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MY FRIEND, STALIN'S DAUGHTER

The complicated life of Svetlana Alliluyeva.

BY NICHOLAS THOMPSON

 

In a childhood game, she would issue orders to her father. He'd answer, "I obey."

PHOTOGRAPH BY GASPER TRINGALE.

O

n April 21, 1967, Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Joseph
Stalin, bounded down the stairs of a Swissair plane at Kennedy
Airport. She was forty-one years old and wore an elegant white
double-breasted blazer. "Hello there, everybody!" she exclaimed to the
crowd of reporters on the tarmac. "I am very happy to be here."

Svetlana immediately became the Cold War's most famous defector.
She was the only living child of Stalin, who had died in 1953, and she
had been known as "the little princess of the Kremlin." Until a few
months earlier, she had never left the Soviet Union. But, at Kennedy,
she talked of the freedom and opportunity that she expected to find in
America. She was coquettish and funny. She spoke fluent English. The
Times published more than a dozen stories about her arrival. The
C.I.A. official who first interviewed her noted in a memo that "our
own preconceived notions of what Stalin's daughter must be like—just
didn't let us believe that this nice, pleasant, attractive, middle-aged
hausfrau could possibly be who she claimed to be."


Svetlana later wrote, "My first impression of America was of the
magnificent Long Island highways." The land was vast, and the people
smiled. After half a lifetime of Communism, she felt "able to fly out
free, like a bird." A few days after her arrival, she gave a press
conference at the Plaza Hotel that was attended by four hundred
reporters. One asked if she planned to apply for citizenship. "Before
the marriage it should be love," she responded. "So if I will love this
country and this country will love me, then the marriage will be
settled."

George Kennan, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union and one of
America's foremost experts on Russia, had helped her to defect, and
she settled in Princeton, where he lived. In the fall of 1967, with
Kennan's help she published "Twenty Letters to a Friend," which
described her family's tragic history through a series of letters to the
physicist Fyodor Volkenstein. The message of the book, it seemed, was
that being one of Stalin's relatives was nearly as terrible as being one
of his subjects. Two years later, she published "Only One Year," a
memoir about the months before and after her decision to flee the
Soviet Union. In The New Yorker., Edmund Wilson wrote breathlessly
that it had "the boldness and the passion of 'Doctor Zhivago.' " The
books sold well, and they made her rich. The K.G.B. gave her the
nickname Kukushka, which means "cuckoo bird."

But the public's fascination with Svetlana didn't last long. She began to
decline interviews, and the press started to lose interest in her: her
defection was special, but her presence was not. She kept writing, but
her work no longer found publishers in the United States. The
fragments of information that emerged suggested that her life had
become lonely and unpleasant. In 1985, Time published a story in
which she was described as isolated, overweight, vindictive, imperious,
and violent. "Her ultimate quarrel was with her father, whom she
fatefully resembled," the author wrote.



By the time the Cold War ended, Svetlana had almost completely
disappeared from public view. In the next twenty years, the Times
published only one story about her, a five-paragraph squib, in 1992,
declaring that she "is living in obscurity in a charity hostel."

I

n 2006, while researching Kennan and the Cold War for a book, I
decided to write to Svetlana Alliluyeva. According to Wikipedia, she
lived in Wisconsin, and a public-records search turned up someone
with her name. It seemed unlikely that the letter would reach her, and,
if it did, that she'd respond, but, a week later, a thick envelope arrived,
holding six tightly folded pages marked "personal and confidential":

I have to apologize—first of all—for the handwritten letter—my
truly conservative aversion to all machinery (including Internet, TV,
microwave oven, etc. etc. . . .). I know how bad is my crochety
handwriting—bad for all young ones, so bad for secretaries too. Alas
—this is all I can do for you and for anybody!

She was eager to discuss Kennan:

Id love to answer all your Qs about the Ambassador G. F.
Kennan—truly the Great American. He so generously had helped
me in 1967. He—then—wanted me to lecture on political modern
history in Princeton, N.J. . . . but Id declined. Political history was
what indeed my father would love to see me excel in.

