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."
When Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., visited Moscow last summer, he found the Russians agitated and upset over the impending publication of Svetlana Alliluyeva's memoirs. They wanted publication postponed until after this month's observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Failing that, they tried to blunt the event by leaking in advance a bowdlerized version of the much-awaited book by Joseph Stalin's daughter. Mr. Schlesinger, chronicler of the Ages of Jackson and Roosevelt, and of the Kennedy Administration, here illuminates the historical values of Mrs. Alliluyeva's book written before her flight from the Soviet Union and before she composed the remarkable document to Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, first published in the June Atlantic.
History, in the end, becomes a form of irony; and little could be more ironical on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution than the publication of an indictment of Communism by the daughter of Joseph Stalin. At first, indictment may not seem the right word for this apparently gentle book. Svetlana Alliluyeva's Twenty Letters to a Friend is on the surface a romantic memoir, saturated with a wistful lyricism and by no means always clear or unambiguous in its testimony. But its nostalgia masks a clarity and even savagery of memory and judgment—a daughter's wounded judgment of a father, of an epoch, and of great hopes betrayed. "I believe," she writes in an author's note, "that I am, in a way, bearing witness." No one else saw the terrible history of Stalinism through a perspective at once so privileged and so confined; and the witness she bears, in the very narrowness and intensity of its observation, adds vastly to our understanding of the comedy and tragedy of absolute power.
Alliluyeva tells us that she wrote this book between July 16 and August 20, 1963, in the village of Zhukova outside Moscow. The letter form, informal and discursive, evidently provided the ideal means of releasing the flood of unbearable recollection so long dammed up in the depths of her consciousness. Clearly the writing became a therapeutic exercise, a coming to terms at last with experiences whose significance and enormity had been too great for the young Svetlana to grasp "Now that I've managed to shed the intolerable burden that was pressing on me," she writes toward the end, "I feel as though I'd been scaling the cliffs up a mountainside and that at last I reached the top .... The rivers are sparkling in the valleys, and the sun is shining over everything. I thank you, my friend."
And the friend? It was he who urged her to write the letters and who provided the initial audience; "it did not occur to me at the time that the book I was writing might be published." Alliluyeva has subsequently described the friend to The New York Times as a "scientist," belonging "also to the world of literature," whom she could not name because "he might have troubles."
But whomever she thought she was writing to, one cannot resist the impression that in some sense these letters are addressed to the father who she regards with so much love and horror.
The text shows signs of emotion and haste in composition. It is, for example, excessively repetitious; nearly every point is made two or three times. There are occasional factual discrepancies. Thus she writes twice that she made her first visit to Leningrad in 1955, but then says elsewhere that her mother took her there in 1926. The point is trivial, since she was six months old at the time of this first visit and obviously remembered nothing of it, but it indicates a certain looseness in brushwork. So again, though most authorities say she was born in 1925, she gives her birth date as February, 1926.
It would be a mistake, though, to suppose that the letters represent only an unorganized and chaotic flow of consciousness. These memories had evidently taken shape within her over the long years and by 1963 had assumed sharp dramatic form. The apparent artlessness of the narrative is accompanied by considerable skill in the ordering and presentation of her materials. Throughout she introduces her characters with a marked sense of literary, almost novelistic, effect. Her mother, for example, receives much tantalizing mention in earlier letters but is not fully portrayed until Letter 8; and her nurse Alexandra Bychkov, perhaps the person closest to her in these years, does not really emerge until the last letter.
Is it the nature of Alliluyeva's literary education or the nature of Russian life itself that makes so much of this book echo with the sounds of classic Russian writers? The first letter, with its superb and appalling account of her father's death, could almost be a scene from Dostoevsky. The sketches of her mother's family, especially the story of Aunt Anna (Letter 5), have a distinct Chekhovian ring. The play of coincidence in her recollections equals Russian folklore, or Dr. Zhivago. Thus her father (she has heard) rescued her mother from drowning when she was two years old and then, meeting her again fifteen years later, married her. Things seem generally to happen to Alliluyeva "ten years to the day since my mother's death," or "ten years to the day since my father had come into my room in a rage and struck me across the face," or (her last meeting with her father) on "November 9, 1952, the twentieth anniversary of my mother's death."
Above all she evokes nature as a backdrop to emotion with the deplorable facility of a minor Russian romantic novelist: the evening sun lights the grass and the woods with gold, the white birches shimmer, the air is thick with the sweet, heady smell of grass and the fragrance of wild blackberries, "the freshly washed earth was so lovely that I wanted to gasp for joy." Again how ironic that the survival of the "Russian soul" through the ordeal of Stalinism should be so vividly demonstrated by the daughter of Stalin! Her prose is filled with images of decay and renewal, of death and rebirth.
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."
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.
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."
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.