Stalin is one of the biggest figures of the 20th century: politically, socially, culturally and economically, he transformed the landscape of Russia from a war-torn agricultural nation into a military machine run by an iron fist. Stalin’s personal life, however, is rarely talked about.
It comes as a surprise to many that Stalin did marry – twice, in fact – and had two children with his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. Though relatively distant from his son, Stalin had an affectionate relationship with his daughter, Svetlana, throughout her childhood, but this became increasingly strained as she hit her teenage years.
To the shock of many, Svetlana defected to the United States in 1967, denouncing her father and his legacy and undermining the Soviet regime through her words and actions. But what led to Stalin’s daughter renouncing the country and the legacy he had built?
Born on 28 February 1926, Svetlana and her brother Vasily were largely raised by their nanny: their mother, Nadezhda, was career-minded and had little time for her children. She subsequently shot herself in 1932, but her children were told she died of peritonitis to spare them any further suffering.
Despite Stalin’s fearsome reputation, he doted on his daughter. He called her his secretary, and he allowed her to order him around, signed his letters to her ‘little Papa’ and smothered her with kisses. Their relationship changed sharply when Svetlana was a teenager. Not only did she begin to assert her independence, dating boys Stalin disapproved of, she also discovered the truth about her mother’s death and learnt more about her parents’ relationship.
Aged 16, Svetlana fell in love with a Jewish Soviet filmmaker nearly 20 years older than her. Stalin disapproved unequivocally – going as far as to slap her during a confrontation – and Svetlana’s beau was sentenced to 5 years in Siberian exile followed by 5 years in a labour camp in order to remove him from her life. Svetlana and Stalin’s relationship would never be fully repaired.
Escaping the Kremlin
Svetlana enrolled to study at the Moscow State University, where she met Grigory Morozov, a Jewish classmate. Believing marriage was the only way to escape the confines of the Kremlin and life under her father’s direct gaze, Svetlana married him – with Stalin’s grudging permission. He never met Morozov. The couple had a son, Iosif, in 1945, but Svetlana did not want to become a housewife: she subsequently had 3 abortions and divorced Morozov 2 years later.
In a surprising act of filial piety, Svetlana swiftly married again, this time to one of Stalin’s close associates, Yuri Zhdanov. The pair had a daughter, Yekaterina, in 1950 but the marriage was dissolved shortly afterwards as the pair found they had little in common. After the end of World War Two, Stalin became increasingly distant and disinterested in his family.
By the time Stalin died in 1953, Svetlana was lecturing and translating in Moscow. It was only when Stalin died that Svetlana really began to comprehend her father’s true nature and the magnitude of his cruelty and brutality. In the decade after his death, she took the decision to change her surname from Stalin – which she said she couldn’t bear – to her mother’s maiden name, Alliluyeva.
Fleeing to the States
Recovering from a tonsillectomy in hospital, Svetlana met an Indian communist, Kunwar Brajesh Singh, who was suffering from emphysema. The pair fell deeply in love but were denied permission to marry by Soviet authorities. Singh died in 1967, and Svetlana was allowed to take his ashes to India for his family to scatter in the Ganges.
Whilst in New Delhi, Svetlana managed to find refuge in the US embassy. The Americans barely knew of Svetlana’s existence but were keen to spirit her out of India before the Soviets noticed her absence. She was placed on a flight to Rome, before being transferred to Geneva and then on again to New York City.
On her arrival, Svetlana publicly denounced Soviet communism, declaring it had failed as a moral and economic system and that she could no longer live under it: she also had few issues damning her father’s legacy in the country, and later described him as “very cruel”. Unsurprisingly, Svetlana’s defection from the Soviet Union was viewed as a major coup by the United States: the daughter of one of the key architects of the regime publicly and vehemently denouncing communism.
Svetlana left behind her two children, writing a letter to them to defend her reasoning. Unsurprisingly, her actions caused a deep rift in their relationship, not least because she knew she would struggle to see them again.
Life beyond the USSR
After several months living under the protection of the Secret Service, Svetlana began to settle into life in the United States. She published her memoir, Twenty Letters To A Friend, which was an international sensation and made her a millionaire, but she gave most of the money to charity. It quickly became clear to Svetlana that she was only of interest because of her connection to Stalin.
Unhappy and restless, Svetlana married for a third time, taking the name Lana Peters as part of a wider plan to escape her connection to her father. Her new husband was an American architect, William Wesley Peters. The union lasted just 3 years, but they had a daughter, Olga, who Svetlana doted on. She spent time in England as well as America and when she was allowed to, returned briefly to the USSR and reclaimed her Soviet citizenship.
Her relationship with her two oldest children was never fully repaired and due to complications with visas and needing permission to travel. Svetlana died in Wisconsin in 2011.