little of this disillusionment with her father, even though Khrushchev had, in 1956, revealed Stalin’s crimes in his so-called Secret Speech at the Twentieth Communist Party Congress. (Svetlana was given a copy of the speech by Presidium member Anastas Mikoyan before Khrushchev delivered it.) The revelations were devastating for Svetlana, who began using her mother’s last name and whose numerous affairs became the subject of Kremlin gossip. Eleven years later, in 1967, she defected to the West, asking for asylum at the US embassy in New Delhi during a visit to India. Svetlana had traveled to India for the funeral of Brajesh Singh, an Indian Communist whom she had met and fallen in love with in Moscow. Her two-month stay in India convinced her that she could never go back to the Soviet Union, despite the fact that she would leave her two children, Joseph and Katya, behind.

In a news conference upon her arrival in the US, Svetlana was cautious in her words about Stalin, stressing that she had loved and respected him, and only acknowledging briefly that he had committed crimes. As Elizabeth Hardwick noted in these pages in 1967 in a review of Twenty Letters:

[Svetlana] has just enough necessary blindness: the blindness necessary to survive in the Stalin household…. 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.

Whatever Svetlana’s ambivalence, it is remarkable that she carried out the ultimate act of rebellion against her father, and the Soviet system, by defecting and openly denouncing the regime. As Sullivan’s biography demonstrates, Svetlana’s life in the West was a struggle, emotionally and financially. After she became drawn to the Taliesin Fellowship, dedicated to the memory of Frank Lloyd Wright, she had a disastrous marriage to the architect Wesley Peters, who oversaw the construction of the Guggenheim Museum and with whom she had her second daughter, Olga.

This was only the beginning of a series of failures that left her emotionally unbalanced and at times impoverished. She had stormy breakups with friends, accusing them of not doing enough to help her. They included the former US ambassador to Moscow, George Kennan, who had tried hard to support her. She had a change of heart about her home country, returning in 1984 with the intention of resuming her life as a Soviet citizen. After several months there with Olga, during which she tried unsuccessfully to reestablish relations with her two older children, Svetlana left the Soviet Union for good. After living in Bristol, England, she moved back to the US. She died in Wisconsin in 2011, not far from Taliesin, from which she was by then completely estranged.

Svetlana’s constant moves and the disruptions in her friendships may be seen as reflecting her troubled past. In reproaching and breaking with people in the West who tried to help her, she seemed almost paranoid, like her father; yet she was also capable of the kind of love and affection, especially for her daughter Olga, of which Stalin was completely devoid. She was right to realize that Stalin could not have defeated all his political rivals and determined the fate of millions without the complicity of many fellow Bolsheviks, including Stanislav Redens, her beloved uncle. Stalin was also able to exploit a docile population that was willing to be cowed into submission and accept the lies they were fed by state propaganda. To concentrate only on Stalin’s psychopathology as a cause of the terrible horrors of his era ignores the men who surrounded him and who were equally depraved.

That said, Khrushchev’s claims, in his 1956 Secret Speech, that much of the repression under Stalin was the work of Beria are not credible, however much Svetlana wanted to believe them at the time. The irony of making Beria the scapegoat for Stalin’s crimes is that Beria, while as evil and bloodthirsty as Stalin, never manipulated him. On the contrary, Beria and his colleagues were terrified of Stalin until the day he died. Beria managed to survive a huge threat to his position when Stalin initiated a purge of his Party allies in Georgia in 1952. But Beria remained aware, as did his colleagues, that the ax could fall at any moment.

As these two books make clear, there is much to be understood about Russia today by examining Soviet history. Khlevniuk’s description of the Stalinist system after the war has eerie similarities to contemporary Russia, particularly regarding the xenophobic anti-Western sentiment now used by the Kremlin to justify Russian aggression in Ukraine. “Like any totalitarian regime,” Khlevniuk observes,

the Stalinist dictatorship needed to keep society mobilized. This goal was achieved both by provoking anxiety about external threats and by using domestic groups as scapegoats, thereby channeling dissatisfaction away from the country’s leaders.

