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…
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