Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Twenty Letters to a Friend, by Svetlana Allilueva

Today Kirsty is joined by fellow History Fox Michael Ng to talk about Svetlana Allilueva’s epistolary memoir Twenty Letters to a Friend.  Allilueva, the daughter of Iosif Stalin, wrote her memoir in 1963 and published it after her defection to the US in 1967.


I was hesitant when Kirsty mentioned she had a gift for me several months ago.  She said that it was a book which I would appreciate although it dealt with a topic she has greater knowledge of than I.  Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, wrote a series of  letters which describe her childhood and her relationship with her, at the end, estranged father.

The letters give us a picture of her family life and portray Stalin as a father, a distracted grandfather, and also a man who spent so much of his life ‘at work’  The letters show a happy childhood with a mother who loved her children, uncles and aunts who would spoil their nieces and nephews, and finally grandparents who had nothing but love for their children.  The picture soon changes with the death of Svetlana’s mother and her father soon drifts off (perhaps unable to cope with his own grief, as she seems to intimate).  Soon, the purges reach her family as uncles and aunts are arrested. Letter 7 captures so well the disaster affecting her family as she recounts how her favourite aunts and uncles were arrested and, eventually, shot.  It is a chilling reminder that these are not just the idle writings of your average person but those of Stalin’s daughter.

She reflects calmly, though not dispassionately, about the winnowing of her family by her own father.  Her own relationship with her father alternates between loving and estrangement (particularly in her later years).  Yet, I was most affected by her description of watching her father’s final moments as he struggled to live after a stroke.  She lingers upon his condition but not, as one might think, bitter gloating but as a daughter might grieve for a father (as she was).  This is a human moment that few would associate with Stalin or his family.  The letters almost portray a man who was so much more concerned with the welfare of the state and his ‘people’, as it  were, that his own barely deserved a thought lest he be thought partial to them.

In some ways, it reminds me of the drama which surrounded the emperor Augustus and his daughter Julia.  Though the two women were different, Julia was used as a political pawn in marriages to allies of Augustus which resulted in a difficult life for his daughter.  In the end, after a series of scandals rocked the Eternal City, Augustus had his only child exiled to a distant island for the rest of her life.  One can only imagine the pain this caused both father and daughter and it was only assuaged, in Augustus’ case only, by the idea that it was for the good of the state.  One can only wonder how Stalin dealt with his destruction of his own family at his hands and how he reconciled his own estrangement from his family (grandchildren he never met and the like).

One can only imagine the difficulty in having a celebrity or world/national leader for a father much less one that rules the country.  Svetlana’s letters carry a tone of ‘life goes on even if your father’s important’ tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that life does not go on for everyone close to you. This work shows a side of Stalin’s life that many do not think long enough to consider and is well worth a read.


My father signed all his letters to me exactly the same way: ‘From Setanka-Housekeeper’s wretched Secretary, the poor peasant J. Stalin.’  I suppose I’d better explain.

It was a game my father thought up.  He used to call me ‘Housekeeper’.  He and all the colleagues he used to bring home nearly every day were my ‘Secretaries’ or ‘Wretched Secretaries’.  I’ve no idea whether it amused the rest of them or not, but my father kept it up until the war. (from Letter 13)

My mother was lying beside her bed in a pool of blood.  She had a little ‘Walter’ pistol in her hand that Pavel had brought her from Berlin.  The sound of the shot hadn’t been loud enough to waken the rest of the household.  The body was already cold.  Faint with fear, mainly fear that my father might appear at any second, the two women laid the body on the bed and did what they could to make it look better. (from Letter 9)

I first read this book when I was an undergraduate and I still remember the rather queasy sense of shock it gave me.  Six or seven years later, the effect has not diminished; on the contrary, every time I go back to Allilueva’s Twenty Letters, they seem more shocking, more uncomfortable and more poignant than ever.

Allilueva’s memoir is sensational, but it is anything but sensationalist.  Her prose is simple and clear, and her narrative style reminiscent of the child she was back then.  Even the familial tragedies – her mother’s suicide, the unrelenting destruction of the Alliluev family and, yes, the death of her father – are described plainly, in matter-of-fact language.

This does not mean that Twenty Letters is devoid of emotion.  With next to nothing standing between us and the horror of those events, we are hit with their full emotional impact.  Not for a moment does the author try to elicit our sympathy; she simply relates how it happened.  This is the opposite of the misery memoir.

Neither are we spared the love, confusion and hurt that permeate Allilueva’s memories of her father.  Being Stalin’s daughter brought with it a strange, cloistered lifestyle that, again, is described with the same bald simplicity.  School and dachas and nannies and the friendships among Kremlin families; later, meetings with boyfriends under the watchful eye of a security agent.  And at the centre of it all, Stalin, who is also simply father.  A father who changes over time from an affectionate and loving (if touchy) parent to an angry and distant one.  Allilueva’s pain at this transition radiates from the text; with a light touch she conveys the hurt and bewilderment of the inexplicably rejected child.

There is no attempt to explain away, to justify or to smooth over the identity and actions of Allilueva’s beloved father.  Indeed, his behaviour within his own family is described in brutal and unflattering terms, including his treatment of Allilueva’s mother and his bullying (in the author’s words) of his son Yakov, who subsequently committed suicide.  We hear, too, of imprisonments, disappearances and deaths.  This may be a personal and familial memoir, but Allilueva grew up in the shadow of the purges.  There is no disconnecting from that.  But at the same time, her love for her father was undeniable, and so she does not deny it.  Neither then can we.

Memoirs are tricky things for the historian, but memoirs of childhood are particularly so.  We cannot say whether Allilueva’s intimate portrait of her parents is accurate or even reliable.  But this book is a very important and useful one in another sense.  For the duration of these twenty letters, we are deprived of our comfortable, academic distance from a time and place that is more often studied than understood.  We are confronted with unruly feelings and attachments where our sensibilities would prefer none exist.  We see fear, hurt, loss and sadness in circumstances none of us will now know, but for reasons that are essentially universal.  This memoir is not to be read without a degree of preparation (if only a few deep breaths), but it is to be read.

Twenty Letters to a Friend is currently out of print, but is commonly found through second-hand retailers.

This photograph of Allilueva with her father is in the public domain in Russia according to paragraph 1 of article 6 of Law No. 231-FZ of the Russian Federation of December 18, 2006; the Implementation Act for Book IV of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation.

A much delayed part of the “Writing Stalin” subseries.  Sorry.

17 comments on “Twenty Letters to a Friend, by Svetlana Allilueva

  1. Anne Brooke
    March 16, 2010

    Sounds absolutely fascinating, Kirsty. And important too.


  2. bZirk
    March 16, 2010


  3. Melrose
    March 16, 2010

    It sounds a very schizophrenic childhood, I wonder how children manage to survive these types of circumstances. Kids are supposed to be pretty resistant, but, even at that, it must take a real strength of character to be able to absorb the brutality of your favourite relatives being killed by your father, and your mother and brother committing suicide, yet be able to relive the circumstances in order to be able to write of them. And to still retain some love for the person who has perpetrated these circumstances upon you. It’s something I often think about, say, for example, when our “leaders” send other people’s children off to invade other countries and die apparently on behalf of global corporations. How do the children of those people deal with it? How do they cope with their parent becoming a detested figure worldwide? Are they able to compartmentalise their parent’s coldblooded decisions to allow other young people to die for a dubious cause, from that of family life? Perhaps, in today’s world, the cushion of financially security somewhat softens the experience…

  4. kirstyjane
    March 16, 2010

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks.

    Yes, it is very contradictory although at the same time, when you think about the powerful unconditional love between parent and child, it isn’t; even if we’d prefer that love to be conditional in cases like this. Allilueva grew up to be an outspoken opponent of Stalinism, by the way, and denounced the Soviet regime publicly from the US.

    I have the impression that more has been written about parents who love “bad” children than the other way round. I could be wrong. Any thoughts?

  5. kirstyjane
    March 16, 2010

    “Yes, it is very contradictory, although at the same time… it isn’t”: wow, great expressive powers there, Kirsty. :p

    What can I say? This topic is very hard to write about cogently (for me, anyhow).

  6. bZirk
    March 16, 2010

    Perhaps more has been written in the way of nonfictional treatises or exposés, but when fiction is considered, it seems more has been written about the damage of parents or forebears. I could be wrong too.

  7. kirstyjane
    March 16, 2010

    Oh, about the damage for certain – but where I’ve seen the issue of unconditional love explored it seems to have more often been from the parental side. Or maybe it’s actually that those examples are rarer, so get more attention! I could quite believe that.

  8. bZirk
    March 16, 2010

    You’re right, Kirsty, and I should have said more fictional accounts have been written of people coming to grips with damaging parents or forebears whom they haven chosen to love — at least in some way if not unconditionally. I believe the initial response of most children is to love their parents, so that the rude awakening for some who realize their parents are flawed (or ‘bad’), is a common story and not surprisingly found in a lot of fiction.

