Commentary Magazine

Twenty Letters to a Friend, by Svetlana Alliluyeva

Personal Politics

Twenty Letters to a Friend.
by Svetlana Alliluyeva.
Translated by Priscilla Johnson McMillan. Harper & Row. 246 pp. $5.95.

Svetlana Alliluyeva is the last, and least talented, of the Brontë sisters, and the only way to read Twenty Letters to a Friend is not as history but as a romantic novel. The clue is in the opening phrase, “It is quiet here.” (Wuthering Heights?) The time is the summer of 1963, the place is Zukovska, and at thirty-seven “this is where I belong—not in the city or the Kremlin.” She belongs, that is to say, outside the modern system which her father imposed on Russia after her mother's death, destroying in the process what she later refers to as the “early knights of the Revolution.” Even as she writes, Svetlana thinks fondly of the home less than a mile away from Zukovska in the town of Usolvo where her mother presided before her suicide in 1931. Romantic landscape, a dead mother, the “old party people,” especially of the Alliluyeva family—these are with us from the beginning, along, of course, with God, as alternatives to the world from which she has chosen to absent herself: “Moscow, breathing fire like a human volcano with its smoldering lava of passion, ambition, and politics, its hurly burly of meetings and entertainment, Moscow is less than twenty miles away.”

Sensing vaguely that this romantic mist has a strangely political odor, we move to the first letter. It concerns the death of Stalin, and it's a bit surprising to encounter so early on, from a writer of such avowed simplicity, one of the artful disruptions of chronology which necessitates the many tiresome recapitulations whenever she does decide to work for a bit along the chronological track. Letter One finds her being hastened from French class at the Academy (Villette?) to a horridly prolonged, medically barbaric death scene. “It's a strange thing,” she tells us, “but during those days of illness when he was nothing but body out of which the soul had flown and later, during the days of leave-taking in the Hall of Columns, I loved my father more tenderly than I ever had before.” (Jane Eyre reunited finally with a shattered and at last inferior Rochester?) With her are leading members of the Soviet government, but, along with nearly everyone else in this book, they are treated like so many uninteresting neighbors. Her failure to imagine very much about any of them, and her insistence that we shouldn't look on her life “as anything special,” does, however, confirm something I've always suspected: that the Soviet government, like any totalitarian group, precisely to the degree that it doesn't appeal to any constituency outside itself, degenerates into a kind of neighborhood of relatives and friends, all working for the same company, all living in and around the company town. About like a less automated Wilmington, Delaware, or Grosse Pointe. That's the social price for being at the top in a dictatorship, along with having to synchronize your sleeping and eating schedules with the erratic behavior of the town squire cum bossman. (Stalin, for example, liked to sleep until about two in the afternoon, and you can imagine what that did to everybody's schedule.)

Anyway, there they were at the sofa on which he slept, located in a bedroom that was also the dining-and meeting room, Stalin's domestic appointments being less those of a petit bourgeois like Hitler than of a sloppy and eccentric retainer holed up in some corner of the estate. Gathered round were his old associates, ambition far to the rear of their tear-filled eyes, portly folk like Khrushchev and Bulganin, all anxious to commiserate with the sole surviving member of the family. All except one, of course, the Villain. Lavrenty Beria by name, he's ready, even before “the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh,” to be cruel to his benefactor's child. Watching from behind his glistening pince nez for the last breath and the main chance, and knowing that the moment isn't far off, Beria “caught sight of me and ordered: ‘Take Svetlana away!’ Those who were standing nearby stared but nobody moved. Afterward he darted into the hallway ahead of anybody else. The silence of the room where everyone was gathered around the death bed was shattered by the sound of his loud voice, the ring of triumph unconcealed, as he shouted, ‘Khrustalyov! My car!’” Off he speeds, “the embodiment of Oriental perfidy, flattery, and hypocrisy,” a “monster” whose vileness, we are told in the first few pages, “is a blot on my father's name.”


