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."

Stalin lived on for ten more years. It was an increasingly solitary, morbid, and claustrophobic existence. He never once saw, for example, five of his eight grandchildren. He was so little aware of the change in the value of the ruble that when he occasionally gave Svetlana a few notes, "he thought he was giving me a million." He regarded public applause with increasing cynicism. At the Bolshoi Theater on his seventieth birthday, Svetlana could see his face twitching with annoyance. "They open their mouths and yell like fools," he would say in tones of angry contempt. He had his various dachas built and rebuilt, but none satisfied him. In the end, he lived in a single room and made do for everything—working, eating, sleeping.

Svetlana went through two marriages and divorces (Stalin refused to meet her first husband another Jew), pursued an independent life as student, began to move in the literary circles of Moscow. Once in a long while she brought her children on a visit to their grandfather. She had not seen Stalin for four months when, on March 1953, she was called out of French class at the Academy to receive a message that Malenkov wanted her to come immediately to her father's dacha at Kuntsevo.

Her account of the next three days has almost a mythological quality, in the sense not of being false but of being fantastic on a grand scale. "There was only one person who was behaving in a way that was very nearly obscene," she remembers.

That was Beria. He was extremely agitated. His face repulsive enough at the best of times, was now twisted by his passions, by ambition, cruelty, cunning and a lust for power and more power still.

Meanwhile her father lay unconscious. Several times he opened his eyes, but his gaze was clouded, and no one knew whether he recognized anyone. Then he began to hemorrhage; his breathing became shorter; his face grew dark; his lips turned black; "the last hours were nothing but a slow strangulation." At what seemed the final moment, he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over the room.

It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry and full of the fear of death ... . The glance swept over everyone in a second. Then something incomprehensible and awesome happened that to this day I can't forget and don't understand. He suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something above and bringing down a curse on us all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace, and no one could say to whom or at what it might be directed. The next moment, after a final effort, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh.

So it all ended. In the next years Alliluyeva brooded over her father and the past, living, as she writes, a "weird and preposterous double life." Her outer life on the fringe of the government elite was secure enough. But her inner life became one of "total alienation from all these people, from their customs and interests, their spirit and deeds." A religious impulse, perhaps implanted by her grandmother and her nurse, began to flower within her. By the time she was thirty-five, "I, who'd been taught from earliest childhood by society and my family to be an atheist and materialist, was already one of those who cannot live without God...It's simpler to divide people today into believers and unbelievers."

The mystique of the Revolution vanished: "No revolution ever destroyed so much of value for the people as our Russian Revolution." But the new generation, she hopes, will read these pages in their country's history "with a feeling of pain, contrition and bewilderment, and they'll be led by this feeling to live their lives differently." They want to be happy; they want bright colors, fireworks, noise, excitement; they want culture and knowledge; "they want the way of life the rest of Europe has enjoyed for so long to come to Russia at last." For Russia, she concludes, is greater than the Revolution. "No matter how cruel and harsh our country may be ... no one who loves Russia in his heart will ever betray her or give her up or run away in search of material comfort. Her beauty, tranquil and wise, shines like a soft, sorrowful light from the pale sky. It will survive everything and go on forever."

There will no doubt be much righteous comment about this book. Some will feel that Alliluyeva is too lenient toward her father; but greater severity would have asked a great deal from human nature. Others—those who believe that the function of contemporary history is to protect the reputation of politicians and express indignation over disclosures about high government officials—ought logically to be more outraged than ever over a daughter's revelations about her father; no doubt the fact that Stalin was a Communist will make it all right this time. In any case, the conception of history as a toady to power is indecent. The private words and actions of public men, insofar as they illuminate their public deeds and policies, are an essential part of the historical record. For the obligation of history is to provide as full and exact a reconstruction of the past as possible—as the obligation of rational society is to offer its citizenry the most accurate possible information about the purpose and performance of its leaders.

The Russians are considerably upset over Twenty Letters to a Friend. They take it as the climax of a carefully orchestrated American campaign to spoil their sacred fiftieth anniversary; indeed, they took it so hard this summer that there seemed to some good reason to defer publication of the book for a few weeks until the obsequies were over. Eventually they sought to take the edge off the book by leaking portions of it well in advance. One can understand their anger over a woman who, in their view, has done precisely what she herself condemned—betrayed her native land, given it up, run away in search of material comfort. How would Americans have felt at the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence if the British, a month before July 4, 1826, had published a book by a daughter of George Washington exposing the glorious experiment as a racket and a fraud?

But the Russians are wrong. This book is not the work of a sensationalist or a traitor. It is wrung from an agonized conscience and a sickened heart. It is a deeply, ineradicably, Russian book. It is a testament which, someday, one must hope, Russians will be free to read—and will then be grateful to Svetlana Alliluyeva for the witness she has so courageously and movingly borne.

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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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