(From PART II)……Her first greeting to the crowd at the airport was: "Hello there, everybody. I'm very happy to be here...I believe that one's home can be anywhere that one can feel free." Unfortunately, "happy" and "free" are two words that Svetlana would struggle with for the rest of her life.
Leaving her Motherland was a big risk for her as she had also left her children, Joseph and Katya, behind. This was her only bitter regret. Their relationship would be forever estranged after that. In fact, her son Joseph wrote to her and the relevant extract here caused Svetlana to weep uncontrollably: “…You must admit that after what you have done, your advice from afar to take courage, to stick together, not to lose heart and not let go of Katya (daughter), was, to say the least, strange…I consider that by your action you have cut yourself off from us and therefore, please allow us to live as we see fit…Since we have endured fairly stoically what you have done, I hope from now on we shall be allowed to arrange our own lives ourselves…Joseph.”
After she arrived in America, the Communist Party started an anti-Svetlana campaign calling her a “morally unstable person”, “a sick person”, “a cuckoo bird”, and “an escaped convict.” And when she published her second book “Only One Year” discrediting her own country, she was stripped of her Soviet citizenship in December 1968, and was charged with “misconduct, defaming the title citizen of the USSR.” Ironically this was a crime her father had invented in 1938 during the Great Terror.
It was in America that her next drama unfolded. She married her fourth husband, one Wesley Peters. Here is a little background leading up to it. Svetlana made her living in America by selling her first book entitled “Twenty letters to a friend.” The book received sterling reviews and she got a huge advance of $1.5 million for it. She started a Charity Fund and used part of the proceeds to build a hospital in remembrance of her Indian prince, Brajesh Singh, and the rest of the money was disbursed in monthly installments of $1500.
Needless to say, everywhere Svetlana she went, she was well received. She gave interviews and went for book tours. Her popularity was that of a Hollywood star. Sometime in November 1969, one Olgivanna Wright (picture inset) invited to her estate in Taliesin, Arizona. Olgivanna was the widow of the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright who singlehandedly built the Taliesin West Estate to experiment in utopia-like communal living. Like her father, Olgivanna ruled Taliesin estate with an iron-fist and she sets the rule for everything and for everyone.
Her invitation to Svetlana was mainly motivated by rumors that Stalin had gold and millions of rubles stashed in some Geneva accounts and only Sveltana had access to it. This however remained a rumor as Svetlana would die “broke, homeless, stateless, restless, pensionless.” Spoilers aside, Svetlana accepted the invitation and later stayed in Taliesin for about two years before leaving in despair.
What happened in between was her marriage to Wesley Peters. She was 44 then and Wes was 59. Now here comes the uncanny part. Wes actually married “Svetlana” when she was 16 years old sometime in 1935 (when Stalin’s Svetlana was only 9). The confusion here is warranted because Olgivanna’s daughter was also named Svetlana. Wes and Olgivanna’s daughter subsequently had three children but the marriage ended in a fatal crash when Svetlana and her son was killed in September 1946.
And now, fast forward to April 1970, under the crafty manipulation of Olgivanna, Wes and Svetlana were married again – so to speak. Most called it a “whirlwind courtship” of about five months. But it would be a marriage made in Taliesin hell.
Svetlana would be emotional strangled between a compulsively spendthrift husband and an obsessively controlling matriarch of Taliesin. She had to struggle with paying for Wes’ debt which eventually depleted her savings and she had to live in fear and hatred of Olgivanna. She once told Wes this: “Why does that dictator always interfere with human lives? Well, of course, because that is the nature of all dictators.” In a letter to a friend, she wrote, “Taliesin was ruled, suppressed, dominated, and indoctrinated in the most dictatorial Slavic (Montenegrin) way by the old woman (69) who is a good politician, who has very sharp common sense, and a tremendous desire to RULE.” The parallel between Stalin and Olgivanna was truly uncanny.
The only good that came out of the tumultuous union was their daughter, Olga M. Peters, born on 21 May 1971. It was Svetlana’s third child from her fourth marriage. But Olgivanna was furious with Svetlana as a child would only financially burden the estate and their highly structured communal lifestyle. This further drove a wedge between them.
The last straw that broke the camel back for Svetlana was recounted by a friend in a brutal dinner. The book described it as such: “Svetlana began to complain, slightly hysterically about Wes’ work schedule. “He works too hard all the time; he’s going to die.” Olgivanna replied through clenched teeth in a tone of steel: “So are you.””
Svetlana took the death threat literally and packed up and left Taliesin with her newborn for good. Broken, Svetlana sought solace in God and distanced herself from the Russian Orthodox community. But her idea of God was an informal one which involved a syncretic mix of many faiths. Later, she divorced Wes and went to live in various parts of America, never having a permanent home for herself and her daughter Olga. One of her friend, who was a Mexican diplomat named Raoul Ortiz, had this to say about Svetlana’s nomadic wanderings, “It is a mistake to think that Svetlana was running from something; rather she was always running towards something, a version of life that would be different, that would meet her expectations of what a contented life could be.” Sadly, her unmoored expectations would bring her to many dead-ends.
Svetlana started drinking and went to a help group for counseling. She actually went against her mother’s advice just before she shot herself in 1932: “Never drink wine.” Unable to cope with the loneliness and depression, Svetlana visited a psychiatrist once a week for a season and even joined Christian Scientist in the hope of finding a way out of her existential stalemate. Before she met Wes, she also got involved with men who were older than her – one was even 71 years old – but the dalliances could not fill the void in her heart. Alas, despite her enduring search, she never found peace of mind.