She had made some bad decisions, she wrote, and now she was
confined to a home for elderly women:

However much has been told—and written—about me—all lies
and libels! . . . Next April (22nd) will be my 40 years in USA which
started with 2 best-sellers, and now came to the quiet life on a
monthly check from SSI—thanks be to FDR for the Wellfare! . . . I
am still here in USA—as a guest after all 40 years—never quite "at
home" here.

We began a correspondence about Kennan, who helped formulate
America's early Cold War policy of containment and then became one
of its most eloquent critics. My book was called "The Hawk and the
Dove," and he was the dove. I had been researching it for a year and a
half, and hadn't yet met anyone who had observed Kennan's
personality as astutely as Svetlana had.

I wrote to her about twice a month, and eventually I started to ask
about her life, too. Sometimes she replied in a chaotic cursive. At other
times, she typed, annotating the text with underlining, insertions, and
sketches of herself pushing a walker, which she referred to as her
"four-wheel drive." She had a vexed relationship with her caps-lock
key. A year after we began corresponding, I went to visit her.

Svetlana, who was then eighty-one years old, lived in a senior citizens'
center in Spring Green, Wisconsin, a town of sixteen hundred people.
When we met, she was dressed in baggy gray sweatpants and
sunglasses, which she wore because of a recent cataract operation. She
was short and compact, and her once red hair had turned white and
had started to thin. Scoliosis had given her a hunch, and she used a
cane. She showed me her one-bedroom apartment on the second floor,
and the little desk by a window where her typewriter stood. Her
bookshelf included old National Geographic videos, maps of California,
Balinese batiks, Hemingway novels, and the Russian-English
dictionary that her father had used.

Svetlana was welcoming, and she spoke with the energy of someone
who hadn't told her story in a long time. After a few hours, she wanted
to take a walk. I offered my arm as we approached the stairs, but she
brushed it away. We headed down a quiet street, to a garage sale,
where a man in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt was selling a small cast-
iron bookshelf. He asked Svetlana if she wanted to buy it. She couldn't,
she said. She had only twenty-five dollars until the first of the month,
when her welfare check came. But maybe he could stash it for her
until then?

The man protested, but she persuaded him. Then we started to walk
away. "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" the man called out. She trudged onward,
without looking back. "People think that I have a German accent, and
I usually say, 'Yes, I had a German grandmother,' " she said, breaking
into a laugh.

I

n the early eighteen-nineties, when Svetlana's German
grandmother, Olga, was a teen-ager, she climbed out of a window in
her home in Georgia to elope. Olga's daughter, Nadya Alliluyeva,

when she was sixteen, ran off with Joseph Stalin, a thirty-eight-year-
old seminarian, poet, and family friend who had become a
revolutionary leader.

Stalin had a son, Yakov, from a previous marriage, and he and
Alliluyeva had two more children, a boy named Vasily and Svetlana,
who was Stalin's favorite. Throughout her youth, they played a game
in which she would send short letters to him, bossing him about: "I
order you to take me to the theatre"; "I order you to let me go to the
movies." He would write back: "I obey," "I submit," or "It will be done."
He called her "my little housekeeper," and signed off, "From Setanka-
Housekeeper's wretched Secretary, the poor peasant."

Nadya died when Svetlana was six—from appendicitis, she was told.
But when Svetlana was fifteen she was home one day reading Western
magazines to practice her English and came across an article about her
father, which noted that Nadya had committed suicide. Olga
confirmed it, and told Svetlana that she had warned Nadya not to
marry Stalin. In "Twenty Letters to a Friend," Svetlana wrote, "The
whole thing nearly drove me out of my mind. Something in me was
destroyed. I was no longer able to obey the word and will of my
father."

The following year, Svetlana, too, fell in love with a thirty-eight-year-
old man, a Jewish filmmaker and journalist named Aleksei Kapler. The
romance began in the late fall of 1942, during the Nazi invasion of
Russia. Kapler and Svetlana met at a film screening; the next time they
saw each other, they danced the foxtrot and he asked her why she
seemed sad. It was, she said, the tenth anniversary of her mother's
death. Kapler gave Svetlana a banned translation of "For Whom the
Bell Tolls" and his annotated copy of "Russian Poetry of the Twentieth
Century." They watched the Disney movie "Snow White and the
Seven Dwarfs" together.

