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Personalities the Saga of Stalin’s Little Sparrow

21 minute read
Patricia Blake

Nearly 18 years ago, Joseph Stalin’s only daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, defected to the West bearing an astonishing message. At a New York City press conference that was televised around the world, and later in two books, the child of one of modern history’s most brutal tyrants repudiated her father and Communism, while affirming her faith in God and freedom. Svetlana’s defection was more than a propaganda coup for the West: it was a symbolic event in the moral imagination of millions of people. The child of the man who stood accused of having killed more people than Adolf Hitler had escaped with her humanity intact.

Last October Svetlana returned to the Soviet Union, taking her American-born daughter Olga, 13, with her. Once again her action could be seen as symbolic, signifying, perhaps, some basic failure of Western values. She told a press conference in Moscow that she had not known “one single day” of freedom in the West. She declared that she had come back to the Soviet Union to rejoin the two children she had left behind in 1967. But her earlier denunciations of the Bolshevik revolution (“a fatal, tragic mistake”), her father (“a moral and spiritual monster”), the Soviet system (“profoundly corrupt”) and the KGB (like “the German Gestapo”) suggested that her return may have been a desperate, in a sense almost a suicidal act.

What had gone wrong for Svetlana in the West? Why did she return to the country she had fled in abhorrence? The answers are multifaceted, even contradictory, like Svetlana’s personality as it gradually and painfully revealed itself during her sojourn in the West.

Judging from interviews with many people who knew her in the U.S., where she lived from 1967 to 1982, and in Britain, where she spent the past two years, Svetlana was an often charming but restless, unhappy and quarrelsome woman. Her feverish enthusiasm for people and places could quickly turn into disappointment and recrimination, as evidenced by a trail of broken friendships and angry words. In retrospect, it seems clear that her ultimate quarrel was with her father, whom she fatefully resembled. As she once said about the Soviet people, Stalin’s “shadow still stands over all of us. It still dictates to us, and we very often obey.” The story of Svetlana’s life is the chronicle of her losing battle with the specter of her father.

In 1967, when Svetlana arrived in the U.S. following her defection during a visit to India, little of her inner conflict was visible. The face she turned on a mesmerized U.S. public was alight with happiness. A handsome, vibrant woman of 41, with crisp, coppery curls, ruddy cheeks, shy blue eyes and a winning smile, she exuded sweetness and candor. She seemed pleased by her celebrity–and by the $1.5 million she earned from her first book of memoirs, Twenty Letters to a Friend. Well-wishers kept the house she rented in Princeton, N.J., filled with flowers. Fan letters, presents, even proposals of marriage arrived. Academic and society people lionized her. Amid such warm attention, she did not appear to worry unduly about her children in Moscow. Joseph, 22, and Yekaterina (“Katya”), 17, were already grown up, she explained. “The life of my children will not be changed.”

Svetlana’s certainly had changed. In her last years in Moscow, she had been no princess of the Kremlin, though this was not widely understood in the West. After the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes, Svetlana had lived through a dark decade, bereft of status, deprived of some of her privileges. Although she found kindly friends, she was widely shunned in Moscow as the child of a despot whose very name “aroused fear and hatred in millions of men,” as she later put it. In 1957, she legally shed her father’s name in favor of her mother’s, Alliluyeva.

In the U.S., fame and fortune brought to the surface some of the lordly ways Svetlana had learned during her 26 years in the Kremlin. An elderly black houseman working for a family that had rented their Princeton home to Svetlana was devastated by her imperious manner. After he cautioned her about her treatment of some precious objects in the house, she said to him, “How dare you! You’re only a servant!” She was cavalier with a Princeton hostess. When Artist Dorothea Greenbaum, the wife of Svetlana’s lawyer, gave a long-planned dinner party in Svetlana’s honor, she did not show up or answer the telephone. A neighbor, alerted by Greenbaum, went next door to plead with Svetlana. Pointing to herself, Svetlana said, “Nobody can make me do what I don’t want to do.”

