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."

He appears in Twenty Letters as the villain in a Russian fairy tale—"utterly degenerate," "this monster," "the embodiment of Oriental perfidy, flattery, and hypocrisy." Her mother, Svetlana says, saw through him from the start and forbade him the house as early as 1929. "Everyone close to us hated him ... . Everyone in the family loathed him." Whispering slyly to Stalin, his pince-nez gleaming in a corner, "with typical cunning Beria played on my father's bitterness and sense of loss" after Nadya's death. By 1937 or 1938 he had planted his cousin in Stalin's entourage as housekeeper and his "personal spy." "My father," Svetlana writes, "was astonishingly helpless before Beria's machinations. All Beria had to do was to bring him the record of the interrogation in which X 'confessed,' or others 'confessed' for him or, worse yet, X refused to 'confess.'" After he came to Moscow,

he saw my father every day. His influence on my father grew and never ceased until the day of my father's death. I speak advisedly of this influence on my father and not the other way around. Beria was more treacherous, more practiced in perfidy and cunning, more insolent and single-minded, than my father. In a word, he was a stronger character.

In a good many things Beria and my father were guilty together. I am not trying to shift the blame from one to the other. At some point, unfortunately, they became spiritually inseparable. The spell cast by this terrifying evil genius on my father was extremely powerful, and it never failed to work.

So Beria and his associates cut off Stalin from his old friends, stimulated his pathological suspicions, pushed him in one direction or another as they wished, until "all powerful as he was, he was impotent in the face of the frightful system that had grown up around him like a huge honeycomb, and he was helpless either to destroy it or bring it under control."

We simply do not have enough knowledge at this point to know whether Alliluyeva's thesis about Beria is correct. But there is reason to suspect that filial piety leads her to see his relationship to her father with exaggerated intensity. Thus the next event, after Nadya's death, in propelling Stalin toward the madness of the purges was the murder of Kirov in December, 1934. Kirov was emerging more clearly than ever, according to the testimony of Bukharin, as the champion "of the abolition of the terror, both in general and inside the party." His assassination gave Stalin a pretext for renewing and extending the terror; and Khrushchev later said in the "secret speech" of 1956 that Kirov's murderer had been "assisted by someone from among the people whose duty it was to protect the person of Kirov." The Soviet security services seem definitely to have been involved. Some have supposed that Stalin himself arranged for the disposal of a potential rival.

Alliluyeva denies this. She describes her father as "shattered...by the death of both my mother and Kirov...I'll never believe my father was involved in this particular death...Kirov was close to my father and my father needed him. I remember when we got the awful news that Kirov was dead, and how shaken everybody was." To the daughter it seemed "more logical to link his killing with the name of Beria rather than with my father." Perhaps; but in December, 1934, Beria was only secretary-general of the Communist Party in Transcaucasia. The case against Stalin is stronger, and against the secret police strongest of all; it is conceivable that Yagoda, then head of the NKVD, seeing Kirov as the main threat to the power of the police, took matters into his own hands and assumed Stalin's tacit consent. Beria had NKVD connections, but he did not become head of the secret police for another four years.

Moreover, it is far from clear that Beria's spell "never failed to work" or that his influence "never ceased until the day of my father's death." Again no one can know with certitude; but there is some suggestion that Beria fell into a certain disfavor in Stalin's last years. In November, 1952, he was dropped from fourth to sixth in the Politburo's order of precedence. In his "secret speech" Khrushchev tried to make Beria (who himself had been killed by his colleagues after Stalin's death) a secondary scapegoat; but even he blamed only one of the three great post-war scandals—the Leningrad affair of 1949—on Beria. He did not try to implicate Beria personally in either the Mingrelian conspiracy of 1951-1952 or the doctors' plot of 1953. Boris Nicolaievsky has argued that the Mingrelian purge weakened Beria's position; and the doctors' plot, with its implied criticism of the efficiency of the secret police, might well, if followed up, have eventually involved Beria himself. (A month after Stalin's death, when Beria was Minister of the Interior, a number of both the Mingrelian "conspirators" and the doctors were rehabilitated.)

Some alleged eyewitness accounts of Stalin's last hours have Beria shouting jubilantly, "The tyrant is dead, dead, dead" "If Stalin was murdered," Robert Payne has written, "the most likely candidate for murderer was Beria." No doubt Alliluyeva is right in suggesting that on occasion the servant exploited the master. But Stalin remained the master, and Beria the servant.

lliluyeva's own relations with her father underwent a basic change in the winter of 1942-1943 as she approached her seventeenth birthday. Several things contributed to this. One was her appalled discovery that her mother had committed suicide. Another was her father's callous treatment of her half brother's wife, who was arrested after her husband was captured by the Germans, and, of her full brother, Vassily, whom he humiliated, browbeat, and left an alcoholic. Still another was Stalin's brutal intervention when he learned that Svetlana was emotionally involved with Alexei Kapler, a Jewish film writer. Stalin, furious, had Kapler arrested as a British spy and sent off to Siberia. It was then that he slapped his daughter twice across the face. Thereafter they did not speak for months. "I was never again the beloved daughter I had once been."

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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