‘Over me my father’s shadow hovers’

In 1984, 17 years after defecting from the Soviet Union,  Stalin's daughter Svetlana agreed to give an interview for the Observer, explaining why she had become disillusioned with the West      

Miriam Gross

 (Jane Bown)

No, I cannot be persuaded to talk about the Stalin subject. Perhaps you have noticed that during my 16 years abroad I never did so…The only time I gave in was with Malcolm Muggeridge on his BBC programme in 1981; I regret about that ever since and am not on talking terms with Mugg…I am sorry to be so blunt and bad-mannered but I react in the same way whenever I receive invitations like yours, based on total ignorance and the wrong assumptions.” 

This was how Svetlana née Stalin first responded, in December 1983, to a letter asking whether she would agree to do an interview with me for the Observer. Svetlana, who died in November 2011 aged 85, had defected from the Soviet Union in 1967, denouncing her father and all his works. After spending 16 years in the United States, where she had been briefly married to an American, she was now living in Cambridge (England), with her young daughter from that marriage.

When I tried again, assuring her that we would not talk about Stalin, but rather about her life in the West and how it compared to her former existence in the Soviet Union, she replied with a much longer letter explaining that what preoccupied her at present was the danger of a nuclear war. She did not want to talk about the past but about the future — about how to prevent the wrong politicians on both sides, “who are still blinded by the obsolete propaganda of 40 years ago”, from sliding into war. She passionately hoped that “energetic, moderate-minded politicians” would “mediate between two stubborn, pig-headed superpowers”. She would agree to an interview if this could be our theme. “The worst we could produce would be a long story about Svetlana and how she lived and lives in Freedom — that sort of thing.”

I agreed to this (hoping, when the time came, to slip in a few personal touches) and I also promised that I would show her the text before publication. “Tape recording is essential; I expect to be quoted verbatim,” she rightly insisted. A week or so later, another letter arrived saying that she had changed her mind — “I know it might seem foolish” — but she felt that her views would be misunderstood. “Neither Tory, nor Laborist; both liberal and conservative at the same time; in total disagreement with too many established patterns of today; certainly NOT [her letters were full of capitals and underlinings] pro-feminist, nor in support of male chauvinists; for PEACE, but not in favour of CND; and so on without end…everyone will lash out on me…at the present time we (my daughter and I) are still very shaky and uncertain in our stay in Great Britain; and frankly, I do not know your society at all. And I do not want to create a false impression that I really WANT publicity. I don’t.”

I had a great deal of sympathy both with her independence of spirit and with her precarious position in England. I wrote back to say that I quite understood her reluctance to do an interview, but asked her to get in touch if she changed her mind again. I’m not sure what happened next — I seem to have lost some of her letters — but a few weeks later, in mid-February 1984, she came for lunch at my house to do the interview.

I felt very apprehensive before meeting Svetlana. The idea of a murderous tyrant’s daughter coming to lunch at my home was bizarre in the extreme. In the event, I took to her as soon as she came through the front door. She was an attractive woman, neatly dressed, polite and forthright. She was also formidably intelligent and articulate, despite her imperfect English.

As she had indicated, she spent much of the interview talking about the threat of nuclear war and the irrelevance of the past. As far as she was concerned, “the tremendous influence, today, of the military, the way in which military concepts take over from everything else, means that you almost have a totalitarian regime in America too.” When I asked her whether she didn’t nevertheless find the West a freer place, she did concede that  “of course it is freer. You can do this, you can do that — especially if you have money. People can travel, they can have a house, they can have a car.” What about political freedom? What about the KGB and the legacy of the Gulag? I asked. “Yes, many terrible things have happened in the Soviet Union, but so they have to some degree or other in most parts of the world.”

Luckily, I did get her to talk about other things, her mother, her life in America and even a few words about Stalin: “Over me my father’s shadow hovers, no matter what I do or say.” 

On the day after we met I received a long letter — densely typed and with many hand-written insertions and underlinings. “Thank you for your hospitality. Your house is very pleasant (to my taste) and the salad was very good indeed….On my way home and this morning I feel that I missed a few important points in our conversation.” She had not sufficiently emphasised, she wrote, the urgent need for co-operation, not just by top politicians but by everyone: “All our attitudes, ideas, comparisons (political and historical, plus propaganda) are OBSOLETE…Kremlin is not the centre of the world: the human soul is…what I have learnt…in the last 17 years is that we must all now turn to LOVE and reject all and everybody who is still calling us to HATRED…PLEASE do not think that I had some personal bad experiences in USA and THEREFORE I talk now about how they are both alike…I had, and I will have my bad experiences everywhere — this is my lot and luckily I do know that…I think I missed all this yesterday…in talking I am rather monotonous and do not like overstatements…of course it is all different from [what I say in] my book; but so it ought to be! NO ONE in the world should remain where he stood 17 years ago! That would be lunacy indeed.”

She wrote me several more long letters before the publication of the interview. One of them continued for seven tightly spaced typed pages (with a handwritten postscript: “Enough now, or I’m going to have a heart attack”). In all of them she is very anxious to explain how, having arrived in the West “blind with admiration for the FREE WORLD”, she had come to believe that the US and the USSR were morally equivalent. She had been convinced that “in the FREE WORLD people are superhuman, wise, enlightened…What a terrible blow it is to find out that…there are just the same idiots, incompetent fools, frightened bureaucrats, confused bosses, paranoid fears of deception and surveillance…this loss of idealism is what happens to defectors only too often. BECAUSE we all relied too much on propaganda.”  

