Tuesday 6 December 2016

No escape for Stalin's little girl

Published 04/12/2011 | 06:00

Lana Peters, who has died aged 85, was better known as Svetlana Stalin. She spent a lifetime trying to escape the notoriety of being daughter to the man who vies with Adolf Hitler for the title of most vicious tyrant of the 20th Century; ultimately this proved impossible.

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At the height of the Cold War, in 1967, Svetlana Stalin defected to the West, abandoning her two children by previous marriages. It was seen as a huge coup for the Americans, and the world's most unlikely political refugee duly denounced her father and all he stood for, while her two volumes of memoirs, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967) and Only One Year (1969), made her a wealthy international celebrity.

In 1970 she married the American architect William Wesley Peters and at the age of 46 had a daughter, Olga, her third child. But she could never settle. The marriage to Peters ended in acrimony after four years, and she quickly ran through the $2.5m she had earned from her memoirs. She moved to England, but in 1984 returned to the USSR -- first to Moscow then to Tbilisi in Georgia.

Having failed to fit back into Soviet life, she renounced her Soviet citizenship once again and in 1987 returned to America. A year later she went to Britain where, in the 1990s, she was said to be living in London in a charity home for people with severe emotional problems.

Later she was variously reported to be in a convent in Switzerland; or in obscurity in the American Midwest. She died in Wisconsin.

Svetlana Josifovna Stalina was born on February 28, 1926, the youngest child and only daughter of Josef Stalin and his second wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva. Svetlana was raised by nannies and was mostly shielded from the brutal realities of her father's dictatorship. It may not have helped her later attempts to achieve normality that she was extremely fond of her father. While her mother never showed her any physical affection, Stalin doted on Svetlana.

Outsiders were amazed at how such a brutal man could be so gentle with his daughter. "Hail to our boss Svetlana," his lieutenants would write in their letters to Stalin.

At the height of the terror, he would come home every evening after a day signing death warrants, shouting: "Where's my little boss?" He would sit down and help her with her homework and dine with her and her friends.

Yet Svetlana's childhood was punctuated by unexplained disappearances. On November 8, 1932, when she was six, her mother, who was probably suffering from clinical depression, put a gun to her head and shot herself after an apparently trivial argument with her husband at dinner. Svetlana was not told about her mother's death until, some days later, she was taken to see the body lying in its coffin.

Meanwhile, Stalin had many of her relatives exiled or executed. Aunts and cousins to whom Svetlana had been close mysteriously disappeared from her life.

Svetlana grew into a freckly redhead who resembled her father in being stubborn, passionate and unpredictable. But while he doted on her as a child, Stalin found it difficult to cope with her adolescence.

She dated her disenchantment with him from the moment when, aged 16, she came across a copy of the Illustrated London News with a report of her mother's suicide.

"Something in me was destroyed," she recalled. "I was no longer able to obey the word and will of my father."

Shortly afterwards, Svetlana fell in love with a Jewish filmmaker, Alexei Kapler, a married playboy 22 years her senior. Stalin's secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria, informed Stalin, who found an excuse to have Kapler arrested and sentenced to 10 years in a Siberian labour camp, where he died.

When, the following year, she developed a crush on her childhood companion, Sergo Beria, his family were understandably horrified, notwithstanding Beria's closeness to Stalin.

Svetlana was determined to marry Sergo but the Berias put a stop to it. Smarting from the rejection, she announced her intention to marry a fellow student at Moscow University, Grigori Morozov, also Jewish.

"Do what you like," was Stalin's reaction to the glad tidings. He made a point of never meeting the bridegroom.

In 1945 Svetlana had a son, named Josef, but she and Grigori divorced in 1947 for reasons which are not entirely clear. Two years later Svetlana married Yuri Zhdanov, a rising party apparatchik and son of Stalin's right-hand man, Andrei Zhdanov.

They had a daughter, Ekaterina, in 1950, but this marriage was also dissolved soon afterwards.

On the night of February 28, 1953, Stalin suffered a severe stroke. He was not discovered until 24 hours later and it took him two-and-a-half more days to die.

"The death agony was terrible. He literally choked to death as we watched," Svetlana said. "At what seemed like 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 fear of death. Then he suddenly lifted his left hand. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace. The next moment, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh."

Later there were suggestions that he might have been poisoned; Svetlana's name was among many possible suspects. Three years later, Nikita Khrushchev, the new Soviet leader, denounced Stalin and his policies and by 1966 Stalin had fallen from favour entirely.

After his death Svetlana had adopted her mother's maiden name of Alliluyeva and worked as a teacher and translator in Moscow. In 1963 she met an Indian Communist visiting Moscow, Brajesh Singh.

They lived together in Sochi, Russia, though they were not officially married. He returned to Moscow in 1965 to work as a translator and died the following year. In 1967 Svetlana was allowed to travel to India to take his ashes home.

It was there that she went to the American embassy and formally petitioned for political asylum. During her years in exile, Svetlana was never happy. Disowned by the children she left behind in the Soviet Union and perpetually short of cash, she flirted with religion, becoming first Greek Orthodox, then Roman Catholic.

"I no longer have the pleasant illusion that I can be free of the label 'Stalin's daughter'," she said in an interview some years ago: "You cannot regret your fate, although I do regret my mother didn't marry a carpenter."

* Svetlana Peters is survived by her two daughters; her son died in 2008. Svetlana Peters, born February 28, 1926, died on November 22.

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