Stalin’s Daughter: Caught Between Politics and Private Citizenship

by Kenneth on September 30, 2018
When I first heard of Svetlana Alliluyeva, I was in high school. I, by then, knew the story of the Cold War, the political gamesmanship, the story of Stalin’s brutality but I was unaware of his children. Watching a History Channel documentary, I learned how he loved and adored her but mistreated or ignored her brothers and wondered what they experienced as his children and if they were ever in danger.

Later in that same documentary, it was said that one son was left to die in a German Concentration Camp during WW2 and the other was a drunk haunted by his father’s persona eventually being kicked out of the military upon Stalin’s death, but then a shocking statement, “His daughter, Svetlana, leaves the country a refugee” and I thought “Stalin’s daughter left the country! That had to have dealt a blow in the Cold War propaganda.” Nothing, though, beyond that was said but I would eventually find out that she lived in Wisconsin, again thinking, “Not only did she leave the country but she went to the ideological enemy…”

But that was where I hit a dead end with Svetlana; I wasn’t particularly interested in finding out about her, personally. It wasn’t until after college that I found other documentaries which dived deeper into the story of Stalin, his policies, and the effect on those around him. The most powerful was the BCC documentary “Stalin: Inside the Terror” that expanded in more detail on the family life. The story of his second marriage to Nadezhda Alliluyeva was one of matching revolutionary passions that blossomed into a love match. But the personal, intimate love stopped after Stalin gained power and became even more ruthless than he was as a party deputy under Lenin.

Svetlana it was revealed was not immune from Stalin’s threats as a teenager and young adult. Though loving and affectionate in her youth, when she was old enough to understand that someone was no longer around, she knew why and treaded lightly. She saw what was going on in the party machinery (with the Purges) and both her and Vasily were well aware of personal danger, seeing that of the loving father and the tyrannical dictator signing death lists at the same time.

What interested me most was the documentary, “Stalin’s daughter.” She was shown to have wanted the same thing as her mother, Nadezhda; to be her own person and not tied to who she “was.” In this particular film, her nephew quoted a Chekov story that mentioned learning to bear one’s cross, describing her cross as being twice as heavy because of her lineage and her own independent streak that wanted to break free from her father’s shadow.

Aware of the danger of disagreeing with her father she toed the line with several love affairs that infuriated him, including a close relationship with a Jewish man. Though the relationship didn’t last, it established a pattern of failed relationships and marriages with each time her independent streak rejecting any notion of dual identity. Even when she changed her name to be that of her late mother’s “Alliluyeva,” it wasn’t enough to stop the glances on the street and the personal internal burden of her father’s influence on the country. When she went to the U.S. she saw the opportunity to make a quick living in the U.S. as an author and wrote her memoirs from behind the Iron Curtain.

While that brought immediate financial success, she wanted that to be the end of it, instead wanting to teach higher education. When she marrying again, she was followed from wedding day to the birth of her third child by the press. The documentary showed her being surrounded by reporters in the hospital room who only wanted to talk about the irony that Stalin’s grandchild was an American citizen. She wanted to be a normal mother and wanted to live a normal life but her attempts were fruitless.

She wrote another book about her experiences as an American citizen to sustain her living standard but returned to Russia in the mid 1980s disillusioned with the U.S. Immediately, however, she felt like she moved back to a graveyard as her nephew would say, “she’d walk the streets of Moscow and see nothing but crosses from the Soviet past under her father,” got delusioned once again and returned to the US. She felt alienated and plagued mentally in one land, that of her Russia homeland, yet also a pawn of the United States in the propaganda war.

She would point out the historical irony, at the end of her life living in Wisconsin, of going from the pinnacle of luxury as a daughter of a country leader to ending her life destitute in a Medicaid-like community center for poor seniors but also saw that as a natural course of history and a fitting end to the Stalin legacy.

Again wanting to document her life from that standpoint she offered to tell her life’s story to an author but stipulated, “Write about me and not my father.” When the author, though, started a question alluding to Joseph Stalin, Svetlana responded by yelling, repeatedly hitting herself on the lap with a closed fist, and throwing stuff from her desk on to the floor. When allowed her to tell the story she wanted instead of answering questions, to the author’s astonishment, Svetlana started by saying, “My father…” Svetlana passed away in 2011 torn between two worlds, not of Capitalism and Communism, but of a desired level of citizenship and privacy, yet haunted by political symbolism and historical irony.