One thing is sure, nobody liked Beria. Svetlana's mother as early as 1929, when he'd come up from Georgia for a visit, told Stalin that “that man must not be allowed to set foot in our house.” (Stalin asked for facts, and when she produced none told her to go to hell.) And physically he was, well—“plump, greenish, pale,” according to Djilas in his Conversations with Stalin. Djilas, by the way, on the basis of a few dinners, has more telling impressions to share with us about these people than does Mrs. Alliluyeva after forty years of it. Of course there were plenty of reasons to detest Beria, especially if you thought he'd managed to dispose of over half of your and your father's relatives even without your father's encouragement. But in projecting her understandable detestations, these opening scenes are suspect not merely because they're rather too literary and, given the cast, comically theatrical. They also manage to be political, in a shrewd, coy way. The politics is carried subliminally, as it were, under the gossip, under the guise of simplicity, under the melodrama of deaths and entrances. For good reason, then, the death scene had to come at the beginning: not merely to catch the reader's interest but even more to catch him politically off guard. Who'd suspect any such maneuvering in a book by Little Me out here where it's quiet, a book not even intended for publication when it was written? To believe that Beria's conduct at this moment and his appearance (“his face, repulsive enough at the best of times, now was twisted by his passions—by ambition, cruelty, cunning, and a lust for power and more power still”), to propose this as the expression of “triumph,” is a way covertly of asking us to believe that Stalin was somehow in Beria's way, that Stalin opposed rather than abetted and initiated Beria's activities. More than likely Beria was simply scared out of his wits as he watched his sole promoter and protector slowly strangle to death. No wonder he got out of there before anyone else—back to headquarters, where he could be as green as he wanted to be with his trusties guarding the door. Stalin died in March, by June Beria was in prison, by December he was shot. So much for his “triumph” at the moment of Stalin's death, so much for his sources of power independent of Stalin, and for the effectiveness of his political plotting when it wasn't in the service of Stalin.


This is a strangely difficult book to read not simply because the style is at once lurid and vague, but more because it's impossible to tell whether or not Svetlana Alliluyeva is politically illiterate out of emotional commitments or disingenuous out of political shrewdness. She probably doesn't know herself, and it seems obvious from what we can learn about Stalin in this book and in Isaac Deutscher's Stalin, that Stalin was of a similarly curious mix. Like father, like daughter—with one important difference: political genius is precisely such confusion released from conscience, which is not to say that that's the only reason why Svetlana is not a political or any other kind of genius.

The Beria of this book, then, is assuredly not the Beria of history, who in fact didn't even get to Moscow from Georgia, where he may well have bumped off a few people at his master's behest, until after the bloodiest years of Stalin's reign, from 1934 to 1938. When he did replace Yezhof at NKVD his job was not to accelerate the purges but to put the brakes on them. Having acknowledged at several points that Stalin did not like Jews, Svetlana has of course some trouble assigning to Beria what were to be the beginnings of another purge, this time with the characteristics of a pogrom—the case of the Kremlin doctors in 1952. Nonetheless she assures us that Stalin “was extremely distressed at the turn events took,” and that he didn't believe the doctors were “dishonest.”

It's been argued that one virtue of this book is that it really is not very useful as history. Because it wasn't written from hindsight, after Svetlana learned what was going on, we do get an accurate picture, so this argument goes, of what it was like to live around Stalin in childish innocence and affection. But the childlike role adopted by Mrs. Alliluyeva in these letters has enough of the effect of political stratagem to make the passages I've been discussing seem, in placement and phrasing, nothing less than a product of calculated hindsight and whitewashing. Just how does Mrs. Alliluyeva expect us to respond to her introductory hope that “maybe when I've written it all down, an unbearable burden of some kind will fall from my shoulders at last and then my real life will begin”? Why “of some kind,” unless the burden is up for grabs? Leaving aside the romantic fantasy that “real life” is a process of disencumbering oneself, it's impossible to find in this book the shape or weight of any particular “burden” much less any evidence that it has proved “unbearable.” Any reader can of course imagine a “burden” for the daughter of Stalin, but at issue is what she imagines it to be. When Beria isn't the pack horse for Stalin, and therefore to a great extent for herself, it turns out to be “the system of which [Stalin] himself was a prisoner.” Loyal daughter and defector, she has found a way to do something which, so far as I know, is wholly original, an invention which it is to be hoped will remain uniquely her own—she has managed to use anti-Communism to exonerate Josef Stalin, even while suggesting, in her quite unconvincing evocations of Mother, that Stalin betrayed the revolution.


