Leo Tolstoy wrote that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. However, even he would have been hard-pressed to imagine the family of Svetlana Stalin.

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This article was published 20/6/2015 (2363 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Leo Tolstoy wrote that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. However, even he would have been hard-pressed to imagine the family of Svetlana Stalin.

Svetlana's father, Josef Stalin, drove her mother to suicide, exiled her first love to Siberia and had her aunts and uncles imprisoned or shot -- not to mention being responsibile for the massacre of countless millions, including those in the Ukrainian Holodomor.

Josef Stalin spoiled his daughter, and attempted to shelter her from the Holodomor,  the Great Terror and the Second World War.

ICARUS FILMS

Josef Stalin spoiled his daughter, and attempted to shelter her from the Holodomor, the Great Terror and the Second World War.

Critically acclaimed biographer Rosemary Sullivan has written a thoroughly researched account of Svetlana's tormented life.

Various aspects of her life have been previously described by Robert Conquest, Simon Sebag Montefiore and others, including Svetlana herself in her book Far Away Music. Sullivan adds research from Russian, American and British archives as well as numerous interviews with Svetlana's relatives, friends and acquaintances to create as definitive a portrait as we are likely to get.

Sullivan does not pretend that there are not areas of Svetlana's life that we can only guess at. Faulty memories (including Svetlana's), lost records and deliberate misinformation by her adversaries (including the CIA and the KGB) mean there are sometimes different versions of the same incident.

The book grabs the reader's interest by beginning in 1967 with an exciting account of Svetlana's impulsive decision to defect from the Soviet Union. At 41 years old, she was on a visit to India when she walked into the United States Embassy and requested asylum. The ambassador and the CIA station chief put her on a flight to Rome to connect with a U.S.-bound plane.

After the plane took off, the U.S. State Department ordered the ambassador by cable to deny her assistance and remove her from the embassy.

Having got our attention, Sullivan backtracks to Svetlana's childhood in Moscow. When she was six years old, her mother committed suicide.

The motherless girl was spoiled by her all-powerful father. She lived a life of luxury, enjoying private tutors, elite schools, chauffeured limousines and the fearful deference occasioned by her name. As the years passed, she was sheltered from the horrors of the Holodomor, the Great Terror and even the Second World War.

Nevertheless, as her relatives and friends began to disappear without explanation and she discovered the truth of her mother's suicide, she began to face the enormity of her father's behaviour.

Stalin ended all pretence of fatherly love when Svetlana began a series of romantic relationships. By the time she was 26, she had had a torrid affair with a 38-year-old married screenwriter, had been married and divorced twice and had two children.

After Stalin's death, when the extent of his crimes was made public by Nikita Khrushchev, Svetlana changed her last name from Stalin to her mother's name, Alliluyeva.

Sullivan continues with Svetlana's adventures in the U.S., England and (for a while) back in Russia again.

Shortly after she defected, Svetlana's writings made her a millionaire. Unfortunately, she fell into the clutches of the cult-like Taliesin community run by Frank Lloyd Wright's authoritarian widow Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.

Svetlana, who took the name Lana Peters in the U.S., died in poverty in 2011.

STEVE APPS / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Svetlana, who took the name Lana Peters in the U.S., died in poverty in 2011.

At Taliesin, she met and married Wesley Peters and had a daughter by him. Eventually, she spent most of her fortune paying his debts.

Psychologically maimed by her childhood, she could not maintain stable friendships. After the inevitable divorce from Peters, her savings dribbled away over the years, and she died in poverty.

As good as Stalin's Daughter is, Sullivan's book would be even better if she had made it shorter. That said, it is a gripping account of how a woman born into a society of spies, informants, secret police and arbitrary murder tried and failed to take control of her own life.

As Svetlana wistfully said, "I do regret my mother didn't marry a carpenter."

 

John K. Collins thinks his childhood was not so bad after all.

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