"I think we need a border fence between Fantasy Land and Sexual-Fantasy Land."

Svetlana had a premonition that the
relationship would end badly. Her brother
Vasily, she told me, had always been jealous
of the attention she received from their
father, and he now told Stalin that Kapler
had introduced her to something more than
just Hemingway. Stalin confronted Svetlana
in her bedroom: "Take a look at yourself.

Who'd want you? You fool!" He then yelled
at Svetlana for having sex with Kapler while there was a war going on.
The accusation was false, but Kapler was arrested and sent to the
Vorkuta labor camp, in the Arctic Circle. It was the first time, Svetlana
told me, that she realized that her father had the power to send
someone to prison.

Svetlana enrolled at Moscow State University, where she met and then
married a Jewish classmate named Grigory Morozov. It was the only
way she could escape the Kremlin, she believed, and her father,
preoccupied with the war, grudgingly approved. "Go and marry him,
but I will never meet your Jew," she told me that he said. Their first
child, Iosif, was born just as the Nazis surrendered. Morozov wanted
many more children, but Svetlana, who had literary ambitions, wanted
to finish school. Iosif's birth was followed by three abortions and a
miscarriage. "I was a pale, sickly, green woman," Svetlana told me. She
divorced Morozov and then followed her two acts of romantic
rebellion with one of obedience, marrying Yuri Zhdanov, the son of
one of her father's closest confidants. But, she said, "by the time I
became a married adult, my father had lost all interest in me." In 1950,
just before the Korean War broke out, she gave birth to a girl named
Yekaterina. Svetlana found her new husband cold and uninteresting,
and she soon divorced him. She finished school, and she began a
career lecturing and translating books from English into Russian.

In March, 1953, Stalin had a stroke. Svetlana wrote, "The death agony
was horrible. He literally choked to death as we watched. At what
seemed the very last moment, he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a

glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or
perhaps angry, and full of the fear of death."

His suffering, she wrote, came because "God grants an easy death only
to the just." But she still loved him. As his body was removed for
autopsy, she wrote, "It was the first time I had seen my father naked. It
was a beautiful body. It didn't look old or as if he'd been sick at all. . . . I
realized that the body that had given me life no longer had life or
breath in it, yet I would go on living."

T

hat June, Aleksei Kapler returned from the Gulag. A year later, he
and Svetlana happened to attend the same writers' conference.
"There was very bright light in the foyer," Svetlana told me, smiling
and closing her eyes, as she often did when retreating into memory.
"We just walked into each other."

His hair had turned white, but she thought this only made him more
handsome. Although Kapler was married, they soon became lovers.
"It's a miracle that I can call you," he would say. To her, it was a miracle
that he had forgiven her for her father's crimes. Svetlana wanted
Kapler to divorce his wife, but he wanted only an affair. Never one to
concede defeat, Svetlana confronted Kapler's wife one night at a
theatre. "That was the end of my second marriage, the end of that
second part of my life with Sveta," Kapler later told the writer Enzo
Biagi.

The third part started in 1956, when Svetlana was at Moscow State
University, teaching a course on the hero in the Soviet novel. That
year, Nikita Khrushchev delivered the so-called "secret speech," a four-
hour lecture in which he detailed Stalin's crimes. After the speech,
Kapler's third wife—the poet Yulia Drunina, whose work Svetlana
described to me as "mediocre"—suggested that he give her a
sympathetic call. Svetlana and the couple exchanged visits and
attended parties together. But Svetlana, who couldn't bear to see
Kapler with another woman, sent him a nasty letter about his wife. He
replied in anger, and they never saw each other again. Fifty-two years
later, Svetlana told me that Kapler remained the one true love of her
life.

I

n 1963, Svetlana was thirty-seven years old and living with her
children in Moscow. The family she'd grown up with was gone: her
older half brother, Yakov, had died in a German prisoner-of-war camp,
and Vasily had recently drunk himself to death. She had changed her
last name to Alliluyeva, because she could not tolerate the sound of
"Stalin." In October, she had her tonsils taken out and was recovering
in a Moscow hospital when she met Brajesh Singh, a short Indian
man, who had just had nasal polyps removed. He was a Communist
who had come to Moscow for medical treatment. The two
convalescents began to talk about a book by Rabindranath Tagore that
Svetlana had found in the hospital's library.

