RICHLAND CENTER, Wisconsin — The life of Svetlana Alliluyeva — the dictator Josef Stalin’s only daughter — was no simple affair. Born a celebrity, she enjoyed years of adoration both from her father and her Russian countrymen.
But, that would prove to be a short-lived phase in a complicated life that took her from being a Russian celebrity, to a famous defector, to a best-selling author and finally to her death as the anonymous and impoverished American, Lana Peters.
As the dictator of the Soviet Union, Stalin and his reign of terror was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 20 million people. But, as a young girl, Svetlana only saw her father’s softer side.
Stalin nicknamed her his “little sparrow” and spoiled her with presents and American movies.
Svetlana’s childhood innocence was shattered when Stalin sent the love of her life to a Siberian prison camp. At 17, she fell in love with Aleksei Kapler, but her father disapproved of the fact that he was a Jew and a Bohemian artist.
“He put to jail and then to labor camp the man I loved,” Svetlana said. “I saw for the first time that my father could do that.”
From then on, her relationship with her father and her home country was irreparably fractured.
“He broke my life,” she said. “I want to explain to you. He broke my life.”
After Stalin’s death in 1953, a misguided K.G.B. plan to assassinate her and two failed marriages, Svetlana defected to America. In 1967, she left behind her two children to escape the oppression of her home country and move to America.
Her children were crushed by her decision and their relationship never recovered.
She was greeted in New York with a triumphant flare and was quickly turned into a Cold War propaganda icon for America.
“I have come here to seek the self-expression that has been denied me for so long in Russia,” she said.
Within her first two years in America, Svetlana published two books, “Twenty Letters to a Friend” and “Only One Year.”
Both of the books were best-sellers, giving Svetlana financial stability and fame.
But with that fame came unwanted attention. Svetlana quickly grew tired of the limelight, and rightfully so. Recently declassified documents show that even the FBI was snooping on her personal life.
However, the media’s fascination with Svetlana ebbed after several years in the spotlight. She changed her name to Lana Peters, remarried and had another child.
After a short stint in England, Svetlana decided to move back to the Soviet Union in 1984 to reconnect with her family there. Russian officials readily forgave her defection, though Svetlana despised the constant reminders of her father.
“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 said. “It was torture for me.”
Her family — and particularly her children — were not so willing to forgive her. After an excruciating year of fighting with her family members, Svetlana returned to America and vowed to never go back.
Svetlana lived the rest of her days in obscurity and poverty. She reportedly lived in a cabin in Wisconsin with no electricity for several years. Some say she spent a period of time in a Roman Catholic convent in Switzerland, or in a home for the elderly in West London.
What’s certain is that she spent her final years in a modest nursing home in Wisconsin before she died of colon cancer at 85.
Though Svetlana’s waning years were not her most glamorous, perhaps anonymity gave her a measure of solace.
“Wherever I go,” she said, “here, or Switzerland, or India, or wherever. Australia. Some island. I will always be a political prisoner of my father’s name.”
Svetlana, like the other children of dictators, was forced to live with the overwhelming weight of her father’s sins. Similarly to Svetlana, Alina Fernandez — the daughter of tyrant Fidel Castro — never fully escaped from her father’s presence.
Fernandez was also a high-profile defector whose past consistently came back to haunt her.
“Now that I’m in exile, I feel I need to do something. You can’t just bury the past,” Fernandez said.
Svetlana lived a complicated life, full of ups and downs and rife with controversy. Alienated by her country and her family — including the children she left behind — Svetlana tried to carve her own path in life.
She had limited success, but in the end, Stalin’s looming presence proved too daunting of a figure to overcome.
“Over me my father’s shadow hovers,” Svetlana said. “No matter what I do or say.”
– Sam Hillestad
Sources: Daily Mail, New York Times, The New Yorker, History Channel