Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of Josef Stalin’s daughter Svetlana illuminates a woman who desperately wanted to be understood for who she was but whose attempts during her life to distance herself from her father, one of the world’s most notorious leaders, were largely futile.
The biography begins with Svetlana’s upbringing in the Kremlin, where she lived in sheltered privilege, though without opulence. Her story takes tragic turns almost instantly: Svetlana’s mother commits suicide, her friends’ parents are targeted by the state and even her own relatives begin to disappear. She marries, divorces, has children, but, even after the death of her father, the Soviet state and those in power still tightly control her. Her name makes her both an asset and a liability—it is a contradiction that plagues her whole life.
Eventually Svetlana defects to the United States, where she publishes books about her life and family and tries to adapt to an American lifestyle. In the Soviet Union, she is considered a traitor, and in the West she is often used as a tool of propaganda against communism. She becomes wealthy but loses her money quickly. She is restless, constantly changing residences, even returning to Moscow for a short time. She dies poor and with few possessions in her eighties in America.
At over 600 pages, Stalin’s Daughter is a compelling read, largely because it puts the personal before the political. Author Sullivan creates a nuanced portrait of Svetlana, letting her speak for herself whenever possible, using significant extracts from letters to family and acquaintances. The biography emphasizes how Svetlana spent her life running from the label “Stalin’s daughter.” She knew that she could never escape it, but she could also never stop trying to do so. She changed nationalities, modified her name, but her identity could never be extricated from that of her father. The text recreates the atmosphere of anxiety and isolation under which Svetlana lived, terribly affected by loneliness. As a result, her life is often painful to witness.
Svetlana spent years searching for a place to belong and for someone to love, but was constantly met with various forms of exile and heartbreak. Her capricious nature pushes her to make rash decisions, but her ability to adapt to changing situations allows her to survive.
Through it all, though, the voice of Svetlana emerges boldly. It is the voice of a sharp, intellectual, passionate woman who never stops searching for her ideals of freedom and love.
Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva will be published by Harper Collins in June 2015.
Menaka Raman-Wilms will be moderating the “Identity Kaleidoscope” panel at Prose in the Park.