Stalin’s Daughter

The death of Svetlana Alliluyeva in a nursing home in Wisconsin brings to a close a fascinating and tragic life. The documentary film maker Lana Parshina in 2007 had the good luck of landing one of the few extensive interviews with Stalin’s daughter, who had taken on the new name of Lana Peters. Here are my thoughts on the film.

In 2007, the producer and director, a young Russian émigré named Svetlana Parshina, learned to her great amazement that Stalin’s 82-year-old daughter Svetlana was not only alive—but living in a retirement community in Wisconsin under the name “Lana Peters” (Peters is the name of her last husband, an American architect whom she divorced in the 1970s). Fiercely protective of her privacy, Stalin’s daughter had famously refused for decades to entertain requests for interviews, for they invariably turned toward the deeds and misdeeds of her infamous father.

Thanks to some internet sleuthing, the director finally made contact with Stalin’s daughter by phone—and miracle of miracles Stalin’s daughter agreed to an interview “because I like young people,” she said. However, she agreed only on the condition that the topic of her father not be raised.

What emerges from the interview material is a captivating and at times moving story of a person overwhelmed by her father’s reputation and by her own inability to choose her own fate and identity. During the course of the interview Stalin’s daughter switches back between Russian and English—even after demanding that the interview only be conducted in English, because she no longer considers Russian her native language. “I dream in English,” she exclaims in heavily accented English. Yet she returns to Russian time and time again—an illustration, perhaps, of her own conflicted loyalties after living half of her adult life in self-imposed exile from Russia.

Despite her pre-condition to avoid discussing her father, Stalin’s daughter spends most of her time talking about him. She recalls numerous incidents that provide insight, not only into her own life, but also into the mindset of her father. Stalin separated his personal feelings and life from his political life—to the point where he refused to make a deal to get his own son out of Nazi prison camps during World War II. To do so would be to show favoritism. His son, and Svetlana’s beloved brother, thus perished in Nazi captivity, a story related poignantly and movingly. On another occasion, during the famous Yalta conference with Churchill and Roosevelt, Stalin reluctantly brought Svetlana to the conference—but only because the other leaders had brought their families along. Normally, Stalin would not have involved his family in political matters: when it came to politics, Stalin unstintingly separated his own feelings and family life from his duties as head of a world revolution. Stalin nonetheless refused to allow his daughter to meet Roosevelt in person, saying (incorrectly) that his daughter was too busy with her studies back at the hotel. Svetlana added that the real reason her father did not want her to meet Roosevelt or Churchill was because she could speak English and her famously paranoid dad would not understand what was being said.

While Stalin comes across as the control freak dad from hell (he had Svetlana’s Jewish boyfriend sent to the gulag!), Svetlana seems very conscious of her own inability to escape out from under her father’s shadow. Where ever she went she could not avoid being Stalin’s daughter. Svetlana’s fate seems emblematic of the broader dilemma of the Cold War—the inability to straddle a position somewhere between communism and capitalism, between Stalin’s brand of socialism and America’s brand of capitalism. Fence-sitting and neutrality were simply not permitted.

Svetlana’s own futile search for a third way began after her father’s death when she pursued the craze in the Soviet Union (and in the West at the same time) for all things Indian. India, says Stalin’s daughter, seemed to represent an alternative to both capitalism and communism. In her mind, at least, India promised a spiritual and bloodless path to world unity, in great contrast to the path laid down by her own father or by the United States, which she condemned in the interview for dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She fell in love with an Indian diplomat in Moscow in the 1960s and when he died she took his ashes back to New Delhi. On a whim, or so she claims, she went to the American embassy in New Delhi and defected in 1966 (leaving her family behind). The CIA debriefed her and took her to the United States. So what started out as a search for a third way in India led directly back to the United States — via the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

