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Steeled in Struggle

The saga of Stalin’s daughter.

Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By CATHY YOUNG
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The principal reason for her return was entirely personal: hope for reconciliation with the children she had left behind, Iosif and Katya. But the spin was inevitably political. Returning to Moscow in what no one yet knew were the twilight days of the Soviet regime, she told the Soviet press that she had not known “one single day” of freedom in the West.

The new disillusionment was quick and bitter. The reunion with Iosif ended in a nasty fight; Katya shunned her mother completely; and 13-year-old Olga, who spoke no Russian, was furious over the move. An attempt to settle in Georgia, the homeland her father had rejected, proved fruitless. In 1985, Alliluyeva petitioned the Soviet government for permission to return to the United States—where she proceeded to repudiate her anti-Western statements and tell the Washington Post that she’d had to leave America for a while to realize, “Oh, my God, how wonderful it is!”

In the ensuing years, Alliluyeva remained rootless and restless. She reportedly spent time in a Swiss Catholic convent and in a London home for people with severe emotional problems. She lost her fortune to poor financial management and, she claimed, charitable giving. Olga, now known as Chrese Evans, settled in Portland, Oregon, where she manages a boutique.

Alliluyeva remained a creature of paradox. For all her rebellion against her father, she was also something of an apologist, often complaining that Stalin was being blamed for atrocities that were the responsibility of the entire Soviet regime. Her attitude toward the United States was equally contradictory. In a rare interview granted in 2007 to Russian-born filmmaker Lana Parshina, Alliluyeva accused America of exploiting her for Cold War propaganda: “For me, these amerikashki”—a derogatory term for Americans—“with their nuclear bomb were no better than the Soviets.” She expressed regret that she had not stayed in neutral Switzerland, adding that “in 40 years, America did not give me anything.” 

Yet in the same interview, she spoke with genuine warmth of her “sentimental” gratitude to the CIA for protecting her from being sent back to the Soviet Union in 1967 and helping her obtain U.S. citizenship. In 2010, when Parshina’s film Svetlana About Svetlana was about to be shown at the Wisconsin Film Festival, Alliluyeva—again going by Lana Peters—offered an interview to the Wisconsin State Journal to correct the impression that she was unhappy in America; her only unhappiness, she said, was living so far from her daughter.

Some of Alliluyeva’s erratic comments may be attributable to mental difficulties. Yet one senses a deeper truth in her statement, in the Parshina interview, that she was always caught “in between.” She was referring to the two camps in the Cold War, but the conflict was also within herself. After having to struggle against being treated as state property, she can be forgiven, perhaps, for resenting attempts to appropriate her for any political cause. Soviet dogma held that “the public is above the personal.” Svetlana Alliluyeva always saw the great political battles of the 20th century through the lens of her own personal tragedies and quests.

Cathy Young is a columnist for and a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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