Thursday, 3 September 2015

The tragic life of Stalin's daughter

Recently I bought a book about Stalin's daughter. It is a book about her tragic life. Imagine a life which took 84 years to live was read by me over a few days – all 623 pages of it. The author, Rosemary Sullivan, a professor emeritus, poet and literary critic, did a sterling job documenting her life from her birth in 1926 to her death in 2011. Some may consider it a long life but it was hardly a life lived for herself. In fact, after Stalin died in March 1953, his daughter lived a life of a fugitive running away from one place to another to find peace. But wherever she went, Svetlana Alliluyeva (refusing to adopt her father's name Stalin to keep the ghosts at bay) could not escape from the hold her father had on her even after his death. In an interview, she said: "You are Stalin's daughter. Actually you are already dead. Your life is already finished. You can't live your own life. You can't live any life. You exist only in reference to a name."

Stalin was a dictator and an extremely paranoid and cruel one. He ruled by fear and drove everyone who was ever close to him to their death. His mother once asked him  - "Who exactly are you?” - and he proudly replied that he was like the Russian Tsar. "What a pity," she replied, "you never became a priest." Well, priest or no priest, Stalin became a force to be reckoned with; one that is even more revered, gripping, and mysterious than a religious cult. 

In one incident, as recalled by his adopted son, Artyom Sergeev, Stalin scolded his son Vasili (of his second marriage) for exploiting the Stalin name. Vasili retorted, "But I am Stalin too." Stalin replied, "No, you're not. You're not Stalin and I'm not Stalin. Stalin is Soviet power. Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and  the portraits, not you, no not even me!" In his obsession to rule, Stalin had turned himself into a concept, a political idea that was both absolute and infallible. This is reminiscent of the ironclad rule of Mao's China when he deferred to communism as an infallible concept and exploited it with bloodshed and impunity. 

After reading a few chapters in the book about Svetlana’s childhood, I note that Stalin's relationship with her can be rather endearing. He was playful with her, calling her names like "little butterfly", "little fly" or "little sparrow". He even invented an imaginary friend for her named Lyolka. They often exchanged love notes with each other.

But in reality, it was a complex relationship, layered by Stalin’s need for control and absolute certainty to rule. Except for Svetlana, he saw almost everyone as a potential threat to him and he kept his distance from all. As such, Stalin became a “prisoner of his own isolation, an isolation he had constructed.” For Svetlana, her father was to be pitied and to be feared.

Many years later, Svetlana wrote this about her father, “My greatest burden lay in the need of everyone to tell me “what a great man” my father was: some accompanied the words with tears, others with hugs and kisses, a few were satisfied with only stating the fact. I could not avoid the subject or the confrontations on beaches, in dining rooms, on the streets…They were obsessed with his name, his image, and, being obsessed, they could not leave me alone. It was torture for me. I could not tell them how complex were my thoughts about my father and my relationship with him. Nor could I tell them what they wanted to hear – so they departed from me in anger. I was continually on edge and nervous.”

Although Stalin’s first wife died one year after he married her, his second wife, (Svetlana's mother) killed herself when Svetlana was only six and a half in November 1932. The night before her suicide, Stalin was holding a party and she caught him flirting with a film actress, who was the wife of the Red Army commander. She then refused to raise her glass to toast to the state and stormed back into her room. "What a fool,” Stalin fumed. A few hours later, she pressed a small Mauser pistol to her heart and pulled the trigger. Svetlana recalled that her mother scrambled to the door, seemingly showing deep remorse for what she had done. But it was too late.

Speculations were rife about why she killed herself until letters she had written to her sister-in-law surfaced after Stalin's death in 1953. In one of the letters, she wrote that she "could not live with Stalin anymore. You take him for someone else. But he is a two-faced Janus. He will step over everybody in the world, including you."

Initially Stalin was shocked by her death. He was in a state of "sporadic fits of rage." However, as mercurial as he was, Svetlana recounted that "Stalin approached the casket and, suddenly incensed, shoved it, saying, "She went away as an enemy."" In the book, the author wrote that "Svetlana believed her father never visited her mother's grave." "Not even once," she said. "He couldn't. He thought my mother had left him as his personal enemy."

