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.
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 RealClearPolitics.com and a contributing editor to Reason magazine.