Singh was the most peaceful man Svetlana had ever known. He
protested when the hospital wanted to kill the leeches they had used in
his treatment, and he opened windows to let flies escape. When she
told him who her father was, he exclaimed "Oh!" and never mentioned
it again.

They spent a month together in Sochi, by the Black Sea, before Singh
had to return to India. A year and a half later, after delays from the
Soviet and the Indian bureaucracies, Singh returned to Moscow. He
and Svetlana filed papers to get married, but the next day she was
summoned to her father's old office in the Kremlin to meet with
Alexei Kosygin, the Soviet Premier. The marriage was immoral and
impossible, Svetlana recalled him saying: "Hindus treat women badly."

Singh had long suffered from respiratory problems. When he died, in
1966, Svetlana insisted that she be allowed to take his ashes back to
India. It was her first trip outside the Soviet Union and, she said later,
the one moment in her life when she felt blissful. When I visited her
in Wisconsin, she pulled out some black-and-white photographs and
laid them on her cluttered glass coffee table: Singh's family's large
white house, surrounded by cacti the height of trees; a sparse bedroom
with large windows, flowing drapes, and a wooden bed; a man on a
camel on the banks of the Ganges. "India had really tremendous
impact on me—on my thinking, on my everything," she told me.

On March 6, 1967, two days before Svetlana's return flight to the
U.S.S.R., she packed her suitcase and sneaked over to the American
Embassy, where she announced that she was Svetlana Alliluyeva,
Stalin's daughter. "The Stalin?" one of the diplomats asked. Robert
Rayle, the C.I.A. official in India who handled her case, told me that
the agency had no record of her existence, but the Americans decided
to spirit her out of the country before the Soviets realized that she was
missing. That night, Svetlana took the first available flight, which
happened to be heading to Rome. A few days later, she was flown to
Geneva. "She is the most completely cooperative defector I have ever
met," Rayle wired to Washington. At one point, Rayle told me, the
C.I.A. administered an I.Q. test; Svetlana's score was "off the charts."

Iosif and Yekaterina, twenty-one and sixteen, were left at the Moscow
airport, waiting for their mother. Three days later, she sent them a long
letter. Soviet Communism had failed as an economic system and as a
moral idea. She couldn't live under it. "With our one hand we try to
catch the moon itself, but with another one we are obliged to dig out
potatoes the same way it was done a hundred years ago," she wrote.
She urged Iosif to study medicine and Yekaterina to continue to pursue
science. "Please, keep peace in your hearts. I am only doing what my
conscience orders me to do."

When Iosif responded, in April, he wrote:

You must admit that after what you have done, your advice from
afar to take courage, to stick together, not to lose heart, and not let
go of Katie, was, to say the least, strange. . . . I consider that by your
action you have cut yourself off from us.

A

fter Svetlana settled in Princeton, she began hearing from
Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, the widow of Frank Lloyd Wright. She
urged Svetlana to visit the Taliesin Fellowship, the community
dedicated to his memory, which had outposts in Wisconsin and
Arizona. Olgivanna told her that she had a daughter, also named
Svetlana, who had died in a car crash twenty-three years earlier.
Svetlana Alliluyeva thought that perhaps Olgivanna would remind her
of her own mother.

In March, 1970, Svetlana arrived in Scottsdale, a warm city that
smelled of orange blossom. On her first day at Taliesin West, the
Wright compound, she was summoned to a formal dinner, where she
found herself at a long, polished bright-red table. Olgivanna, it turned
out, believed that Svetlana was a reincarnation of her daughter. Her
hope was that this new Svetlana would marry the previous one's
widower—Wesley Peters, a tall man in a sand-colored tuxedo and a
ruffled lavender shirt, who was seated beside her.

Svetlana was immediately taken with Peters, a handsome architect best
known for having led the construction of the Guggenheim Museum a
decade earlier. The next day, the two went for a drive in his Cadillac. "I
suddenly felt complete security and peace near this man," Svetlana
said. Three weeks later, they were married.

Svetlana and Wes lived together contentedly for a short time in his
apartment in the compound in Scottsdale, and then in Spring Green,
Wisconsin, where the Wright fellowship relocated for the summers.
She told me once that he was the first man with whom she had
enjoyed sex. But life at Taliesin, Svetlana wrote, required complete
subservience to Olgivanna. Residents were expected to flatter her, to
confess their sins to her, and never to challenge her. Three months
after Svetlana's arrival, she wrote to Kennan, "I feel sad, that again—as
long ago in my native cruel Russia, I have to force myself to silence,
force myself to false behavior, to hide my true thoughts, and to bend
my head down before the fist of false authority. All that is too damn
sad. But I shall survive."

At the age of forty-four, Svetlana became pregnant. Olgivanna found
children distracting and difficult. According to Svetlana, she worried
that they would disrupt her communication with the dead, and she
demanded that Svetlana have an abortion. Svetlana refused, and, in
May, 1971, she gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Olga, after
her maternal grandmother. Her third child came more than two
decades after the two she had left behind—and with whom she no
longer had any contact. Soon after Olga's birth, Svetlana moved out of
the compound. Wes, whose devotion to his work exceeded his devotion

to his wife, chose to stay behind. "Boy, what I had to endure in my
lifetime," Svetlana wrote to me. "But, surely, a dictator-Father was
somewhat more 'normal,' in my view, than this woman-dictator."

For the first forty-five years of Svetlana's
life, money wasn't a problem. Her father
hadn't used it, didn't need it, and didn't care
about it. In her youth, Svetlana was taken
care of by the state. When she first came to
America, she was made wealthy by her
books. But she spent too much on herself,

Olgivanna demanded money to finance Taliesin, and Wes was a
spendthrift. After they married, Svetlana paid off his vast debts. Then
she gave him money to start an ill-fated cattle farm. After Svetlana
and Wes agreed to divorce, her lawyer, Walter Pozen, Kennan's son-
in-law, spent a year working on a settlement. One day, his phone rang
in the middle of the night.

"I don't want to sign the agreement," he recalls her saying. She was still
in love with Peters and had no desire to take anything from him.

"You can't buy him back," Pozen snapped. Svetlana hung up. She didn't
get her money, and it was five years before she spoke to Pozen again.

After Taliesin, Svetlana returned to Princeton. Men continued to fall
for her, but her life was unsettled in every way. She started to move
around constantly: from New Jersey to California and back again.
"Mom used to move around every year, sometimes twice in a year,"
Olga told me. "She always had to be in a new place by November,
when her mother died." Her friends kept abandoning her, Svetlana
wrote, so she "had to go on blindly alone. Again I made mistakes, led
by estate agents, by a stray conversation, by various moods." Then, in
the early eighties, in part because she believed that she could find a
better school for Olga, Svetlana moved to England.

She and Kennan continued to write to each other regularly. But, in the
late seventies, her tone changed. She was angry that Kennan hadn't
sufficiently promoted her books, and that the lawyers he hired had
assigned the copyright of the English version of "Twenty Letters" to
Priscilla Johnson McMillan, its translator. Svetlana believed that all
she needed to do in order to make money was print more copies, and
that not having the copyright prevented her from doing so.

To each rant, Kennan responded with restraint and, eventually,
Svetlana would apologize. But then she would, once again, remind
Kennan of what she considered to be his many flaws:

April 28, 1976

Dear George, you are unhappy—and this is very obvious—
because you constantly betray yourself.

You constantly do not allow yourself to be yourself. You've put
yourself—and all your life—into the pattern of (pardon me, please!)
that deadly Presbyterian Righteousness which looks "good" only in
pronouncements from the pulpit.

Sept. 5, 1977

Anyway, I did not cry over someone's letter for many years, yet
yours put me to tears. I know that nobody in the whole world is able
to understand my strange life better than you do; and no one really
cares. But for some strange reason, you do.

Aug. 4, 1979

How sad, indeed, that after all these years which we have all
begun together, friendships are shuttered, and even memories of the
past seems to differ so much. . . . Good-bye, George. I feel sorry that
you have associated yourself with my name for such a long time.

Jan. 27, 1983

They tricked me. . . . I thought I am receiving an advance. IN
FACT I sold ALL MY RIGHTS to my own book. . . . You NEVER wanted
to listen to truth, because you only liked to hear pleasantries of all
sorts. I tried desperately with many various lawyers to get my rights
back—because damn it I AM THE AUTHOR.

O

lga was eleven before she learned who her grandfather was.

One day, paparazzi showed up at her school in England and an
administrator had to smuggle her out in her car, hidden under

blankets. That night, her mother explained it all. "It was a lot to
process," Olga told me. "But there was always a lot to process with
Mom."

The next year, Svetlana was at home in the apartment that she and
Olga shared, near the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, when
the phone rang.

"Mama, is that you?" a man said in Russian. It was Iosif, calling for the
first time in fifteen years. Svetlana froze, and then told him how much
his voice had changed.

"You, too—you speak like a foreign tourist," he said.

They talked for a few minutes, and then he said, "Call me whenever
you want!" To Svetlana, this implied that the new Soviet leader, Yuri
Andropov, had approved the phone call. "I knew my son too well to
imagine this was just his courageous intention," she later wrote.

They talked from time to time, and Svetlana began to think about
returning to the Soviet Union. Iosif, who was now a cardiologist, and
Yekaterina, who was a geologist, each had a child. Olga could meet her
half siblings and her cousins. "The more my mind realized what a
shock my trip to the U.S.S.R. would be for everyone, the more my
heart insisted on it," she wrote.

In October, 1984, she met Iosif at the Sovietsky Hotel, in Moscow. She
passed through the revolving doors, and he strode across the wide
marble floor to greet her. But everything seemed tense and awkward.
Svetlana noticed a woman she considered to be ugly and old, and was
startled to learn that it was her son's wife. Iosif refused to engage with
his American-born half sister. At dinner, Svetlana held her son's hand
in hers, but it felt alien. "It used to be long and slim, with beautiful
fingers, a refined hand," she wrote in "A Book for Granddaughters," an
unpublished account of this period, which she sent to me. "Now the
fingers have become plumper and shorter—is such a thing possible at
all?"

Yekaterina, working in Kamchatka, didn't come. A few months later,
she sent a single-page letter to her mother, declaring that she "never
forgives," that she "never could forgive," and that she did "not want to
forgive." "Then, in language worthy of a Pravda editorial, I was
accused of every kind of mortal sin against the beloved motherland,"
Svetlana wrote. The letter ended with the Latin "Dixit"—"She has
spoken."

The Soviet leaders boasted of Svetlana's return, but she was miserable
there. When approached by reporters on the street, she swore at them
in frustration. At a formal press conference, she seemed ill-tempered
and ill-mannered. "In those cold autumn days of 1984 in Moscow, I
felt as if I was sinking into dark waters—as it is sometimes in a
nightmare," she wrote. Even the architecture seemed grimly
oppressive. Olga remembers that her relatives were disappointed that
she and her mother hadn't returned with suitcases full of VCRs and
international perfume. A month after her arrival, during a sleepless
night, Svetlana had a vision of Georgia, her parents' birthplace. Soon
afterward, she and Olga flew to Tbilisi.

She felt more at ease there, but her father haunted her in a new way.
"My greatest burden lay in the need of everyone to tell me 'what a
great man' my father was: some accompanied the words with tears,
others with hugs and kisses," she wrote. "It was a torture for me. I
could not tell them how complex were my thoughts about my father."

Olga felt the same way. "It was like I was made out of cotton candy;
everyone was just swooping me up and nurturing me," she said.
"People were crying at the sight of my mother and me."

The affection was oppressive, and within a year Svetlana decided that
she needed to leave the Soviet Union. The purpose of her visit had
been to reunite with her family, but Yekaterina was hostile and Iosif
hadn't written to her since she left Moscow. She asked the new
General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, for permission to depart. He
was amenable, as long as Svetlana met with one senior hard-liner. So
she headed to the familiar corridors of the Central Committee
building to see Comrade Yegor Ligachev. "Your problem has been

solved by the General Secretary," Ligachev said. Then he raised his
forefinger: "But—behave!" As she left, he added, "The Motherland
will survive without you. The question is: will you survive without the
Motherland?"

In 2008, I read online that Iosif had died of a heart attack, at the age of
sixty-three. A few days later, I spoke to Svetlana on the phone and she
joked that she expected to eventually die of heart failure. I realized that
she must not have known about her son's death, so I called Olga, who
now goes by a different name, and lives in Portland, Oregon, where
she sells antiques, vintage clothes, and scented candles. She thanked
me for calling and told me to keep writing letters to her mother,
adding, "She's a sweet, gentle, vulnerable woman who is followed
around by demons."

T

he second time I visited Svetlana, in the spring of2008, she had
moved to Richland Center, another town in Wisconsin. A few
months before, an N.Y.U. student named Lana Parshina had visited
her in Spring Green to videotape her for a class project. Svetlana had
agreed, she told me, because she thought that Parshina looked as if she
could be her grandchild. But, soon afterward, Svetlana became
convinced that Parshina worked for Russian intelligence—why had
Parshina wanted to do the interview in Russian? why had she travelled
to Moscow soon after the conversation?—and that Vladimir Putin
now had video of her Spring Green apartment. Svetlana was scared; it
was time, she thought, to move on. (Parshina, who still works on films,
and who is an American citizen, told me that Svetlana's suspicions
were "very sad.")

"Where once there was one sandwich—now there are two!"

I stayed in Richland Center for a weekend,
asking Svetlana questions about Kennan. At
eighty-two, she was slower and more
forgetful. On Sunday afternoon, I took her to
lunch at a diner called the Center Cafe, and
she wore an elegant scarf—a present from
the children of the nanny who had taken
care of her in her youth, she said. When we had finished eating, she
stood to hobble out to the car. A heavyset woman held the door for
her and started to talk in a thick Wisconsin accent about how she was
good at opening doors for the elderly, because she had two parents in
nursing homes. Svetlana walked swiftly ahead to escape the
conversation. "Goodbye, and whatever," she muttered.

O

ver the years, Svetlana and I had grown closer, and she began to
give me advice—lots of it. I shouldn't go into politics, she told me
over and over. When my first son was due, she insisted that I stay away
from the hospital. I should avoid the pain, and wait for him to be
shown to me, clothed and clean. She told me to slow down: "Do not
overwork—!!!!! EVER!!!!!" When I wrote to tell her that I was going to
Russia to do some reporting on a secret Soviet nuclear device, she
panicked: "DO NOT GO!" Putin would kidnap me. I would be turned by
Russian spies. "Be careful with plump, drinking Russian women
—PLEASE!! You just do not know how far they might go, out of that
stupid 'Russian patriotism.' But I know."

At one point, she exploded in a letter: "While I am still breathing
(with difficulty, lately) PLEASE leave me alone!" She continued, "You
do not want to cause me the final stroke, do you, Nick?" But the
tantrums passed quickly. After one rant about how the copyright of the
English version of "Twenty Letters" had been assigned to Priscilla
Johnson McMillan, I called McMillan. She was surprised to learn that
she had the copyright, and said that she would happily return it.
Svetlana was delighted when I showed her the forms indicating the
re-registration at the Library of Congress, under her name.

In May, 2009, I read a book by Sergo Beria, the son of Lavrenti Beria,
Stalin's sadistic secret police chief. The book described Svetlana's youth
and included the declaration that she had wanted to marry Sergo. I
knew to be cautious when asking anything related to Lavrenti Beria,
whom Svetlana considered to be at the center of her family tragedy.
Nadya had called him a "dirty man," and banned him from the house.
When she died, Svetlana wrote, Beria "got my father's ear, who after

my mother's suicide did not trust anybody and was a ruined man." In
her telling, Nadya's death led to Beria's rise, which led to many of the
horrors for which her father was blamed.

Still, she had just asked me to send her more questions, and the stories
told by Sergo were both colorful and plausible. (He quoted Svetlana
once as saying, "Really, it's impossible to love men. You have to treat
them as the bees treat the bumblebees.") So I decided to ask about
Sergo and her youth.