  9. kirstyjane
    March 16, 2010

    It would be an interesting study for sure. With fiction, I’ve only a very vague impression and I’m more conscious by the minute that I’ve probably been swayed by the amount of attention given to the texts that do address the issue of “can you still love a child who does X”. So I reckon you are right there, and my wondering really was very general to start with.

    With memoir, of course the relationship to the parents is often key. I work on revolutionary childhood memoir and to the writers I study, rejecting the parents is practically a rite of passage, particularly when those parents represent an opposing ideology or a bourgeois economic status. In some cases, it’s actually quite clear from the evidence that the relationship continued beyond the point at which the author claims to have cut the strings. So in the particular memoirs I look at, unconditional love for the parent is often a troublesome idea and isn’t addressed fully or directly. I think that’s partly why Allilueva makes such an impression on me. Her ideological development coexists with her instinctive love for her father, and she doesn’t suppress one to enhance the other. Which is very impressive indeed, because naturally people often post-rationalise these things and – without necessarily lying or consciously twisting the truth – will tell the story they “ought” to tell. Do you see what I mean?

  10. Jackie
    March 16, 2010

    An excellent comment by Melrose to a really thought provoking book. It is something that we don’t think of, especially with a person such a Stalin, who has the reputation of a villain. The format of letters probably gives a feeling of intimacy that would surpass other narrative forms. And it had to take a certain amount of bravery to maintain her feelings for her father and to write about him as a person, not as the ruler the world knew.
    Nicely done review from both of you, I especially liked the reference to Ancient Rome as an expansion of the ideas.

  11. Nikki
    March 16, 2010

    Wow! Really want to read this book, sounds wonderful!

  12. silverseason
    March 17, 2010

    For a picture of Stalin within fiction, see Anatoli Rybakov’s Fear .
    He makes Stalin a monster, but a human monster, not a mythological one.

  13. RosyB
    March 18, 2010

    Just got around to reading this at last. Such a powerful review. The book sounds fascinating and disturbing by equal measure. I started thinking of The Last King of Scotland for some reason.

    Does she have any personal explanation for why he was the way he was or is it less probing in that sense than that?

    Thanks for the recommendation Kirsty and Michael – must have been a toughie to write that review.

  14. Michael Ng
    March 18, 2010

    Thank you all for the praise (I realise I am stealing some of Kirsty’s praise here, of course). Kirsty’s thoughts were very salient and I think reinforced my own initial thoughts on this interesting book. As always, I think of Roman personalities and, after reading some of these comments, one could have easily understood if Allilueva had gone ‘Caligula’ after these events but she didn’t. Caligula had watched his family go into exile, die, or both and all under the aegis of his adopted grandfather the Emperor Tiberius. His later reign was…novel.

    Rosy, your comparison with The Last King of Scotland is pretty interesting and I have to admit that I’m now thinking along those lines. Darn you. 😉

  15. Hilary
    March 19, 2010

    Thank you so much, Michael and Kirsty, for this thoughtful and thought-provoking review of ‘Twenty Letters to a Friend’. What really interests me is to see what reviewers make of this 40 years after it was published. I have a strong recollection of this book being published in the UK (the Librarian’s memory strikes again), though I did not read it at the time. It pulls me up short to recollect that Stalin died in my lifetime (just). When this book was published, the reaction to it was immense, and deeply influenced by the sense that Stalin was a towering figure, who had only lately left the stage (he had been dead about 15 years), leaving an overpowering whiff of sulphur behind him, a massive, divisive figure, about whom people had scarcely begun to form an objective opinion.

    I remember the debate raging, not nearly so much over the merits of the book, but with a strong flavour of whether Svetlana Allilueva should have kept it all to herself, including the very fact that she lived. This was, of course, one pole of the argument, but widely held as I recall. It was almost as if a huge number of people considered that, if she had the misfortune to be the daughter of Stalin, the least she could do would be to spare us the knowledge of it. It roused a visceral reaction that Stalin was anything other than the public figure – that someone should put in front of us the picture of him doing and saying normal human, parental things, against the backdrop of his public decisions and actions. Kirsty, in 2010, recognises that gulf, and deals with it in an admirably dispassionate way, that seemed to be too hard in 1968 (‘… her love for her father was undeniable, so she does not deny it. Neither then can we.’)

  16. Doris castle
    March 17, 2012

    Just followed the story and reading of an abridged version on Radio 4. I have looked up the book to buy on Amazon and the Kindle, but the book is out of print. Will it be published again soon? as many people as I read, want to aquire a copy.

  17. Pingback: Twenty Letters to a Friend by Svetlana Alliluyeva – The Usual Subtext

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