Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Stalin's Daughter

Svetlana Alliluyeva’s second memoir, Only One year, is honest, moving, and well-written. It’s not a great work of art, but it tells a compelling story and deserves to be read. It’s impossible to ignore the emotional power of the woman’s journey. In the wake of her mother’s suicide, Svetlana was raised by her rough, emotionally-distant father. Her home was the Kremlin. Her father was one of the greatest thugs in the history of the world, Joseph Stalin, responsible for the deaths of millions of strangers as well as dozens if not hundreds of relatives and personal acquaintances.

Svetlana Alliluyeva

This memoir (a second) tells the story of the middle part of her life, after her father’s death. As a scholar of international literature—her father had granted her a strictly quarantined life but, somewhat incongruously, a relatively cosmopolitan education—Svetlana met her third husband, a committed but liberal Indian communist many years her senior. Already ailing, Svetlana’s husband soon died, leaving Svetlana with the difficult task of carrying his ashes to faraway India. Despite the eclipse of her father’s anti-Stalinist successor, Khrushchev, Svetlana immediately ran up against Soviet objections to her personal journey. According to her father’s friends—now restored to favor at the Kremlin--the trip was problematic. Her travels to India could be exploited by the foreign press. To them, the proposed trip wasn’t personal; it was a bad move in an international contest with Cold War opponents.

Eventually, and at the cost of some personal humiliation, Svetlana won approval to travel very briefly, and under tight restrictions, to India. She used the trip to remain close to the spirit of her deceased husband, and to discover the magic and religion of the Indian people. To Svetlana’s credit, she used her life as a living protest to everything her father represented, including his cynical materialism. Once in India, Svetlana moved to establish her own personal freedom. Perhaps she had planned an escape when she applied to leave for India in the first place.
Whatever the case, the Soviet darling (praised, much to her chagrin, but Stalinist admirers even in the reign of Khrushchev) sent her first memoir to friends who smuggled it to the West. Then she won extra time in India to see in-laws and experience the Indian subcontinent from outside the Soviet Embassy’s walls.

Next, she calmly defected to America (going by way of Switzerland). To do so, she was forced to say goodbye to her own children, though she had remained in Russia long enough to see them grow up into adults capable of taking care of themselves. In the midst of the Cold War, she knew she risked not seeing them again. She knew also that they would be told to renounce her in order to protect their own careers in the Soviet Union.

If the decision to leave her own children seems cruel, it becomes understandable when viewed in the light of the fact that Svetlana had bravely acknowledged the evil her father and his regime had done to the country, and indeed to her own life and the life of loved ones, including her unhappy mother. In the end, the Soviet propaganda machine swung into gear to discredit Svetlana. However, she didn’t shirk from the contest and denounced the Soviet regime, befriending George Kennan in the process. The book’s enduring value stems from the way it highlights the enormous tension between Alliluyeva’s personal identity and the Marxist-Leninist state.

If Svetlana’s story is more poignant than most, it’s not unrepresentative. Millions of Russians were asked to put party and state above their own personhood, millions were asked to remain silent even when the state seized their loved ones and sent them to the gulag, or killed them outright.

No comments:

Post a Comment