Rosemary Sullivan is the author of the new biography Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva. Her many other books include Villa Air-Bel and Labyrinth of Desire. She is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.
Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva?
A: I was working with a brilliant editor, Claire Wachtel at Harper Collins, and Svetlana Alliluyeva had just died, and the obituary was in The New York Times. We started to talk about it, and I said, What could be more fascinating than someone who lived under the shadow of [Stalin’s] name?
I read [Svetlana’s book] Twenty Letters to a Friend, and made a proposal to Claire, and she said, Brilliant! I interviewed about 40 people, and since then two in England have died and one or two no longer have reliable memories.
Q: Beyond the interviews, how else did you research this book?
A: As with all biographies, I began by approaching Svetlana’s daughter, Chrese, and she said [yes]. I had sent her copies of my earlier works….I found the CIA officer who [interacted with] Svetlana, and one interview led to another. I met a member of the Alliluyev family in North America, who had liked Villa Air-Bel,
and said, Here’s the contact for the family in Russia.
At the same time, I was doing the archival research necessary for this kind of book, under the Freedom of Information Act. I also started hunting through Princeton and Yale for the papers of George Kennan, and the huge collections in the libraries of Kennan and [CIA agent Donald] Jameson. One person would lead me to another.
In 2013, a year and a half after I started the book, I went to Russia, Georgia, and England, and I made many trips to the U.S. It was wonderful; people were very generous in offering correspondence with Svetlana. She was an incredibly prolific letter-writer.
Q: Was there anything surprising that went against what you thought you might find out about her?
A: This is my fifth biography, so you try to step in without any preconceptions. In the U.S., she had a reputation of being unstable and difficult. Cumulatively, finding loyal friends, meeting her daughter and finding out about her complex and loving relationship, I began to admire Svetlana’s optimism. She had one of the dark lives…
Q: How would you characterize the relationship between Svetlana and her father?
A: Svetlana was emotionally orphaned. At 6 ½ her mother died….Her father did, in his inept way, step in as her emotional center…There were letters [back and forth]. During that period, from 6 ½ to 16, he did serve as a father, but he was absent.
Her template for love was this absence that she accepted but thought she could surmount [which affected her later relationships].
When she discovered what her father was capable of—when she was 17, her father exiled her platonic lover to the gulag. By the end of her life, there never were pictures of Stalin in her room. She had Wesley Peters [her American ex-husband], her mother, and her children, but no Stalin. She said, He broke my life.
On a personal level, she repudiated him. On a political level, she repudiated him totally.
Q: Throughout her life, how was Svetlana affected by being Stalin’s daughter?
A: It never stopped….she never escaped [the negative connotations]. That’s why her life became more nomadic…
Q: How were her relationships with her husbands affected by her life as Stalin’s daughter?
A: It’s so unfair to string the men we are involved with on the same thread. Her first husband was a friend from school. Her second husband was under pressure from her father.
The men who mattered to her were Brajesh Singh [her common-law third husband], Aleksei Kapler, a famous lothario, and [her last husband] Wesley Peters. She felt she would have had a good life with him without Olgivanna Wright [Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow and the mother of Peters’ first wife, who was very close to Peters]. They were older and were forces of intellectual excitement, and they gave the illusion of security and safety…
Her capacity to accept and rationalize the absence of a loved one was set as a template as a child. There were heartbreaking letters, Dear Daddy, when will I see you? I miss you! Stalin kept her on a string.
Q: Svetlana seemed to have a very close relationship with her younger daughter.
A: It remained so. I’m in regular contact with Chrese. The reason she agreed to support my work—she never got to read it; she had to trust that it would be a good book—was that she felt I was on her mother’s side. She felt her mother had an incredibly difficult life.
She had a full understanding of the pain her mother carried, and they talked about everything. She had a deep appreciation for her mother’s intellect and her spirituality—she believed in the force of good, in nature, in spirits. It’s not what you’d expect from Stalin’s daughter.
Q: Has Chrese read the book?
A: Yes, in proof copy, which means no changes. It is a totally unauthorized biography. She says she likes it very much. If I hadn’t had so many affirmative portraits from friends, especially British friends…they saw the burden [Svetlana] carried as Stalin’s daughter.
In a way she’s the extreme of something many women have to go through, as an adjunct [to a famous man]….
Q: Why did Svetlana decide to defect to the United States in 1967?
A: Her father died in 1953, and she felt after Stalin’s death that there would be a liberation. Under Khrushchev, there was a thaw. By the time Brezhnev came to power in the 1960s, the Soviet Union seemed to resurrect itself as a place of cultural repression.
When she was refused the right to marry Brajesh Singh because he was a foreigner, an Indian, it broke something in her. It catalyzed the rebellious spirit that was always there.
After he died, she was given permission to take his ashes back to India. When she was in India, it was a struggle to stay on for a few months, and the refusal…to let her stay on was too much.
She did everything impulsively—she decided to walk into the American Embassy one evening and defect. It was a huge decision. I believe she didn’t fully grasp the cost to her of severance from her [two older] children. It was an impulsive act of rage against the control of her as Stalin’s daughter.
Q: Once she was in the U.S., was she still viewed just as Stalin’s daughter?
A: I find it very moving—here’s a woman who grew up for 41 years in the Soviet system. She didn’t understand two things: money, and “the public.” It must have been a shock to her to discover that the Johnson administration didn’t want her in the country.
It’s an example of how a particular foreign policy can impact on an individual in a way that’s tragic. They were looking for another country [for her to go] and found Switzerland, setting up a dynamic that was unfortunate for Svetlana.
She entered the U.S. as an author [on a book tour with a large advance], and the rumor was that Stalin had stashed gold in Switzerland [so people thought] this woman was arriving as a millionairess.
In reading [about] the impact of her arrival, she was admired because she seemed so clear-minded. She explained the internment in the gulag of [her friend Andrei] Sinyavsky, the death of Brajesh Singh, her desire for intellectual freedom—she was taken seriously.
When she did her second book, Only One Year, she wasn’t progressive enough for the far left, but she didn’t know there was such a thing as public media. She felt she made a huge mistake when she looked back—she said she should have given [most] of her money to international charities, and removed the stain of being Stalin’s daughter….
The rumor of all that gold—it’s poignant that with Montenegro-born Olgivanna Wright, Svetlana walked right into a trap [of providing money to Wright’s enterprise] and found an imitation of her father’s court. She continued to love Wesley Peters.
Q: Are you working on another book?
A: Not yet!
Q: Anything else we should know about Stalin’s Daughter?
A: It’s a page-turner. You write a biography and you have 400 pages, and then 600 pages—I was anxious the book was too fat—but it can be read in two sittings! It’s a compelling and compulsive read, not an academic biography.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb