Twenty Letters to a Father

"This book is not the work of a sensationalist or a traitor. It is wrung from an agonized conscience and a sickened heart."

When Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., visited Moscow last summer, he found the Russians agitated and upset over the impending publication of Svetlana Alliluyeva's memoirs. They wanted publication postponed until after this month's observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Failing that, they tried to blunt the event by leaking in advance a bowdlerized version of the much-awaited book by Joseph Stalin's daughter. Mr. Schlesinger, chronicler of the Ages of Jackson and Roosevelt, and of the Kennedy Administration, here illuminates the historical values of Mrs. Alliluyeva's book written before her flight from the Soviet Union and before she composed the remarkable document to Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, first published in the June Atlantic.

History, in the end, becomes a form of irony; and little could be more ironical on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution than the publication of an indictment of Communism by the daughter of Joseph Stalin. At first, indictment may not seem the right word for this apparently gentle book. Svetlana Alliluyeva's Twenty Letters to a Friend is on the surface a romantic memoir, saturated with a wistful lyricism and by no means always clear or unambiguous in its testimony. But its nostalgia masks a clarity and even savagery of memory and judgment—a daughter's wounded judgment of a father, of an epoch, and of great hopes betrayed. "I believe," she writes in an author's note, "that I am, in a way, bearing witness." No one else saw the terrible history of Stalinism through a perspective at once so privileged and so confined; and the witness she bears, in the very narrowness and intensity of its observation, adds vastly to our understanding of the comedy and tragedy of absolute power.

Alliluyeva tells us that she wrote this book between July 16 and August 20, 1963, in the village of Zhukova outside Moscow. The letter form, informal and discursive, evidently provided the ideal means of releasing the flood of unbearable recollection so long dammed up in the depths of her consciousness. Clearly the writing became a therapeutic exercise, a coming to terms at last with experiences whose significance and enormity had been too great for the young Svetlana to grasp "Now that I've managed to shed the intolerable burden that was pressing on me," she writes toward the end, "I feel as though I'd been scaling the cliffs up a mountainside and that at last I reached the top .... The rivers are sparkling in the valleys, and the sun is shining over everything. I thank you, my friend."

And the friend? It was he who urged her to write the letters and who provided the initial audience; "it did not occur to me at the time that the book I was writing might be published." Alliluyeva has subsequently described the friend to The New York Times as a "scientist," belonging "also to the world of literature," whom she could not name because "he might have troubles."

But whomever she thought she was writing to, one cannot resist the impression that in some sense these letters are addressed to the father who she regards with so much love and horror.

The text shows signs of emotion and haste in composition. It is, for example, excessively repetitious; nearly every point is made two or three times. There are occasional factual discrepancies. Thus she writes twice that she made her first visit to Leningrad in 1955, but then says elsewhere that her mother took her there in 1926. The point is trivial, since she was six months old at the time of this first visit and obviously remembered nothing of it, but it indicates a certain looseness in brushwork. So again, though most authorities say she was born in 1925, she gives her birth date as February, 1926.

It would be a mistake, though, to suppose that the letters represent only an unorganized and chaotic flow of consciousness. These memories had evidently taken shape within her over the long years and by 1963 had assumed sharp dramatic form. The apparent artlessness of the narrative is accompanied by considerable skill in the ordering and presentation of her materials. Throughout she introduces her characters with a marked sense of literary, almost novelistic, effect. Her mother, for example, receives much tantalizing mention in earlier letters but is not fully portrayed until Letter 8; and her nurse Alexandra Bychkov, perhaps the person closest to her in these years, does not really emerge until the last letter.

Is it the nature of Alliluyeva's literary education or the nature of Russian life itself that makes so much of this book echo with the sounds of classic Russian writers? The first letter, with its superb and appalling account of her father's death, could almost be a scene from Dostoevsky. The sketches of her mother's family, especially the story of Aunt Anna (Letter 5), have a distinct Chekhovian ring. The play of coincidence in her recollections equals Russian folklore, or Dr. Zhivago. Thus her father (she has heard) rescued her mother from drowning when she was two years old and then, meeting her again fifteen years later, married her. Things seem generally to happen to Alliluyeva "ten years to the day since my mother's death," or "ten years to the day since my father had come into my room in a rage and struck me across the face," or (her last meeting with her father) on "November 9, 1952, the twentieth anniversary of my mother's death."

Above all she evokes nature as a backdrop to emotion with the deplorable facility of a minor Russian romantic novelist: the evening sun lights the grass and the woods with gold, the white birches shimmer, the air is thick with the sweet, heady smell of grass and the fragrance of wild blackberries, "the freshly washed earth was so lovely that I wanted to gasp for joy." Again how ironic that the survival of the "Russian soul" through the ordeal of Stalinism should be so vividly demonstrated by the daughter of Stalin! Her prose is filled with images of decay and renewal, of death and rebirth.

Presented by

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. He taught at Harvard University and the City University of New York.

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