There can be few more oppressive birthrights than the one given Svetlana Alliluyeva. She was, after all, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s daughter, and is the subject of a new and compelling biography of that name by writer Rosemary Sullivan.
Hers is a remarkable story that takes Alliluyeva from party-owned dachas outside Moscow to death in a nursing home in Richland Center, Wis., in 2011. In between are stops in India, where she bolts from her Soviet handlers to seek asylum at the U.S. embassy; a sojourn in Princeton, N.J., where she lands after the tumult of her escape; a disastrous few years in the orbit of the widow of Frank Lloyd Wright; then on to England, back to the Soviet Union for a year, back to England and, finally, toward the end of her life, to small-town Wisconsin, which she first visited through her marriage to one of Wright’s Taliesen architects.
The one constant in her peripatetic life was the ghostly presence of her father.
Born in 1926, Alliluyeva was reared mostly within the paranoid walls of the Kremlin. Any sense of stability that might have nourished her early years was undermined by the suicide of her beloved mother when Alliluyeva was just 6 years old.
Her father was a distant and mostly absent figure in her life, yet he remained domineering. Alliluyeva had a hard time through the horrific early years of the Soviet Gulag system, pointing the finger at him for all the woes that befell her and the people of the Soviet Union. Yet she was not spared the death and disappearances: Friends, lovers, family members were lost.
Well-educated and intellectual, Alliluyeva could be an engaging conversationalist and loyal friend. By most accounts, she was likable and kind; she was also, to say the least, mercurial and quick-tempered. When her father died and the gross excesses of his reign of terror were acknowledged by new powers in the Kremlin, Alliluyeva herself decried what he’d done and tried to distance herself from his history. But Stalin’s ghost loomed too large: She was caught between the fierce hatred she felt from those who could never forgive her father, and Soviet admirers of Stalin, who felt his own daughter had betrayed him.
In 1967, Alliluyeva sought asylum in the U.S. Unfortunately, in the years to come she never quite found the ballast necessary to stabilize her life. A loyal and loving daughter of her marriage to architect Wesley Peters was a foundation in her life, and she had a series of loving friends. But Alliluyeva could be extremely difficult, and many dropped away with each of her moves.
This tracing of her life is likewise difficult. Time and again the temptation is to let her go to fend for herself. What obligation does anyone owe Stalin’s daughter?
In the end, however, there turns out to be something courageous in Alliluyeva’s efforts at staring down her father’s horrendous legacy. And Sullivan tells her story with sympathy and verve, always drawing us back to a tale that serves as a reminder of the innocence of children, even those born of monsters.
St. Paul writer Tim Brady is working on a biography of Ted Roosevelt Jr., “The Last Rough Rider,” scheduled for publication by Penguin/Random House in 2016.