Friday, 4 September 2015

Stalin's daughter Part II

(from PART I)..…Yakov's death was a big blow to Svetlana. She drew close to her half brother a few years before he went to war. His and the many other deaths in the only world she knew then was a turning point for her. When she was interviewed years later, she admitted, "The whole thing nearly drove me out of my mind. Something in me was destroyed. I was no longer able to obey the word and will of my father and defer to his opinions without question."

In Stalin's Russia, to doubt Him was blasphemy. It was condemnable by death. But his daughter doubted him. She had lost faith in the great Stalin. She saw him more as a heartless dictator than her doting father. This was how Svetlana described her father in her own words, “My father knew what he was doing. He was neither insane nor misled. With cold calculation he had cemented his own power, afraid of losing it more than of anything else in the world…To explain things this way – as madness – is the easiest and simplest thing, but it isn’t true, and it isn’t an explanation. He believed not in ideals but in men’s realistic political struggles. Nor did he romanticize people: there were the strong, who were needed; equals, who were in the way; and the weak, who were of no use to anyone…I don’t believe he ever suffered any pangs of conscience.

Then, the unexpected happened. Stalin confronted his own mortality.

Stalin died on March 5, 1953, at 9:50 pm. 4 days before that, his bodyguard saw him lying on the floor of his suite, his hands and legs immobilized. Stalin had even wet himself. He was diagnosed with arteriosclerosis, which later turned out to be "lesions of the respiratory centers in the brain". It was incurable, a death sentence.

In the book, the author described his last days as follows: "Stalin's death throes was agonizing. For several days he lay unconscious, choking on his own fluids as the cerebral hemorrhage spread throughout his brain. His face gradually darkened, his lips turned black. He was being slowly strangled. In his death agony, he opened his eyes and lifted his hand in what seemed a final gesture. It was a last gasp for oxygen."

Svetlana was the only member of the family to be by Stalin's side when he died. Strangely, she admitted to an assault of contradictory emotions, alternating between love and relief. This was what she wrote about the passing of the Red Tsar:-

"At what seemed like the very 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 the fear of death and the unfamiliar faces of the doctors bent over him. The glance swept over everyone in a second. Then something incomprehensible and awesome happened that to this day I can't forget and don't understand. He suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something above and bringing down a curse on us all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace, and no one could say to whom or at what it might be directed. The next moment, after a final effort, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh."

After Stalin died, his only surviving son, Vasili, never recovered. His life went downhill, living as a drunk, getting into fights, breaking the law, and was sent from one prison to another. Vasili died on 19 March 1962, broke, broken, drunk and leaving behind four wives and several children. He was only 41. Svetlana would continue to live twice that age enduing a fate not much different from his.

By that time, everyone close to Svetlana, and who had meant the world to her, in particular, her mother, Yakov, and nanny, had passed away. She practically lived in a "world of cruel bereavement."

Sometimes in 1964, Svetlana's life was foretold with uncanny accuracy by a historian Victor Manuylov when he read her palm. A friend of Svetlana recalled what Victor predicted: 
"Your life divides into three periods. The first, finished long ago, was of cloudless bliss. Your present period is difficult. You are fighting to get together with a foreign prince...he will sicken and die. Then you will begin the third period, when you will cross oceans and travel far away." All of which would come true.

Svetlana's experience of cloudless bliss faded away soon after her mother died in 1932. After that, her father's tyranny ruled over her life, including all her social relationships, before his death in 1953. One of her old lovers remarked that "there was something of the tyrant in Svetlana's emotional exuberance. When she was drawn to someone, she dived into the relationship until it consumed everything else. She demanded drama." And her first drama was to get involved with a man who was 39 years old when she was only 16. He was a married man. Stalin was not pleased and he had him imprisoned. He was in fact shipped off to Siberia.

After learning about it, Svetlana said, "It was such obvious and senseless despotism, that for a long time I was unable to recover from the shock." She added that her mother's death and her lover's incarceration had finally "cut the soap bubbles of illusions. My eyes were opened and I could not any more claim blindness."