Although she took the Oath of Allegiance in 1978 and became a US citizen, it was not long thereafter that she left America for the Soviet Union in 1984 to take up Soviet citizenship. She was excited to return because she wanted more than anything to meet up with her son, Joseph, and daughter, Katya. It had been more than 17 years since she defected. But it did not turn up well for her.
Katya never met her mother. In Katya’s mind, her mother remained a traitor to the country. To compound matters, Katya’s husband accidentally shot himself with a rifle and she remained a social hermit after that. Svetlana managed to meet Joseph who had by then remarried with a son. Like his mother, he had a drinking problem. He also suffered from a bad liver.
However, the reunion was emotionally fractured. When Joseph asked her for money, Svetlana lectured him (possibly thinking about how Wes had depleted her savings) and they argued. Joseph saw her concerns as insincere and hypocritical. His indifference towards her was deeply biting and she blamed herself for it. This was where Svetlana realized that her relationship with Joseph was broken. The reality for her was that “all her family relations were dissolving” and she felt that she was “doomed and drowning.”
She then left Moscow after 18 months and returned to America. Her reason for leaving her Motherland for the second time? She lamented to her nephew: “Can you understand this feeling? I walk around Moscow…There is no one here. Just crosses. Crosses everywhere…crosses, crosses, crosses.“ Sadly, Svetlana never found a home for her empty heart and broken soul.
“I read her as a deeply wounded person who was extremely bright,” a friend of hers, a physicist named Philippa Hill remarked. “Her intellect was phenomenal and she was also a great soul. She had such optimism and incredible energy, which of course could get channeled down the wrong alleyway for her and into a lot of anger. To me that’s part of the whole story of her personality. She is both this and that.”
There is no doubt that Svetlana was bright. At 2 years old, in 1928, her father enrolled her into an industrial academy to study synthetic fiber, which was then a new branch of chemistry. And by 6 years old, she was proficient both in German and Russian. She also wrote three books that were well received. She earned her degree majoring in history and lectured in Russian history. But being deeply wounded by her father, even Svetlana’s incredible intellect could not save her from the many “wrong alleyway” she had taken in her life in search of love, contentment and herself. Of course, we must be responsible for our own life and Svetlana responded in ways that led her to the shifting shadows of life instead of its inviting light.
Returning to America, she again wandered like a nomad with Olga – her daughter with Wesley Peters – from one place to another. And as her finances were depleted, she had to live on handouts, social welfare and in retirement homes for elderly women.
In mid-1988, Svetlana rekindled her passion again. Her quest for love was restless. This would be her last relationship as documented in the book. Her final drama. She confessed to a friend that she had fallen in love with a man who was ten years younger. She was 62 at that time. For the first time she was involved with a younger man. She gushed with these words: “After years and years of “frozen heart” I do love a man – and I cannot tell you what a great joy, regeneration and light this is to me. All is still in the stage of “unfoldment””.
The love of her life was Tom Turner, a Texan by birth who lived in Saint Louis. But the “unfoldment” sadly unraveled. Like Singh, her foreign prince, Tom had terminal cancer and he died about two years later in 1989. Thoroughly spent emotionally, she wrote to a friend telling her that she was “cracking on every seam.”
Even her relationship with Olga was coming apart. The timing couldn’t be worse. In January 1989, Olga at aged 18 ran away with her hippie boyfriend; seemingly following in her mother’s footstep who got pregnant with Joseph at around that age. Although Olga finally returned to Svetlana after her mother talked some sense into her, Olga later admitted that “as much as she loved her mother, it was clearly impossible for them to live together.” Olga then made this observation recorded in the book which just about sums up Svetlana’s endless, restless struggles: “I think it was living that was the hard part for her. My mother never mastered that one…surviving but not living.”
In the last chapter of the book entitled “Final Return”, Svetlana gave her last interview in 2010 to a journalist who had been tracking her down in America. He asked her whether she’d forgiven her father and she answered with contempt: “I don’t forgive anything or anybody! If he could kill so many people, including my uncles and auntie, I will never forgive him. Never! …He broke my life. I want to explain to you, he broke my life!” One year later, on November 22, 2011, Svetlana passed away at 85. It was the month of misery for her since her mother also died in the same month.
At the very end, she instructed the hospital not to inform Olga about her condition. Her reason was that she didn’t want her daughter to see her dead body. As such, the only person at her deathbed was Kathy Rossing. Kathy was a daughter of a friend she knew in Taliesin.
This was how the author of the book described Svetlana’s final moments: “...She squeezed Kathy’s hand and stared at her with a strange look in her eyes. Kathy wrapped Svetlana’s hand around the scapular medal she always wore, yet it seemed “she wasn’t ready to go.” Kathy asked a nurse to call a local clergyman. When he came, he gave Svetlana words of peace to comfort her, and “it wasn’t but a matter of minutes and then she was gone.” I think it was more than a coincidence. Once he said some words over her, she passed peacefully.” Unlike her father to the end, she didn’t struggle. “Her breathing just got shallower and shallower.” How difficult it is to perform one’s death. She did it gracefully.” Svetlana finally found peace. Cheerz.
" The End "