In the case of Stalin after the war the domestic enemy became Jews, who were increasingly portrayed as in collusion with the United States. At a meeting of the top Party leadership in late 1952, Stalin stated: “Any Jew-nationalist is an agent of American intelligence. Jew-nationalists believe that their nation was saved by the USA.”

Today also the Kremlin accuses members of the political opposition of collaborating with the West in an effort to destroy Russia. And for some there have been terrible consequences. Boris Nemtsov, the outspoken Russian democrat, was gunned down near the Kremlin in late February of this year. Nemtsov was compiling an exposé of Russian involvement in Ukraine. We still do not know who ordered his murder, but it sent a clear message to other Russian democrats that they could be the next victims. Vladimir Putin has created a climate of fear that recalls Stalin’s times.

In the postwar period Stalin presided over a major investment in the Soviet armed forces, particularly in nuclear weapons, while the economic situation deteriorated. (Khlevniuk writes that military expenditures grew by 60 percent in 1951 and 40 percent in 1952.) People in rural areas, where there was complete stagnation in agriculture, suffered the most because of the new obligations and taxes imposed on collective farms. According to official Soviet statistics, there were no more cattle in the Soviet Union in early 1953 than there had been in 1939. But urban areas suffered as well, particularly because of chronically underfunded housing. In early 1953 the average size of residential housing in Soviet cities was 4.5 square meters per resident. Fewer than half of such units had running water or sewage hookups. And only 26 percent had central heating.

Like Stalin, Putin is also pursuing an ambitious military program. He announced in June that the Kremlin would spend over $400 billion during the next five years on new ships, planes, tanks, and nuclear missiles. And again, the burden will fall on Russian citizens, who are already experiencing a decline in real wages, the deterioration of roads, education and health care, and even food shortages. This situation is only partly due to the West’s economic sanctions and the steep drop in oil prices. The Kremlin has for years neglected Russia’s infrastructure, and inefficient, corrupt state enterprises dominate the country’s economy.

Just as in Stalin’s time, Russian people today are fed a continuous stream of nationalist, anti-Western propaganda that appeals to their sense of patriotism. Although the use of the Internet continues to grow in Russia, state- controlled television is still the main source of news for over 50 percent of the population. Putin’s personality cult is fast approaching that of Stalin. The adulation of Putin as the father of the Russian nation has grown significantly since the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine. Russia’s increasing international isolation has created a siege mentality in the country, which lends itself to hero-worship of the national leader.

Stalin considered himself indispensable—his countrymen felt the same way—and made no plans for a successor. When he died suddenly in March 1953, his heirs had to pull themselves together quickly to form a ruling oligarchy. But in the absence of an established process for political succession, their coalition soon fell apart and a bitter power struggle took place, ending in Beria’s arrest and execution.

Putin has a similar hold on the political succession process today. Russia has presidential elections (now every six years), but opposition to the Kremlin has become so marginalized that elections are meaningless. In all likelihood the winning presidential candidate in 2018 will be Putin, and in 2024 (Putin cannot have more than two successive terms as president) there will be a Kremlin-designated successor, just as in Soviet days (and as in 2008 when Dmitri Medvedev filled in between Putin’s presidencies). This scenario will be averted only if public dissatisfaction with the Kremlin grows significantly as Russia’s economic difficulties become more acute.

In the conclusion to his book, Khlevniuk expresses concern that “a significant portion of Russian society seeks recipes for the present by looking to the Stalinist past.” He asks rhetorically whether Russia is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the Stalin period. In fact the process of repetition has already begun. As Dmitry Gudkov, a courageously outspoken liberal deputy in the Russian Duma, recently said:

The legitimate state is being destroyed by censorship and persecutions. Hardly anybody has the power to stop the country [from] sinking into obscurantism and lawlessness…. The clans who really make decisions in Russia calculate their moves by reading Putin’s gestures, his moods. Nothing makes sense any longer.

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    It is worth noting that Svetlana Alliluyeva, like her father, still holds considerable interest for Russians. Several documentaries on her life, with film footage from the archives and insightful interviews with her relatives, have appeared in Russia over the past few years and can be found on the Internet. 

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    This photograph is reproduced in my book Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant (Princeton University Press, 1993).