If the virtues of this book can scarcely be called historical, and if its perspectives are too muddled ever to be considered innocent, can one at least, following the lead of several of the more enamored reviewers, call it courageous? It has been compared, for example, to a book that really is courageous, Evgenia Ginsburg's Into the Whirlwind, an account of the author's eighteen years of labor-camp imprisonment and suffering from which she returned still able to clarify her loyalty to Communism and the USSR. One meaning of courage surely is that you let yourself understand what has happened to you, and that kind of courage isn't here at all. Courage can also mean that if some things haven't happened to you, even though you were continually in the way of them, then you face the possibility that you are someone to whom certain kinds of experience are impossible, to whom a range of impressions simply isn't available. Perhaps you are a person of no particular time or place, with vague and dislocated feelings derived less from the things you've encountered than from the things you haven't found. To admit that you are such a person takes an enormous amount of courage, I would suppose. And it's this kind of courage that Svetlana Alliluyeva and this book desperately ask for.

In important ways she was not a witness to the history of which she claims to have been a part. By which I don't mean that we expect any dark secrets about governments and personalities. Instead, I simply mean that she ought to give some indication that she was alive to the times and places in which she lived or, if she wasn't, that she face that fact. Aside from some family gossip and some domestic notes, she brings nothing out to us, and even her account of her mother's suicide, when she discovered that it was one some ten years after the event and had opportunity to question relatives and friends, is much less informative, much less passionately interested than the account in Deutscher's book. With no embarrassment, and confident of our uncritical sympathy, she reports at thirty-seven that when she visited her father during the early and disaster-ridden months of the war he was “irritable and busy . . . I was terribly alone that winter. Maybe it was my age—sixteen, a time of dreams and doubts and seeking, unlike anything I've ever known before.” It was at sixteen, too, we may remember, that her mother married Stalin, who was then thirty-eight, and obviously it wasn't easy for the daughter to be left with an aging, almost wholly preoccupied father and with no mother at all. But is that all that was happening to her? Given what was going on, her self-absorption, even for a quite special girl her age, was extraordinary, and the uncritical reporting of this self-absorption by a woman of thirty-seven is even more so. It indicates a personality that has remained nearly incapable of seeing anything beyond a radically foreshortened area of emotional need. If an historical cataclysm like the war didn't get to her, neither, I'm afraid, did the vast undertakings, the epic developments of her own country, nor did the various personages with whom she claims to have spent interminable and boring dinners, like Kaganovich, Malenkov, Molotov, Mikoyan, and Khrushchev. She offers scarcely a phrase of characterization even though she saw some of them up to the time of her defection. Freed of the “burdens” of political inquisitiveness, must the book also be freed even of the historical anecdotes which should be the consequence of taking on the most casual burdens of other peoples' company and their manners?

The only times when adult experience has much interest for the author is when she is in the one role she can imagine for herself—the role of a child. Maybe what she means by the vague phrase “a burden of some kind,” is simply the burden of age, of the sheer passage of time. She means, that is, something largely non-historical, as one might expect in so curiously romantic a novel as this one. Nature and God are predictable successors to Mother and Stalin, and to the failed attempts at personal relationships after her sixteenth year. She herself doesn't suggest that her marriages amounted to anything: the first in 1944 to Grigory Morozoff, a young man who displeased Stalin by being Jewish and by managing somehow to stay out of the war; and the second, after she divorced Morozoff (“for reasons of a personal nature,” we are advised, as if this distinguished it from other divorces) to the son of Andrei Zhdanov. About the elder Zhdanov, presumably Stalin's heir apparent and probably no better than Beria, she offers not a word. And of the son, she says merely that her marriage to him was “a matter of hard common sense but without any special love or affection.” Her most intense non-familial relationship, at least in the book, is with Alexei Kapler during the winter of 1942-43. She was a schoolgirl of seventeen, he a successful filmmaker of forty. Stalin broke up the affair by shipping Kapler to the Arctic Circle for five years charging that he was a British spy, and he berated his daughter in tones that became unfortunately typical of their domestic scenes at the Kremlin: “‘Love!’ screamed my father, with a hatred of the very word I can scarcely convey. And for the first time in his life he slapped me across the face, twice. ‘Just look, nurse, how low she's sunk!’ He could no longer restrain himself. ‘Such a war going on, and she's busy the whole time—!’ Unable to find any other expression, he used the coarse peasant word.” Pretty rough, but then it's hard to imagine any parent approving of such a relationship. While what appear to be vacuities later on are at this point maybe a function of youth, there is even here, especially, at a retrospective glance, a disturbing absence of any developed relationship between Svetlana and people her own age, anyone who is not a parental reflection, a parental substitute, or a parental defiance, no one at school, no friends from the other leading families.