In the Soviet Union, Svetlana’s love life had been marred by tragedy and strife. At 16, she had chosen as her first lover Film Maker Alexei Kapler, 40; Stalin rewarded Kapler for his ardor by sending him to the Gulag for ten years. There followed two marriages and two divorces and a common-law union with Brajesh Singh, an Indian Communist who was 17 years her senior. When he died in 1966, Svetlana was permitted to take his ashes to India. It was on this journey that she impulsively decided to defect.

In Princeton, Svetlana fell in love with Louis Fischer, a writer on Soviet affairs, who died in 1970. An inveterate womanizer who was 30 years her senior, Fischer caused Svetlana much grief, and word of her outbursts against him soon got around town. One autumn evening in 1968 she arrived in a fury at Fischer’s house. He was inside with his editorial assistant, Deirdre Randall, but ignored Svetlana’s knocks and shouts. As Randall remembers the scene, Svetlana raged outside the house for well over an hour, weeping and demanding the return of her presents to Fischer: a travel clock and two decorative candles. When Svetlana shattered the glass panels on the sides of the door in an attempt to break in, Fischer called the police. Two officers arrived and found Svetlana hysterical, blood dripping from her cut hands.

Her breakup with Fischer in 1968 was followed by a period of painful loneliness. It was then that she fell into a bizarre misadventure that began with a series of fan letters from a stranger. The author was the widow of Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Olgivanna, who was in her 70s. Mrs. Wright kept urging Svetlana to visit her at Taliesin West, the stone-and-redwood enclave Wright had designed for the architectural firm and school that he had founded in the desert near Scottsdale, Ariz. When Svetlana accepted the invitation in March 1970, she could scarcely have imagined the fantasies Mrs. Wright had been spinning around her.

The architect’s widow perceived Stalin’s daughter as a mystical representative, possibly even the reincarnation, of her own daughter, who had died in an auto accident in 1946. Mrs. Wright, a disciple of the Russian-born mystic Georgi Gurdjieff, was spellbound by some coincidences between the living and the dead. Her daughter, by an earlier marriage in Russia, had also been named Svetlana; moreover, she had been born in Georgia, the region from which Svetlana Alliluyeva’s father hailed. Somehow it followed in Mrs. Wright’s mind that Stalin’s daughter should marry the first Svetlana’s widower, William Wesley Peters, known as Wes, Taliesin West’s chief architect.

Svetlana promptly went along with Mrs. Wright’s desires: within days she was calling Taliesin West’s matriarch Mother. She also fell in love with the distinguished-looking, 6-ft. 4-in. Peters, then 57. Soon Svetlana was pressing for an early wedding, and less than three weeks after her arrival in Arizona, she and Peters were married. Mrs. Wright was heard to exult, “Now I can say again, ‘Svetlana and Wes!’ “

But Svetlana’s happiness was short-lived. The egalitarian atmosphere at Taliesin West–everyone was expected to share in the house and yard work–was not to her liking. It reminded her of Communism, she said. Less than a month ( after the wedding, clients of the architectural firm were shocked to see Svetlana slap her husband at a gala dinner party. At Taliesin West’s summer headquarters in Spring Green, Wis., a resident recalls, Svetlana threw the contents of a highball glass into the hostess’s face during a cocktail party and was forcibly escorted out.

Much of Svetlana’s anger came to center on Mrs. Wright, who ran the residents’ lives at Taliesin West with what she proudly called “invisible discipline.” Mrs. Wright decided what they wore, what they discussed at dinner and whether they should have children. “I detested her power over others,” Svetlana said. “The lady bore such a resemblance to my father’s worst qualities that I shrank from her.”

Svetlana’s hostility was viewed a shade differently by her new brother-in- law, S.I. Hayakawa, who is married to Wes Peters’ sister. “She and Mrs. Wright were like two empresses in the same empire,” the semanticist and former U.S. Senator recollects. Overpowered, Svetlana tried to persuade Peters to leave Taliesin West, where he had worked since 1932 as Wright’s disciple and chosen successor. Peters temporized, and after 20 months of marriage, Svetlana stormed out, cursing Mrs. Wright and all that she represented with a wrath that recalled Stalin’s. Taliesin West, “with all its horrible modern architecture,” Svetlana said, should be burned to the ground.

