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Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Stalin was a jolly man, but a bit sarcastic

SVETLANA Alliluyeva, 67, only daughter of the dictator, Joseph Stalin, and now living on charity at a home for elderly women in north London, refused to see her Russian cousins who were visiting the capital last week. She sent them a brief note saying merely that she was 'indisposed'. Her first cousin, Kyra Politskaya, 73, and Olga Alliluyeva, 38, her first cousin-once- removed, said Svetlana's response was not unexpected. The two women were discreet about their feelings, but I believe they were disappointed that on their first visit to London, Svetlana had chased them away.

A strong streak of paranoia, even schizophrenia, runs through this family - inevitably I suppose when so many of them suffered so horribly from their association with the Soviet leader. The fate of the Alliluyev family, which succoured Stalin when he was a revolutionary in Georgia and on the run from the Tsar's secret police and provided him with a wife and social stability, is a classic Russian tragedy.

From the time Stalin launched his purges in the 1930s, the Alliluyev family tree was cut to pieces by suicide (his wife), suspected poisoning (his brother-in-law), firing squad (another brother-in-law),jail (two sisters-in-law) and jail and exile (one niece). Yet as they died or were incarcerated these relatives by marriage refused to blame Stalin. They really loved and trusted the old bastard, believing they were victims of a conspiracy organised by Beria, Joe's secret policeman and executioner, and others jealous of the family's closeness to the dictator.

The tragedy of the family's revolutionary innocence is found in The Long Shadow, a history of Stalin's relatives by Rosamond Richardson and published by Little Brown last week. Kyra, Stalin's niece and the one he jailed and sent into exile, and Olga, his great niece, were brought to Britain for the book launch. I met them at Browns Hotel, off Piccadilly, after they had wolfed down an English tea.

Kyra is a former actress, rather timid by the standards of our thespians, but talkative, lightly flirtatious, twice married, trusting and kindly. Born in 1919 she was the eldest of Joe's nieces and nephews. Her father, Pavel Alliluyev, (elder brother of Stalin's wife Nadya, the mother of Svetlana) was in the Red Army, a close friend of Stalin and the one who died suddenly in mysterious circumstances in 1938, officially of a heart attack, after he had appealed for the life of several colleagues during the first great purges.

After his death, Kyra's mother Eugenia accused Beria of being an enemy of the family in front of Stalin. Eugenia was sent to jail for 10 years in 1947 during the second wave of purges and set free seven years later after Nikita Khrushchev had come to power.

'When mother returned home in 1954 she said at first: 'I knew it] I knew Stalin would release me.' My brother said this was nonsense because Stalin was dead. This shows the degree of faith my family had in Stalin. In my own case I believed in my soul that Stalin must take some responsibility because he did nothing to protect my family. None of us would have been touched if Stalin had objected,' Kyra said.

Why did he do it, I asked? 'I don't know. We are still wondering. He was just like that.' Did you hate him at the time? 'No I can't say I felt hatred towards Stalin. You made sure you never asked him for anything, though. He would just do the opposite. For example, I know that if I had appealed from my prison cell for help, as my jailers suggested, he would have locked me away for good, or perhaps sent me to the firing squad.'

As a child Kyra remembers Stalin as a jolly man, much more approachable than her Aunt Nadya, his wife, whom she described as austere. After the revolution the Alliluyevs and Stalin lived in the same Kremlin flat, sharing a common kitchen, though each family had separate rooms. They also shared the same dacha in the countryside.

'Stalin was very gay, he was hospitable, he liked people, he was always joking with us, but his humour was very sarcastic. He would find a weak spot and hit it hard. He liked scoring points, it wasn't just with me it was with everyone. He said all the time that I had 'a hole in my head', which in Russian means you are scatty,' she said.

'When I was arrested two months after my mother and was held in solitary confinement in Lefortovo prison for five months I was never told why I was in jail. My interrogators said only that I had spread rumours so I think Stalin decided I talked too much. I was sent away from Moscow to internal exile for five years.'

During this time her family's possessions were confiscated. When they returned to Moscow in the late 1950s and reoccupied their apartments Svetlana helped the family, especially with money. I asked whether the family still felt beholden to her. 'Why should we?' Kyra snapped back. 'She never earned a penny in her life. It was all given to her by the state.'

This, I decided, was a family where some wounds cannot heal.

(Photograph omitted)