The “Burden” of close relationships, the burden of intense responsiveness, the burden of historical feeling or participation, none of these is had for the asking and none is proved by rhetoric. Above all, there is no literary evidence that such burdens have ever been accepted. Literary evidence would be mostly, I think, in the effort to make one attitude, one position, coherent or consistent with another, in indications on one page that she has accepted the price of having said something on another page to which, despite any inconvenience, she acknowledges at least some responsibility. Instead, one of the marked peculiarities of this book is in the variety of its inconsistencies, ranging all the way from small matters to the centrally important one of her parental preferences. Of her father's dacha at Kutsevo, she says “I never liked it,” and two pages later launches into a description of “what I liked about the house”; in one account, Stalin's working dinners “generally started between six and seven in the evening and went on until eleven or twelve,” until we're told a dozen pages later that they were “usually at table for two hours”; romantically lamenting at the beginning of Letter 16 that she and Kapler “saw each other only a few hours,” she proceeds to tell us about meetings that stretched, without interruption, over five months, some of them in an “empty apartment” which she also tells us was used by air force friends of her brother Vasily. Stalin, who in the middle of the war took time out personally to end the affair with Kapler, is called a “neglectful” parent while being berated for interference that extends even to complaints about his daughter's clothing; by contrast, the mother is “a good family woman” late in the book where earlier she is said to be “practically never at home” and to have spent “little time with us.” Of the same mother, she can't at one moment “recall her kissing or caressing me ever,” while later she recalls that “she seldom kissed me or stroked my hair.”

Depending on her portrait of her mother and her preferences for her as a parent, is Svetlana's romantic idealization of the “old party” as represented by the Alliluyeva family and their friends. It's therefore crucial that throughout, while claiming that her mother was the better parent, all of her evidence points the other way, notably her quotations of the one letter, cold and admonishing, that her mother sent her and quotations from the many letters, full of affectionate games and phrases—“my little Housekeeper,” “my little sparrow”—addressed by Stalin even as late as 1950. While the mother was alive, she assures us, Stalin was “neither a god nor a cult, but just a father of a family”—and we know we're reading a domestic allegorization of the politics of the personality cult. In terms of that allegory, the suicide of the mother becomes a portent of political disasters for the family, the revolution, and the Soviet Union: “The steady annihilation of everything my mother had created, [the] systematic elimination of her very spirit so that nothing was left of it, so that everything would be exactly the opposite of what she had stood for.” She asks whether her mother's death simply left Stalin free to do what he wanted to do anyway, or whether “her suicide broke his spirit and made him lose his faith in all his old friends.” Such questions, by suggesting that politics is exclusively a matter of personality, are quite useless in that they exclude the areas of national and even international politics which any answer is expected to cover. Anyway, we've already been told three pages earlier that “My father's spirit was in a sense broken.” And guess who noticed it first—Beria, of course, “more treacherous, more practiced in perfidy and cunning, more insolent and single-minded than my father. In a word he was a stronger character.”

Mrs. Alliluyeva's political motives are probably as unconscious—and therefore as compulsive—as are the social ambitions and sexual sadisms that propel the rhetorics of God and Nature in those 19th-century novels of the Brontës. For 1968, the similarity, however interesting, is also quite obnoxious, especially since Mrs. Alliluyeva's way with people and politics isn't nowadays nearly as unique, in its literariness, as might be hoped. Indeed, these “letters to a friend” are important as an example of how politics can't really be intelligently discussed as a derivative of personalities, and that to confound the two is to escape the burden of either.

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