There is no denying Rosemary Sullivan’s thoroughness and dedication when it comes to research. In pursuit of information about Svetlana Alliluyeva, the subject of her new biography, the author travelled to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Gori, Tbilisi, London, Washington, Princeton, and elsewhere. She interviewed countless family members, acquaintances, friends, and Svet-lana’s youngest daughter, Chrese Evans – who shared her mother’s letters and unpublished writing – and pored through archives and documents from the KGB, CIA, and British Foreign Office, among others. All of this was done in an effort to understand the experiences and the complicated, often convoluted life of a misunderstood and tragic figure.
Svetlana was the only daughter of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin (she adopted her mother’s maiden name as a rejection of her father). Sullivan takes readers through Svetlana’s life from her birth in 1926 to her death in 2011 in this exhaustive biography, which is heartbreaking, confounding, and fascinating, if overly long.
As a young child, Svetlana was alternately favoured and abused by her father. Letters from Stalin to his “little sparrow” were surprisingly tender, and he was known to joke and laugh with her. But other times he would ignore her or sling insults at her if she displeased him. Still, Svetlana looked back on her early years as generally happy until she was six, when her mother, Nadya, committed suicide. A decade later, Stalin had Svetlana’s first love, a Jew named Aleksei Kapler, sent to a Siberian Gulag for 10 years in order to keep them apart.
Svetlana went on to marry four times, and have children with three different men. She impulsively defected to the U.S. (abandoning her two eldest children, then 21 and 17, in the process), defected back to the U.S.S.R. 18 years later – and back to the U.S. less than two years after that – published two books, became a millionaire only to end up a pauper, and befriended intellectuals, artists, diplomats, and CIA agents. Through it all, she never managed to shake free of her identity or her father’s shadow.
Much of this information – including a fairly in-depth account of Svetlana’s defection to the U.S. via the embassy in India – can be gleaned from the lengthy preface and prologue. The choice to include so much detail in these opening sections seems odd, and results in repetition and a lessened feeling of outrage on Svetlana’s behalf when the events are expanded upon later in the text.
Sullivan dives into Svetlana’s story without providing the reader with any historical context, but the author soon corrects this oversight; thereafter, the book’s first half bounces between explanations of the political and social climate in the U.S.S.R., explorations of family history and relationships, Stalin’s biography, and the myriad complexities of life in the Kremlin. Svetlana’s association with these proceedings sometimes feels forced, though events directly related to her family are inevitably more affecting than the political exposition.
It is impossible, of course, to separate Svetlana’s story from Stalin’s, at least so long as their lifetimes overlap (Stalin died in 1953). This perhaps explains why readers don’t get a real sense of the woman until after her defection in 1967, an event that falls about halfway through the book. From that point on, we are given more of Svet-lana’s own words via excerpts from her letters and books, as well as input from her daughter Chrese (then called Olga). Sullivan does an excellent job getting inside Svetlana’s head, quoting friends and relatives who were close to the woman, and theorizing about why Svetlana behaved in certain ways or made questionable decisions:
It was as if Svetlana had two modes: abject submission or total rebellion. She had married a Jewish man against her father’s wishes long before she had defected from his country, for which act she believed, accurately, that he would have killed her. Her father’s censure lurked in her mind long after his death. She was always fighting to find her own authority, her own way. She would abjectly accept others’ advice and then rebel.
Through Sullivan’s extensive reportage, we are presented with a portrait of a woman whose life was defined by inherited notoriety and constant fear. No matter where she went Svetlana was recognized and judged by her father’s crimes (or victories, depending on who was doing the judging). She was a fascinating, troubled woman who tried desperately to be Stalin’s antithesis. Sullivan’s greatest accomplishment is making clear that the daughter, while not deserving of her father’s infamy, is certainly worthy of sympathy.