Svetlana often walked away from places with a malediction on her lips. Thus had she left the Soviet Union and thus would she eventually depart the West. Men and women who got to know her felt the lash of her leave-takings. Said one former friend: “If you didn’t stop your life and devote yourself completely to hers, she would cast you out into utter darkness.”

In the decade after Svetlana left Taliesin West, she tried to make a fresh start in several towns in California and New Jersey, only to rebuff the welcome she found. After deciding to break up a friendship with a distinguished intellectual, she wrote to him, “You are deaf, stupid. You are doomed. You are a failure. I pity you. I despise you.” In other letters she wished people dead. Of an elderly lady who, Svetlana thought, had crossed her, she wrote, “I hope she will not be with us too long.” To British Author Malcolm Muggeridge, a deeply religious man who had been her host during a brief visit to Britain, she wrote, “You are one of these obsessed, demoniac natures who ought to be avoided at all costs.”

In her everyday dealings Svetlana behaved more reasonably, frequently disarming new acquaintances with a charm that was undeniably genuine. She touched people by the evident sincerity of her religious belief. “She could be warm, lovely and simple,” says Margedant Hayakawa, Wes Peters’ sister, who remained a supportive friend.

Svetlana certainly needed friends. When she left her husband, she took with her a new daughter, Olga Margedant Peters, born May 21, 1971. Svetlana, who would be granted U.S. citizenship only in 1978, felt alone in a strange country and seemed particularly vulnerable to the stresses of late motherhood. Having gained custody of Olga by the terms of her 1973 divorce from Peters, she refused to allow the child to visit her father at Taliesin West. Thus thwarted, the busy architect rarely went to see Olga and, though he corresponded with her, remained a more remote figure than Olga’s aunt, Margedant. It was “Aunt Marge” who was to provide Olga with her strongest American roots. The child stayed with the Hayakawas in Washington, when her uncle was in the U.S. Senate from 1977 to 1981, and visited them in California in 1983.

“Olga is the center of my existence,” Svetlana often said. She lavished much warmth on the child, but all too often Svetlana’s ungovernable temper got in the way of her loving intentions. Wherever mother and daughter lived in the U.S., people remember, Svetlana frequently struck Olga. When the child was five, an acquaintance in Carlsbad, Calif., recalls, “Olga had been playing next door with a friend, and Mrs. Peters was not particularly happy about it for some reason. When she called her home, Olga came running, fell, skinned her knee and cried. I picked her up to comfort her. But her mother started smacking her on the bottom for falling down.” Olga’s upbringing was almost a case study of how some parents tend to reenact with their own offspring what they suffered as children. Svetlana’s mother, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, whom Stalin married in 1919, had been a harsh disciplinarian. When Svetlana damaged a tablecloth with scissors, her mother hit her repeatedly on the hands. Nadezhda committed suicide when Svetlana was six, leaving her daughter’s discipline to Stalin.

As Svetlana remembered her papochka, Stalin was tender with her in her early childhood, bestowing “loud moist kisses” and calling her “little sparrow.” But as she reached adolescence, he became incensed by her independent spirit. He berated her for the “insolence” on her face. He made a scene when he found her wearing a tight sweater. He hated the sight of her in short skirts and made her wear hers much longer than other schoolgirls did. When he learned that she had a lover, he slapped her twice across the face.

An American friend who knew Olga for nearly a decade says that when Svetlana got angry, she too hit her child in the face over and over again: “Svetlana did not break her bones, but she ruled her with an iron hand.” The violence started, the acquaintance recalls, “when Olga began to have a mind of her own, which was pretty early, at about five.” Svetlana apparently could not grasp that the child’s displays of independence were perfectly normal. Says the friend: “Olga is a very spirited, independent girl, and her mother could never tolerate that, ever.”

Svetlana complained constantly about what she considered the lack of discipline in U.S. schools; indeed, her main reason for moving to Britain in 1982 was to put Olga into a strict boarding school. Arriving too late in the year, however, to enroll the girl in the kind of traditional institution she sought, Svetlana had to settle for a Quaker school in Saffron Walden. The mother moved into an apartment in Cambridge.

