Lana Peters, 85, the reclusive daughter of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, whose defection to the West during the Cold War embarrassed the ruling communists and made her a best-selling author, died of colon cancer Nov. 22 in Wisconsin.
Her death was confirmed by Mary Turner, a coroner in Richland County, where Ms. Peters had lived off and on after becoming a U.S. citizen in the 1960s.
Ms. Peters’s defection in 1967 caused an international frenzy and was a public relations coup for an American government fighting communists in the jungles of Vietnam.
The Soviet premier, Alexei Kosygin, denounced Ms. Peters as “morally unstable” and a “sick person.”
At the time, Ms. Peters was known around the world by her Russian name, Svetlana Alliluyeva. She was the only daughter born to Stalin, whose repressive leadership condemned millions to death.
“I switched camps from the Marxists to the capitalists,” she recalled in a 2007 interview for the documentary “Svetlana About Svetlana.” But she said her identity was more complex than that and was never completely understood. She moved back to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, only to return to the United States more than a year later.
“People say, ‘Stalin’s daughter, Stalin’s daughter,’ meaning I’m supposed to walk around with a rifle and shoot the Americans. Or they say, ‘No, she came here. She is an American citizen.’ That means I’m with a bomb against the others. No, I’m neither one. I’m somewhere in between. That ‘somewhere in between’ they can’t understand.”
When she left the Soviet Union in 1966 for India, she planned to leave the ashes of her late third husband, an Indian citizen, and return home. Instead, she walked unannounced into the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and asked for political asylum. After a brief stay in Switzerland, she flew to the United States.
Ms. Peters carried with her a memoir she had written in 1963 about her life in the Soviet Union. “Twenty Letters to a Friend” was published within months of her arrival in the United States and became a best-seller.
In the book, she recalled her father, who died in 1953 after ruling the nation for 29 years, as a distant and paranoid man.
“He was a very simple man. Very rude. Very cruel,” Ms. Peters told the Wisconsin State Journal in a rare interview in 2010. “There was nothing in him that was complicated. He was very simple with us. He loved me and he wanted me to be with him and become an educated Marxist.”
Ms. Peters was raised by a nanny with whom she grew close after her mother’s death in 1932. She had two brothers, Vasili and Jacob. Jacob was captured by the Nazis in 1941 and died in a concentration camp. Vasili died an alcoholic at age 40.
Ms. Peters graduated from Moscow University in 1949, worked as a teacher and translator and traveled in Moscow’s literary circles before leaving the Soviet Union.
Upon her arrival in New York City in 1967, the 41-year-old said: “I have come here to seek the self-expression that has been denied me for so long in Russia.” She said she had come to doubt the communism she was taught growing up and believed there weren’t capitalists or communists, just good and bad human beings. She had also found religion and believed “it was impossible to exist without God in one’s heart.”
Her defection came at a high personal cost. She left two children behind in the Soviet Union — Josef and Yekaterina — from previous marriages. Both were upset by her departure, and she was never close to either again.
She was married four times — the last time to William Wesley Peters, an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright. They were married from 1970 to 1973 and had one daughter.
At age 58, Ms. Peters briefly returned to the Soviet Union with Olga in 1984, saying she wanted to be reunited with her children. Her Soviet citizenship was restored, and she denounced her time in the United States and Britain, saying she never really had freedom.
But more than a year later, she asked for and was given permission to leave after feuding with relatives. She returned to the United States and vowed never to go back to the Soviet Union. She went into seclusion in the last decades of her life.
Survivors include her daughter Olga, who now goes by Chrese Evans and lives in Portland, Ore. A son, Josef, died in 2008 at age 63 in Moscow, according to media reports in Russia. Yekaterina, who goes by Katya, is a scientist who studies an active volcano in eastern Siberia.
Stalin’s legacy appeared to haunt Ms. Peters throughout her life, although she tried to live outside her father’s shadow. She denounced his policies, which included sending millions into labor camps, but often said other Communist Party leaders shared the blame.
“I wish people could see what I’ve seen,” Lana Parshina, who interviewed Ms. Peters for “Svetlana About Svetlana,” said in an interview. “She was sensitive and could quote poetry and talk about various subjects. She was interested in what was going on in the world.”