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."

The ultimate contrast in these letters is between light and shade—on the one hand, "that place of sunshine I call my childhood," those "cloudless days ... sunny and gay"; and on the other, the shadowed years after her mother's death, the "dark empty house where my father spent the last twenty years of his life," the season of somberness and destruction. "It was as though," she concludes, "my father was at the center of a black circle and anyone who ventured inside vanished or perished."

This is, so to speak, the broad lighting effect. Yet in detail her mother's era does not seem to have been all that idyllic for Svetlana, nor her father's all that gloomy. She remembers her mother as aloof, preoccupied, even cold: "I cannot recall her kissing or caressing me ever. She was afraid of spoiling me because my father petted and spoiled me enough as it was .... I saw my mother so rarely." As for her father, though she loved him less, she remembers him as "always carrying me in his arms, giving me loud, moist kisses and calling me pet names like 'little sparrow' and 'little fly.'" Svetlana had no idea at the time that she owed "our whole happy childhood" to her mother; "we only realized it later, when she was no longer there."

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."

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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