She claims not to have regretted the decision to defect but she did resent attempts by Americans to use her as a propaganda instrument against her Soviet homeland. At one point, she exclaims: “I should have gone to Switzerland,” a haven of neutrality that might allow her a third way, independent of both her father and her father’s American enemies. But that was not to be—and indeed, the inability to be neutral was perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Cold War. She had to be Soviet or American — wherever she might be in the world—but not something else and certainly not a dual citizen. If you took an American passport, as she did when the CIA offered her U.S. citizenship, the Soviet one would no longer work. Her many name changes illustrate the schizophrenic, split-personality created by the Cold War ideological divide. She abandoned the surname Stalin after her father’s death and became Svetlana Alliluyeva, the maiden name of her mother (who committed suicide when Svetlana was 6 after an argument with her father). Being a “Stalin” during Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin’s cult of personality was obviously problematic. She subsequently assumed the names of the husbands she married, retaining the last name of her last husband, the American “Peters,” even after divorcing him.

We learn from the documentary that Stalin’s daughter moved back to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, abandoned Russia after its collapse in the 1990s and moved to England, and then ended up back in the United States after a brief stint in Switzerland. The documentary ends with the director, Lana Parshina, saying her goodbyes and then later trying to call in on Stalin’s daughter to see how she was doing. A recorded message is all she received in return: the number had been disconnected. Once again, Stalin’s daughter, ever the survivor and tough as nails, had moved on.

I tested the documentary on many of my classes. The students were fascinated and a lively discussion ensued. Judging by their response, this documentary is ideal material for courses in twentieth century history. But anyone interested in history, or in tragic biographies of famous people caught up in forces totally outside of their control, will enjoy this film.

This entry was posted in Cold War, Films, Stalinism, Teaching Russian History. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Stalin’s Daughter

  1. Lucy says:

    Andrew, thanks for posting such a helpful review. I had read the notice of her death earlier, but this adds some intriguing context.

  2. Pingback: This Week in Russia Blogs #2 | Siberian Light

  3. Svetlana Rasmussen says:

    What I thought when I read both the New york Times obituary and this post was that Svetlana Stalina was one of the first in the ever-enlarging cohort of men and women living between several cultures: ethnic, national, social. She grew up in the private world of a public figure, she knew high Kremlin officials in both official and real life. She knew the face and the back of the Soviet ideological standards and practices, and, eventually life in the Soviet Union and abroad, including not just in the United States, but Britain, India, Switzerland and other countries. Again, she knew what life was like in the Soviet Union in the Stalin era and a long time after – in the 1980s. In a way she was a centaur or a mermaid – a creature belonging to two worlds at once.

    Yes, one could look at her life as a tragedy of homelessness, and misfortune of being born into the family of one of the most ruthless rulers in the modern world. But if one employs reason and not emotion and looks at her life with a cool head, she is one a fascinating case of many people who travelled widely while calling the Soviet Union their home and had to choose one’s loyalties. Much of the agitation about her name comes from the attention the journalists, the CIA, and anybody else who knew she is a Stalin’s daughter gave her. Viewed as one of a group of people, Svetlana Stalina becomes a more interesting figure, one of the many people, who, contrary to the popular belief, lived lives stretching through many social layers of the Soviet Union and travelled abroad, ever returning back to their homeland.

  4. Andrew Jenks says:

    I really like the idea of her belonging to two worlds at once. That she could do so suggests new possibilities in the post-Stalinist world for that breed of Soviets you allude to, those able to live both within and beyond the Soviet borders — in effect, transnational subjects. Such transnational Soviet subjects — partly a byproduct of Soviet paeans to internationalism? — would be a worthy subject of study.

  5. Svetlana Rasmussen says:

    I think that Gagarin is, in a certain way one of such subjects that transcended and continue to transcend boundaries. I (am just beginning to) study Soviet secondary education in the 1960s and 1970s, and I think anybody, had they the desire, could transcend Soviet ideology through multiple vehicles offered to them: foreign literature, history of other countries and ages, music, television, foreign journalism, hiking (this is what Revekka Frumkina talks about in her memoir), going out into the mountains or geological expeditions, and through studying foreign language. The list could be continued, of course.

  6. Pupster says:

    “(he had Svetlana’s Jewish boyfriend sent to the gulag!)”

    Are you implying it wouldn’t have been so bad if the boyfriend wasn’t Jewish?

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