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."

Why this conflict between the broad effect and the detail, between memory and experience? The clue lies, I think, in her remark to the New York Times that "our family was the battlefield of the struggle"—the struggle in the aftermath of the Revolution between idealism and power, ends and means, good and evil. The light-and-shade imagery evidently results not from her contemporaneous feelings as an oblivious child but from her later attempt to assess the meaning of the mysterious drama which pervaded her childhood.

Her mother's family, the Alliluyevs, were a Russian family of the sort made familiar to us by Chekhov—"all sensitive and high-strung," Svetlana writes, "quivering with sensibility ... too thin-skinned, sensitive and generous to come through this fearful life unscathed." Her mother was above all a revolutionary idealist of the 1917 generation, married at seventeen to a hardened revolutionary operative more than twice her age. The marriage itself symbolized the battle for the soul of the Revolution.

Other sources suggest that Nadya Alliluyeva was pregnant in 1919 and the marriage not altogether voluntary. In any case, Stalin could not have been an easy husband. Less than four years after the marriage, Lenin, dictating his famous testament, called him "too crude" and proposed his removal as secretary-general of the Party. Crude he unquestionably was. Yakov, his son by his first marriage, despairing over his relationship with his father, attempted suicide but succeeded only in wounding himself. "My father," Svetlana reports, "made fun of him and liked to sneer, 'Ha! he couldn't even shoot straight!' "

Nadya, according to the daughter, retained a "holy faith" in the ideals of the Revolution. Stalin "had once seemed to her the highest embodiment of the revolutionary New Man." But in time she could no longer evade the knowledge that he was steering the Revolution along dangerous paths. "She suffered the most terrible, devastating disillusionment." There is independent testimony (Alexander Orlov, Alexander Barmine, Victor Serge, Victor Kravchenko) that Nadya was appalled by the violence, repression, and famine which came in the wake of the forced collectivization of the countryside. The husband grew more unresponsive and irascible. The wife became silent, melancholy, old before her time.

In November, 1932, the Communist grandees gathered for a banquet to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the Revolution. Stalin loudly insisted that Nadya take a drink. Nadya, who never drank herself and was frightened by the effect of alcohol on her husband, refused. As he pressed her, she rose from her seat, ran from the room, and returning to her apartment in the Kremlin, shot herself. She left behind a letter for her husband, "a terrible letter," Svetlana says, "full of reproaches and accusations. It wasn't purely personal; it was partly political as well."

his, at any rate, was the story told Svetlana by her mother's relatives and her nurse when, ten years later, she came upon a casual reference to Nadya's suicide in the pages of an English or American magazine. In 1932 the story had been put out that her mother had died of acute appendicitis; it had never occurred to the young daughter to doubt this. The question of Nadya's death cannot, however, be considered completely solved. Elizabeth Lermolo served in a forced-labor camp with a woman named Natalia Trushina, a member of the Stalin household; and Trushina's testimony, as reported in Lermolo's Face of a Victim, is that Stalin himself came back to the Kremlin, upbraided his wife, and finally shot her. The weight of evidence favors the suicide theory, but the other cannot be absolutely dismissed. Conceivably Stalin did return and the last bitter quarrel drove Nadya to shoot herself.

Whatever happened, Svetlana's life underwent little outward change. "For ten years after my mother died, my father was a good father to me." She saw him practically every day in the winter and accompanied him to Sochi in the summer. But there were subtle alterations in the atmosphere, perhaps perceived more vividly in retrospect than at the time. As the state took over her father's various households, things became impersonal, institutional, even a little menacing. The increasing anxiety and depression in her mother's family troubled her. She was dimly aware (very dimly: she was only eleven in 1937) of a larger malaise in Soviet society when her mother's relatives and parents of school friends began inexplicably to disappear. Despite the external continuities of life, "inwardly things had changed catastrophically. Something had snapped inside my father."

In Svetlana's backward look, her mother's suicide pushed her father over the brink into paranoia. Unquestionably she makes the process too clear-cut. In the early autumn of 1932 Stalin was already experimenting with the techniques which would mark his tyranny later in the decade. Riutin, his chief of propaganda, had circulated a memorandum calling for his removal by the Central Committee. Though the procedure suggested was entirely constitutional, Stalin had Riutin and his group arrested, claimed they wanted to murder him, and called for their execution. He had not before sought the death penalty for opponents within the Party. Already in his world dissent was becoming treason, political criticism a personal assault. The Central Committee, led by Kirov, rejected Stalin's demand. A month after this defeat, Nadya killed herself. This accelerated, but did not initiate, the descent into madness.

It was, Svetlana writes, "a dreadful crushing, blow, and it destroyed his faith in his friends and people in general... He viewed her death as a betrayal and a stab in the back." In his last years, Stalin returned again and again in conversation to his wife's suicide, talking incessantly to his daughter about it, "nearly driving me out of my mind." Sometimes he would curse the "Vile book" Nadya had been reading shortly before her death—of all things, Michael Arlen's The Green Hat (which concludes, of course, with the suicide of Iris March). More often he tried to pursue through the labyrinthine ways of his own mind the answer to the question, who put her up to it? He obviously held Nadya's family accountable and before he was through, he sent half its members to Siberia. And if his enemies had penetrated into his very household, how powerful they must be in the country at large!

Paranoia is an elusive illness. "The most striking characteristic of symptom-formation in paranoia," Freud has written, "is the process which deserves the name of projection. An internal perception is suppressed, and, instead, its content, after undergoing a certain degree of distortion, enters consciousness in the form of an external perception." Paranoiacs betray themselves by the tendency to attribute their own unconscious designs to others and to see the world as a conspiracy against themselves. They do always betray themselves by obviously neurotic or deranged behavior. They can be capable of the utmost reasonableness and lucidity. So during the second World War Stalin impressed Churchill, Roosevelt, Beaverbrook, Hopkins, and all the English and Americans who encountered him as a man of immense sense and capacity.

Yet the paranoia remained. In the "secret speech" of 1956, Khrushchev said of Stalin in the thirties, "Everywhere and in everything he saw enemies,' 'double-dealers' and 'spies.' " His daughters language is almost identical: "He saw enemies everywhere. It had reached the point of being pathological, of persecution mania." Moreover,

once he had cast out of his heart someone he had known for a long time, once he had mentally relegated that someone to the ranks of his enemies, it was impossible to talk to him about that person .... Any effort to persuade him ... made him furious .... All [that] accomplished was loss of access to my father and total forfeiture of his trust ... . He was in the grip of an iron logic whereby once you said A, then B and C have to follow. Once he accepted the premise that X was his enemy, the premise became axiomatic, and no matter what the facts might be, they had to be made to fit. My father was unable ever to go back psychologically to believing that X wasn't an enemy but an honest man after all. At this point and this was where his cruel, implacable nature showed itself the past ceased to exist for him. Years of friendship and fighting side by side in a common cause might as well never have been.

This is a hard judgment for any daughter to make of any father, and Alliluyeva may be forgiven for not resting comfortably in it. Suddenly one finds a cry of anguish: did her mother's death, she asks, "simply leave my father free to do what he would have done in any case? ... Could she have halted the terrible process had she lived?" With courage, the daughter answers her own question: "I doubt it." If this were so, "didn't she fire her shot then out of a logic that was profoundly inevitable?"

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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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