With her mother gone, Svetlana admitted in the book that her father "became final, unquestioned authority for me in everything." But this was to be short-lived as a series of tragic events would doom their relationship permanently. These events would lead her to confessed these words of utter disappointment: "I had no feeling left for my father, and after every meeting I was in a hurry to get away."

The first casualty of Stalin's reign of terror in Svetlana's family circle was the persecution of her maternal uncles and aunts, that is, her mother's siblings. They were arrested at the slightest of suspicion and imprisoned for years.

Her uncle Pavel once told his wife Zhenya that "if they come after me, I will shoot myself." Soon after, Pavel died of a heart attack due to the terror Stalin had instilled in him. Zhenya rushed to the hospital and practically ripped off her husband's clothes to check for bullet wound. Zhenya was later accused of spying and poisoning her husband and was kept in solitary confinement for six months. In prison, she tried to commit suicide by swallowing glass.

Another of Svetlana's relative, Stanislav Redens, was arrested and executed on 12 February 1940. An execution order approved by Stalin.  Eight years later, in 1948, his wife, Anna, was arrested for slander and imprisoned for 6 years. Prison changed Anna forever and 10 years after she was released, Svetlana recounted bitterly how her aunt died: "After six years in prison she was afraid of locked doors. She had ended up in hospital, very disturbed, talking all the time. She would walk the corridors at night talking to herself. One night a stupid nurse decided that she should not walk in the corridor, so she locked her into her room, even though it was known that she couldn't stand locked doors. In the morning, they found her dead."

Even Stalin's first wife's brother and his wife were imprisoned and executed by Stalin in 1941 and 1942. This would be relevant to Svetlana because her third marriage was to Ivan, their tormented son – suffering the same fate of his parents under Stalin. More will be revealed about her tragic marriages later. For now, let’s continue with Stalin’s oppressive rule.

On one occasion, in 1940, Svetlana noticed her classmate, Galya, and best friend was crying and Galya told her that Stalin had arrested her father. She begged for Svetlana to plead with Stalin on her behalf. Svetlana agreed to intervene. Initially Stalin dismissed her plea but Svetlana cried, "But I love Galya." A few days later, Galya's father was released. On another occasion, Svetlana had to plead for her beloved nanny's life and Stalin again relented. It was then that Svetlana understood how her father's word was all that stood in the way of whether one lives or dies.

But it was the death of her half brother that was one of the most heartbreaking events in her life. His name was Yakov and here's a little background.

Stalin married his first wife, Kato, in 1906, and she died one year later. The couple had a son, Yakov, born in 1907. Stalin married Svetlana's mother in 1918 when she was only 16 and he was 39. Vasili was then born in 1921 and Svetlana was born in 1926. Among the three children of Stalin from the two marriages, namely, Yakov, Vasili and Svetlana, Yakov was repeatedly bullied by Stalin. He called Yakov "soft" and "worthless".

Stalin also disapproved of his first marriage.  When Yakov remarried after the divorce and the death of his first child, Stalin had his second wife arrested for a year and a half. When she was released, even her own daughter could not recognize her. She never forgave Stalin for what he did.

In despair, Yakov tried to kill himself but the bullet grazed his chest. He lived on, desperately seeking his father's approval. Later, when Stalin went to war with Hitler, Yakov joined the light artillery regiment as a commander but was arrested as a POW. In 1943, the Germans proposed a prisoner swap, that is, Stalin's son, Yakov, for Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus. But Stalin refused the exchange, dismissing it saying, "All of them are my sons." Whether he meant that or he was just using it as a convenient excuse to get rid of Yakov was unclear. But what is clear was that Stalin had issued an Order called Order 270 which condemned “all who surrendered or were captured as traitors to the Motherland." Based on this Order, and if the prisoner exchange were carried out, Yakov would return to the Soviet Union not as a war hero but a war traitor. For that, he faced imprisonment or execution. Either way, his fate was sealed by his father.

Yakov then languished in prison as a POW and he died under mysterious circumstances. Some reports claimed that he was shot. Others claimed that he had committed suicide…..

** To be cont’d – PART II – tomorrow night **

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