Conflict & Justice

Stalin's daughter struggled to bridge the gulf between her Russian and American lives

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Stalin and Svetlana in 1935 (Photo: Russian Federation/Wiki Commons)

Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, defected to the US nearly 50 years ago.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

"She grew up during the period when there was the most dramatic hostility that you can possibly imagine between the US and Russia," says Nicholas Thompson, the editor of NewYorker.com. "And yet, there she was, inside of the Kremlin, yearning for the United States ... frustrated with the system of the Soviet Union."

She was finally able to leave Russia. "And then she comes to America, and she starts to yearn to go back home," he says. She returned there for a period and then lived her final years in the US.

In this week's New Yorker, Thompson writes about his long friendship with Alliluyeva. It started in 2006, when Thompson was writing a book about former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan, who had taken Alliluyeva under his wing. He sent a letter to Stalin's daughter, who was living in Wisconsin, and received a quick reply.

"First, I was just interviewing her about George Kennan. And then, I was just kind of interviewing her about her life. And then, we kind of became friends and she was telling me how to raise my children," Thompson says.  

Given the current misunderstanding between Russia and the US, he says Alliluyeva is an interesting case study of the gulf between the two worlds. Alliluyeva was "a woman constantly bouncing between these two countries, unsure of where she really fits in, unsure of where really is home," according to Thompson.

He describes her as "incredibly paranoid" about Russian leader Vladimir Putin. She thought the then-KGB head was constantly spying on her and had malicious motives. When Thompson was headed to Russia for a reporting trip, he says Alliluyeva told him, "Beware! You're going to be kidnapped, terrible things will  happen to you. The KGB is everywhere!" 

Thompson grants that Alliluyeva may have thought of Putin as "far more paranoid than he actually is." Still, he notes, "it's also the case that Putin's actions in recent weeks and recent months have suggested a fierce Russian nationalism and a dislike of the West that Svetlana surely would have predicted." 

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