Leaving the U.S. was a wrenching experience for Olga, who invariably introduced herself by saying, “I’m an American.” As it happened, her new school was exceptionally liberal–and Olga loved it. Svetlana was horrified to discover that students were allowed to wander around town by themselves after classes. She forbade Olga to wear tight jeans and bright tops like the other girls. During vacations, she kept Olga from playing with the children of Cambridge acquaintances. Says Fay Black, then a part-time teacher at Olga’s school: “Her mother clung to her like a warden to a prisoner. The child’s only hope was to go back to school.”

There were further incidents of violence. One appalled English family remembers a visit to their home by Svetlana and Olga. Then twelve, the slender adolescent, who wore large square eyeglasses, was almost a head taller than her 5-ft. 4-in. mother. But the mother, at 190 lbs., pulled all the weight. “Stop whining!” she suddenly told her daughter, and struck her in the face with a clenched fist.

Last year Svetlana’s upstairs neighbors, Lynne and Peter Mansfield, heard her hectoring Olga nearly every day when the girl was home for summer vacation and – on weekends. “We could hear her even when we turned the television up and closed the windows,” Mrs. Mansfield says. “Once she carried on for hours because Olga had put red polish on her toenails.”

In a letter to a friend in Cambridge, Svetlana complained, “With this precious, long-legged and dumb-headed daughter of mine I’m tied hand and foot. She goes back to school on Sunday, THANK GOD! When she’s with me, I miss more than ever my Katya and Osia (her children in the Soviet Union). They are so nice, and she (Olga) is a fool, spoiled rotten.”

Increasingly during her last year in the West, Svetlana suffered from bouts of depression. She was haunted by her mother’s suicide; as a child, she had evidently perceived it as a punishment. “My mother shot herself on the night of Nov. 8/9,” she wrote to a friend in Britain, “and as the time comes close to that date, I begin to feel utterly bad and angry at the world.” She spoke of conspiracies against her, much as Stalin had done in his time. “Something is around me, a ‘bad aura,’ fears, gossip, talk, two governments plotting to get rid of me simultaneously,” she complained in the same letter. She stunned an elderly Russian woman, an emigre, by writing to her, “You are a KGB agent. You are a double and triple agent.” As Svetlana well knew, it was the kind of denunciation that was made against tens of thousands of innocent people during Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s. Says the recipient of the letter: “She would have executed me had she possessed the power.”

Though Svetlana was manifestly troubled, there was little to indicate that she might be tempted to return to the Soviet Union. Her loathing for the regime was undiminished. In 1984, she published in India a sharply anti-Soviet volume of memoirs titled The Faraway Music. “Svetlana’s hatred for Soviet Russia was in her bones,” says a Russian emigre who knew her well. “If she heard Russian spoken by someone who had been brought up in the U.S.S.R., she would become enraged.” Svetlana said on the BBC, “Only when I came to America and heard all the emigres, then I heard real, good, beautiful Russian.” She was adamant that Olga should never learn a word of the language.

Svetlana’s politics lay on the far right. She declared the conservative National Review to be her favorite publication and sent Editor William F. Buckley a $500 donation in 1981. Last August Donald Denman, a retired Cambridge University professor, invited her to visit the House of Commons to see British democracy at work. As they strolled through Westminster, Denman offered to introduce Svetlana to some Members of Parliament. A look of horror passed over her face. “I don’t want to meet any Socialists,” she said. “Only Tories!”

Still, one significant change had taken place in her. Sovietologist Leopold Labedz, who met her in 1968, first noticed it in 1981: “She was getting soft on papochka.” Once she had acknowledged Stalin’s personal responsibility for the death of millions; now she called him a prisoner of Communist ideology. Her new book contained hardly any criticism of her father. She probably felt she had betrayed him. “My father would have shot me for what I have done,” she often said during her final year in Britain.