Svetlana’s second drama was to get married at only 19 years old and give birth to a son named Joseph. This was to be her first marriage of four. Likewise, Stalin disapproved of her first husband as he was a Jew and the marriage only lasted for about two years. Her second marriage was the only marriage Stalin approved and he was in fact their matchmaker. His future son-in-law was the son of his second-in-command who had passed away. But this was to be one of Svetlana's most miserable unions. They were simply incompatible in every way; even their blood was a poor match.

While Svetlana was in labor to give birth to her daughter, Katya, she nearly died. After delivery, she spent months in the hospital nursing herself back to health. Alas, this second marriage lasted for one year before they separated. They divorced in 1952. Although Stalin died one year later, Svetlana’s love drama persisted.

Before she dived into her third marriage, Svetlana was reconciled with her first love, the one whom her father had sent to Siberia. However, she ended the affair when she realized that he was an inveterate playboy.

In 1961, when both her children Joseph and Katya were in school, she found herself to be very lonely and she recalled, "I was melancholy, irritable, inclined towards hopeless pessimism; more than once I had contemplated suicide; I was afraid of dark rooms, of the dead, of thunderstorms; of uncouth men, of hooligans in the streets and drunks. My own life appeared to me very dark, dull, and without a future." Soon, her restless emotions drove her into another affair with a married man. He was her friend in Gorky Institute. This sexually-charged friendship surprisingly led her to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith in 1962.

In that same year, she met her cousin, Ivan, and shocked everyone by marrying him. Her third marriage lasted less than a year because Ivan "had suffered a great deal" under Stalin and he was "nervous, susceptible, and also had an extremely difficult character." After his parents were murdered by Stalin in 1941/2, Ivan was exiled to Kazakhstan to work in a mine. He returned broken and depressed and he never recovered from it. Although Svetlana and Ivan separated and subsequently divorced, she still spoke fondly of him. It is anyone's guess whether she married Ivan for love or pity – or both.

After that, Svetlana drifted for four years and this is where the earlier prediction about her life came to pass. Recall that the first phrase was of "cloudless bliss”. The second phrase was that she would meet her foreign prince and the third phrase was about crossing oceans and travelling far away. Indeed she met an Indian prince by the name of Brajesh Singh soon after.

Singh was the son of the rajah of Kalakankar in Utter Pradesh. He received his education abroad and spent much of his life away from home. Svetlana met Singh in a Moscow hospital in October 1963 when she was being treated for tonsillectomy. She was walking along the hospital corridor and a write-up about Gandhi piqued her interest. She was eager to know more about the Great Soul and Singh happened to be nearby. They chatted and grew deeply attached.

There was just something about Singh’s character that attracted her. Like her, Singh was a divorcee. He was 16 years older than her. He was 53 and she was 37. She found in him a "lover, a guide, and a friend." Unfortunately, he was chronically ill with bronchitis and emphysema and Svetlana loved and cared for him deeply. Despite the strongest opposition from the highest office of the communist party, Svetlana had plans to marry Singh. But three years after they met, in October 1966, Singh died. They never registered their marriage.

Unlike her father's death, which was sheer desperation to hold on to life and was terrifying for her, Singh passed away peacefully. It was also swift. At that point, she thought to herself, “Each man got the death he deserved.”
Singh's departure from Svetlana's life would be the opportunity for her to enter into the third and final phrase of her life as predicted. It would take her across oceans and finally into the shores of America. 

Svetlana travelled to Delhi, India to participate in Singh's funeral procession. When his ashes were slowly immersed in the Ganges, Svetlana wept bitterly. Heartbroken by Singh's death, Svetlana decided to defect to America. Imagine Stalin's daughter defecting to an enemy state during the cold war. Her timing couldn't be worse. In the book, the author described her life as one that "seemed to dangle on a thread, and chance or fate sent her one way rather than another. She would come to call herself a gypsy. Stalin's daughter, always living in the shadow of her father's name, would never find a safe place to land."

She packed her suitcase, took a taxi and left the Soviet Embassy in Delhi. On March 6, 1967, Svetlana entered the gates of the American Embassy. After much diplomatic deliberation, she was taken to Geneva airport, Switzerland, as a stopover before arriving at New York's John F Kennedy Airport on April 21, 1967…..

** To be cont’d – FINAL PART III – Sunday morning **

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