By the late 1990s, Svetlana Alliluyeva was living in sheltered accommodation in Redruth. Few of the visiting tourists would have given this old woman walking the Cornish coastline a second glance. She had almost no money, almost no friends and had, in her own words, become “an English derelict”.
Yet in her room were four photographs that gave testament to an extraordinary life. They were of her daughter, who now lived in the United States; her mother, who shot herself when Svetlana was six; her grandmother, whose family was largely killed or imprisoned by Svetlana’s father; and her childhood nanny, who she’d say was the only person who truly showed her love. What was notably missing was a photograph of the man whose shadow had caused her to end up on these Cornish hilltops: her father, Joseph Stalin.
Philip Larkin wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, but this can rarely be as directly true as for Svetlana. Her mother shot herself after being publicly humiliated by her husband, leaving her child to a solitary life within the walls of the Kremlin. Teenage dates meant a bodyguard at the next door table; school writing lists of her own father’s achievements.
Her aunt and uncle were executed and their son, Svetlana’s childhood playmate, disappeared. Her first love was sent to the Gulag and her mother’s sister sentenced to confinement. Her half-brother was killed by the Nazis while a POW after their father refused a prisoner swap.
It is little surprise that Svetlana emerged a mess: at times imperious and putting associates’ lives at risk through her loose tongue; at others crippled by social awkwardness and desperately searching for someone to love her as her parents never did. This resulted in three husbands, so many affairs the CIA labelled her a “nymphomaniac”, and a defection not only to America but also, briefly, back to her communist homeland.
Reading this extensively researched book, it is impossible not to feel for a woman who grew up “the political prisoner of my father’s name” and who despite all her efforts – whether as a wife, writer or even during a dalliance with a commune – could never escape it.
Interestingly, the person who comes out best is Svetlana’s own daughter, Olga, who was born while her mother lived in the United States. She only learnt her own genealogy when aged 11 as the Daily Mail helpfully tracked her down to her British boarding school to break the news. She dealt with this legacy by not only financially supporting her mother whenever she would allow it but by becoming resolutely normal. She now lives in Oregon, where she owns a small antique shop, shuns attention, and collects Tibetan artefacts. Stalin would have hated it.
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