She rails against many things: the CIA and the State Department who treated her as a “personal, even much-liked, pet”; the law firm into whose hands she was placed and who were deputed to “control her every step”; the publisher of her two (excellent) books who exploited her “celeb” [sic] status, selling serialisation rights without consulting her and appointing an “outrageously poor” translator whose work later had to be revised; the Sovietologists who idiotically thought that her father had shared his innermost thoughts with her and were greatly disappointed that she couldn’t pass on any secret revelations; the Kremlinologist Louis Fischer who, she alleges, read her second book (Only One Year) in manuscript form and “took the most interesting piece from it and placed it in his own book, The Road to Yalta [which came out before hers], NOT even mentioning the source”. 

She had agreed to everything and signed every document put before her “harmless as a dove”, not realising that she was moving “from one cage to another”. When she finally complained some years later “to my Grand Patron, George F. Kennan, former Ambassador to the USSR etc etc”, about having no rights whatsoever over her own work, “he told me in a mood of tired annoyance: ‘You should not dwell on the past’. I was NOT supposed ever to complain.” Whenever she did, people would say “She has been through a great deal. She is confused.” It is, she says, exactly what the USSR told the world when she defected in 1967.

Another of her targets is Alexander Solzhenitsyn who, she writes, reminds her of the Ayatollah Khomeini. “He would like to arrive there [Russia] one day to be greeted by crowds: then to start ‘liquidating’ his enemies right and left, banning every fresh influence from the ‘corrupt West’, all that…”

 Of spies, she says: “To learn from a spy what politics ought to be, is like learning from Germaine Greer — she also changed sides — about motherhood.” Nor does her American husband, W. W. Peters, come out well. He, with his adult son, went through such money as her publisher had allowed her in “only one year”; meanwhile “they were too lazy to read a book with this title” (her Only One Year). However, she ended up with a “bright, beautiful American daughter…quite a treasure to have. So I do not complain.”

When I finally showed her the text of our interview (it was well over 3,000 words long) Svetlana wrote a charming, grateful letter. She was particularly pleased with the part about her mother, Nadya Alliluyeva, who killed herself when Svetlana was a child: “It was disappointment, profound disappointment in many things, not only in her husband, but in many things…Her suicide was immediately hushed up…She had left a letter which was deeply reproachful, a J’accuse kind of thing, which everyone around thought was so awful that it was destroyed immediately. Later the official version of her death was even worse — that she was somehow insane or unbalanced…I am now 58, and she died at 31, so that from this perspective she is a young beautiful woman, almost like my child, and I keep thinking about her…she grows in my eyes, with every year and every decade, into an absolutely heroic figure…I never admired my father in the same way.”  

After the publication of the interview on March 25, however, Svetlana became increasingly agitated. For a start, she objected strongly to the photograph (by the Observer‘s well-known photographer Jane Bown) — “that pitiful (and ugly) photo” — and to the headline (“Between Two Worlds”): “poor old lady between the two worlds and all alone…” She also worried that she would be quoted out of context and be made to look like a peacenik or a CND supporter.

A few days later, her anger turned against me: “I am outraged with the photo — as any woman would be — from that angle even Liz Taylor would look ugly. But you are telling me that the picture is nice. Please, stop talking to me as if I am a little girl…Thank you for letting me get some of my views to the public. But together with this [the photo], the public got the wrong impression of my supposed loneliness — and now ladies and gents are pushing to be friends. How sickening. It always impresses me how secure, protected, hidden and above it all YOU media people are: you know how to guard yourselves from any possible distortions…You do not understand. Freedom is inside…you do not understand that because your talk was all about democracy, Gulag, cliché things.”

So our relationship deteriorated. This process had already started when, just before the interview was published, I had declined an invitation to visit her in Cambridge — I was too busy at the time. But I always liked her. Though her experiences in America had clearly warped her judgment about life in the West, it is difficult to imagine that anyone else would have reacted very differently. Of course she was volatile and took offence easily, but she was at the same time honest and proud — she hated the thought that anyone might pity her. Her grievances about the photograph and even about the headline, and certainly about the media, were not unjustified. 

Also, she was generous-hearted. In her last letter to me she quotes a “special” friend in Moscow, someone who had gone through “all the circles of hell”. He told her that he divided all human beings into two large categories: the harmless; and those who are harmful. Nothing else mattered. “You”, she wrote, “certainly are among the harmless ones…I enjoyed knowing you. Making an interview with someone you’ve never met is always a difficult thing.” She was a remarkable woman — all the more so, of course, when you consider her extraordinary and tragic background. 

Later that year, to the accompaniment of great fanfare from the Soviet authorities, Svetlana returned to Russia, taking her young daughter with her. It was a year before the beginnings of glasnost, but she had sensed its approach. Somewhere in the Soviet Union, she had told me, a person like Dubcek, “that brave Czech apparatchik”, would emerge. She came back to America two years later. 

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