A letter soon arrived, describing Beria's "accursed family" and
denouncing me. "It is a pity that the dirty waters of what is called
'American culture'—namely American journalism—swept over your
head," she wrote. "You certainly could do much better in the more
honorable field—say Arts. . . . Good-by, dear Nicholas, and I hope that
your life will NOT be devoted to Politics. What a waste of human
resources."

I wrote to apologize. A few days later, I received an envelope
containing my unopened letter and a short note: "All your letters will
be returned the same way, as this one (enclosed), unopened and
unread." She added, "I am trying to sever our correspondence in the
most polite fashion."

Two months later, she wrote again:


Dear Nicholas,

I am writing this to apologize for what I regard as impermissible
rudeness, and totally bad manners. I am the one always to dislike
those; but in old age and high b/pressure such things happen often.
Every doctor can testify to that.

Yet doctors or not, I dislike such outbursts, and want here—
belatedly perhaps—to say: I am very, very sorry.

There is a very coarse Russian folk-saying, to which I hesitate to
find English equivalents: but I will try. It goes like this: "Do not
touch the shit—it won't stink." In this context of ours it means—do
not touch the PAST, it would not stink. . . .

You are not alone—everyone who talked to me here in USA,
from G. Kennan to all the ladies and all the journalists—looked at
me ONLY through this prism: my father's life. AS if I never had a
mother! Her inability to exist in these absolutely political waters
caused her suicide. I have survived much, much longer—may be
because her sad lesson taught me a lot. To be more patient, may be,
than she was. . . .

Whatever it is, it does not give me the right to be rude. This is
why I am writing this: to apologize.

I wrote back with a new request: Tell me about your mother. This time,
she replied. But it was not an easy subject. "Twenty Letters to a
Friend," though dedicated to her mother, contains no tender memories.
She remembers her mother spanking her and her father rushing to
comfort her. "I cannot recall her kissing or caressing me ever," she
wrote. In the one letter from her mother that she had saved, she was
scolded for her behavior: "When Mama went away, her little girl made
a great many promises, but now it turns out she isn't keeping them." At
one point, Svetlana wrote, her mother had declared that she was bored
by "everything, even the children." Years later, Svetlana told Olga that
her mother had drawn a tattoo of a black square over her heart and
told her that "this is where the soul is." It was the spot in which she
shot herself.

Now, though, Svetlana wanted me to think about her mother's politics.
Nadya was an early feminist who should never have married Stalin.
The act that defined her for history—her suicide—should be regarded
as an act of political courage, not of maternal abdication:

They were such different creatures—but there could be other
solutions other than suicide. Yet at this time—1920-ies, early 1930-
ies, suicide was very much "en vogue," so to say, to express opposition
to what was going in Russia.

She concluded:

And more and more she had become "the First Lady" of the
country, more life was becoming impossible for her. . . . Please—
please, try to see her not as she was presented but the real Nadya—
the fighter, in her own way.

With that, her letters became warm again. I wrote less frequently,
though. My book was done, and I had fewer questions. In June, 2011,
she began to write about death:

I hate to have a stroke, and pray to Almighty to give me heart-
attack, instead; at least it is quick. BUT I was always some kind of a
sinner, so my plea would hardly be considered up there.

A few months later, the phone rang. It was Olga. Her mother, who
was eighty-five, had colon cancer and was in the hospital. She wanted
to hear from people and to exercise her brain. Olga asked me not to
mention my children. The topic seemed to distress her mother. I sent a
letter, but didn't hear back.

When Olga realized that Svetlana was close to death, she wanted to
visit, but Svetlana had requested that her daughter not see her die, and
that she not be allowed to view the body. Svetlana, Olga told me, had
been haunted her entire life by the sight of her mother lying in an
open coffin.

Svetlana died that November. She had told me several times that this
was the hardest month for her. It was when everything started to get
cold, and when her mother had killed herself. Svetlana had told me
that she expected to die at the age of eighty-five. I said that Kennan
had been fatalistic, too. He was sure that he would die at fifty-nine, but
he'd lived to the age of a hundred and one. She responded, "Well, he
lived the way he wanted to. I don't live the way I want to." ♦


 

 


O-
Nicholas Thompson is the editor of newyorker.com where he oversees and manages the
magazine's Web site.


 

 


 

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