Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His latest book is “Back in Blighty: The British at Home in World War One.”
By Rosemary Sullivan
Harper. 741 pp. $35
Svetlana Alliluyeva, Joseph Stalin’s daughter, was seldom alone but always lonely. Her life was crowded with people intending to manipulate, swindle or exploit her. She had friends, but intimacy carried great risk because her father’s evil was a noxious cloud that swirled round her. “Never in my life have I been so directly shaken and captured by the tragedy of another person,” David Samoilov, a lover, wrote. “And never had I had such an intense need to run from a person, from the circle of her unresolved and suffocating tragedy.”
That process of being shaken, then captured, then suffocated by Svetlana is duplicated perfectly through this extraordinary book. It would be easy to blame her for the manifold follies of her life, the oppressive regularity of idiotic mistakes. Yet Rosemary Sullivan possesses the sensitivity necessary to unlock a beguiling and complex character worthy of admiration, not ridicule. Svetlana emerges as a woman of deep compassion and superb creative intellect. There was, however, “something of the tyrant in [her] emotional exuberance.” By the end of the book, like Samoilov, I understood the need to run.
Svetlana was the daughter of history’s most prolific murderer — a patrimony impossible to jettison. For most people, her attraction lay in her connection to Stalin, not in what she herself offered. Some despised her for her proximity to his evil; others found her irresistable for precisely the same reason. “Wherever I go,” she lamented, “I will always be the political prisoner of my father’s name.”
She was also a prisoner of her mother, Nadya, who committed suicide when Svetlana was 6. She loved her mother deeply but did not know her well. In truth, she loved a chimera; it was a love pestered by feelings of abandonment. Memories were inevitably minute. She could recall the smell of Chanel perfume, which Nadya wore as a small act of defiance because Stalin disapproved. She could also recall a moment when her mother drew a little square over her heart with her fingers and said, “That is where you must bury your secrets.” Svetlana never managed that.
Her father could be kind, even loving, yet her affection for a man so wicked tormented her. When he died in 1953, Svetlana, then 27, expected a “deliverance of some kind.” Yet that hope was naive. She could not escape those who wished to use her for political purpose. Her pedigree did not prevent her from becoming one of the most oppressed citizens in a republic built on oppression. The KGB spied on her lovers, and the Politburo became her surrogate father, vetoing suitors. Her warmth and kindness proved alluring, but the safe option was to shun her, since intimacy carried immense dangers.
At the age of 31, already thrice divorced, Svetlana met and fell deeply in love with Brajesh Singh, an Indian communist working in Moscow. He was already suffering from the emphysema that eventually killed him. She wanted to marry, but the Politburo demurred. “What do you want with this old sick Hindu?” Alexei Kosygin, chairman of the Council of Ministers, chided her. All she wanted was love.
Though prevented from marrying Singh, she was allowed to take his ashes to India. While there, she decided on impulse to defect to the United States. She once remarked, “It is amazing how, when the heart has already made a decision, reason only supplies every possible reassurance.” Her daughter Katya, oblivious to the rationale, never forgave the abandonment.
The wonderful comic opera of her escape is reason enough to buy this superb book. India, keen to remain on the good side of the Soviets, wanted nothing to do with her after she announced her decision to defect. The United States, in the interests of detente, was at first similarly dismissive. “Tell them to throw that woman out of the embassy. Don’t give her any help at all,” Deputy Undersecretary of State Foy Kohler advised. Eventually, however, the Americans discovered value in possessing Stalin’s princess. Yet just as she could not escape the KGB’s clutches, she could never free herself from the attentions of the CIA.
For Svetlana, defection was more personal than political. She thought, naively, that she might finally find refuge; that expectation was tragically wrong. She spent the rest of her life constantly on the move — from East Coast to West, from America to Britain, over to India, back to Russia, then back to America. Moving was a futile attempt to escape her father’s shadow. Tantalizing moments of happiness only briefly interrupted the depressing norm of lonely desolation. “I was born into my parents’ fate,” she eventually realized. “I was born under that name, that cross, and I never managed to jump out of it.” Yet she somehow survived, and her survival is testimony to her enormous resilience. “I think it was living that was the hard part,” her daughter Olga reflected. “My mother never mastered that.”