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.