It’s an old saw to call someone’s life worthy of a novel. Yet when several obituaries used the phrase to describe the life of Lana Peters, an 85-year-old retiree who died in Richland Center, Wisconsin, in late November, the phrase rang true. Mrs. Peters, reclusive in recent years, was known in her former homeland as Svetlana Alliluyeva, and in a former life as Svetlana Stalina. Once the Soviet Union’s most famous child, she became its most notorious defector—and that was only the start of her saga. At the end of it, Stalin’s daughter was both a relic and a victim of her inhuman time.
Born in 1926, the younger child of the general secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin and his second wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva, Svetlana led the opposite of a charmed life. Her mother committed suicide in 1932; the cause of death was officially reported as appendicitis. Yakov, her beloved half-brother from Stalin’s first marriage, was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1941 and died in a POW camp; Stalin not only rejected a proposed trade but refused to acknowledge his son’s captivity.
Svetlana’s own relationship with her father, as described in her 1967 memoir, Twenty Letters to a Friend, was warm and affectionate when she was a child. Then, it soured badly over her teenage romance with the married filmmaker Alexei Kapler, 23 years her senior. Stalin’s response was a characteristically brutal combination of domestic and state tyranny. He slapped Svetlana and accused her in the grossest terms of having illicit sex; Kapler, meanwhile, was shipped off to Siberia for 10 years. Kapler’s Jewishness, apparently, added to the offense: Alliluyeva recalled her father sneering, “She couldn’t even find herself a Russian!”
Svetlana went on to date and marry a Jewish university classmate, Grigory Morozov. This time Stalin was displeased but did not interfere, though he refused to meet his son-in-law. And a few years later, when she was divorced and remarried and the Soviet Union was in the grip of a vicious anti-Semitic campaign, Stalin told a skeptical Svetlana her first husband had been a Zionist plant. Stalin was much happier about her second husband, the son of his loyal henchman Andrei Zhdanov, but tensions between father and daughter remained high—particularly after several of her mother’s relatives were arrested in the new wave of terror in 1948.
In 1950, after the difficult premature birth of Svetlana’s second child, Stalin’s only communication was a tepidly supportive note urging her to take care of herself and the baby—“the state needs people, even those who are born prematurely.” (Wrote Alliluyeva, “It made me terribly uneasy to think that the state already needed my little Katya, whose life was still in the balance.”) In an almost comical incongruity, the note was signed “Papochka,” equivalent of “Daddy.”
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Svetlana—by then divorced again—adopted her mother’s maiden name. But a far more decisive rejection of her father was to come.
In the early 1960s, Alliluyeva became involved with Brajesh Singh, an Indian Communist living in Moscow. Soviet officials would not allow them to marry; but, after Singh died in October 1966, Alliluyeva obtained permission to take his ashes to India. On March 6, 1967—one day after the fourteenth anniversary of Stalin’s death—she walked into the American embassy in New Delhi and asked for political asylum.
Alliluyeva arrived in New York as an instant celebrity; Twenty Letters to a Friend, smuggled to the West some time before her defection, was published in October and soared to best-sellerdom, making her a millionaire. She settled in Princeton, New Jersey, where she lectured, wrote, and made occasional statements denouncing the Soviet regime.
The next novel-like twist came in 1970 with marriage to architect Wesley Peters, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. The newly minted Lana Peters joined her husband at Taliesin West, the Arizona desert compound then run by Wright’s widow. She found the communal living and cultish atmosphere unpleasantly Soviet-like; her husband frowned on her bourgeois desire for a suburban home. Like Alliluyeva’s two Soviet marriages, her American one fell apart after producing one child—a daughter, Olga.
In the decade after this divorce, Alliluyeva kept a low profile. She became a U.S. citizen in 1978 (having earlier publicly burned her Soviet passport), then moved to England in 1982 to enroll Olga in boarding school. In November 1984 came a new bombshell: Stalin’s daughter was back in the U.S.S.R.