Meanwhile, a partial rehabilitation of Stalin was under way in the Soviet Union as the country prepared to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. For the first time since 1956, Stalin was being praised as a strategic genius and a superb wartime commander in chief. Says Stalin Biographer Robert C. Tucker: “The Soviet authorities evidently thought it was a good time for Stalin’s daughter to come home.” No doubt they were aware of her emotional turmoil. Anticipating that an official emissary from Moscow would be rebuffed by Svetlana, they apparently decided to use her son Joseph, Stalin’s namesake, as their intermediary.

Perhaps unwittingly, Joseph kept his mother on the line for nine months, playing with her much as an angler does when hauling in a fighting fish. Judging from what Svetlana told acquaintances in Cambridge and London, she was reeled in stage by stage. First, just before Christmas 1983, a phone call came from Joseph in Moscow. As the excited Svetlana related it, she had scarcely heard from either of her children in the Soviet Union for 17 years. Joseph, now 38 and a physician, and Katya, 33 and a scientist, had been forbidden to communicate with their mother since her defection. The presents she sent them had come back marked REFUSED. Only an occasional card or telephone call had circumvented the ban. After Christmas 1983, though, Joseph called her regularly, and she could phone him.

Next Joseph told his mother, “It’s time we got together.” He said that he thought he would be allowed to meet her in Finland. Once the possibility of a reunion became fixed in Svetlana’s mind, it could not be dislodged. For this desperate woman, seeing Joseph appeared to herald a new beginning. Joseph then told Svetlana that he had not been granted permission after all to travel to Finland. Svetlana was shattered. Some time in July he raised her hopes again by saying he might be able to come to Cambridge before Christmas, but in August she was told that he had fallen seriously ill and was in a Moscow hospital. She later said that this news was the turning point. On Sept. 10, 1984, she went to the Soviet embassy in London and asked to return. Apparently the authorities promised that Soviet citizenship would be restored to her and granted to Olga, as was later done.

Svetlana did not immediately tell Olga that she was going to take her to the Soviet Union. Instead, she attempted to cut the child’s lifeline to the U.S.–perhaps her cruelest act. Wildly misconstruing a letter from Margedant Hayakawa, Svetlana sought to convince Olga that her aunt no longer cared for her. Olga then signed a typed letter that said she would stop writing to all members of the Peters family. At least one line of the letter sounded more like Svetlana than Olga: “All right, kill me, send me a letter bomb if you like.” Says Olga’s distraught father: “I can’t believe Olga actually wrote that letter. She must know Marge and I love her and that we’d do anything for her.”

On Oct. 19, 1984, when Olga came to Cambridge for a short vacation, Svetlana sprang the news that they were leaving for the Soviet Union. Whether she said they were going for a visit or for good is not known. What is certain is that Olga did not want to go. The Mansfields heard the yelling in the flat below. At first they thought it was another one of Svetlana’s tirades. Then they realized it was Olga who was shouting. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you consult with me?” Two days later mother and daughter were in Moscow. Said Svetlana’s old friend Labedz when he heard the news: “She has gone back to her fatherland, or her father–to her they’re the same.”

In a matter of days after her return, Svetlana had quarreled with Joseph; Katya, who lives in the Soviet Far East, did not come to Moscow to see her mother. When U.S. television cameramen spotted Svetlana looking grim and angry on the streets of the capital, she went out of control, showering them with obscenities in English. Dissatisfied by the cool official welcome she received, she has several times displayed her temper to the Soviet authorities. Olga, who, like her mother, still retains her U.S. citizenship, refused to wear the regulation uniform at a Moscow school. She came to class with a cross hanging around her neck.

Last month the authorities moved Svetlana out of Moscow, in an apparent effort to insulate her from contact with diplomats and other foreigners to whom she might complain. Mother and daughter were dispatched 1,000 miles south to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, not far from Stalin’s birthplace. Svetlana was given a modest apartment but no car, dacha or any of the other perquisites that families of the Soviet elite enjoy.

No open arms awaited Svetlana in the U.S.S.R. She must have known that, yet she returned, drawn to a specter she could not elude. “It was as though my father was at the center of a black circle,” she wrote in 1963. “Anyone who ventured inside vanished or perished or was destroyed in one way or another.” The question is whether, three decades after Stalin’s death, the circle will close around his daughter and granddaughter.

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