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.
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.