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."

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?"

till, without exonerating her father, she cannot bring herself to hold him exclusively responsible for the corruption of the Revolution. An understandable filial ambivalence runs through her handling of this problem. She is often protective of her father: at one time she writes that his persecution mania "was all a result of being lonely and desolate." (In a sentence cut from the American edition, she even says that her father never killed anything but hares and hawks, and these not often.) In what historians will find the most novel and problematic part of her book, she offers up L. P. Beria as Stalin's evil genius. Her thesis is that Beria played upon her father's paranoia, fed it, manipulated it for his own purposes, until Stalin ended as the prisoner of the system of terror, which he himself had created.

Beria, it will be recalled, was, like Stalin, a Georgian. He rose through the state security services, and by 1930 he was running the OGPU in Transcaucasia. He progressed from this to the secretary-generalship of the Caucasian Party, in which capacity he wrote a sycophantic book about Stalin's role in the Communist Party in the Caucasus. In 1938 he came to Moscow and soon became head of the secret police.

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.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In