Svetlana Alliluyeva was the daughter of Joseph Stalin. In her memoir, Twenty Letters to a Friend, she struggles to come to grips with her childhood and in particular her relationship with her father, who he was a man, father, husband, and leader. According to Wikipedia, Svetlana caused an international stir when she defected from the Soviet Union in 1967. Interesting that this is the same date her memoir was published. Svetlana was born in 1926 and passed away in 2011. (Stalin died in 1953.) Wikipedia says as of 2010, she was living in Wisconsin.
This book came to me from my grandmother. She didn’t give it to me, but rather, I inherited it when she died. My grandmother was a member of the Book of the Month Club, and this was one of the books she received. My grandmother was very well read, but I don’t think she ever had the same kind of fascination with Russia that I developed.
As I read this book, I felt a wave of compassion for Svetlana. After all, it’s hard to top having Stalin for a father. For one, there is the mysterious death of Svetlana’s mother. Was it really a suicide? Did Beria do it? Could Stalin have? How culpable was Stalin in the terror? She seems to want to shift the blame, painting Stalin as a man whose passions could be manipulated, a man with tremendous paranoia that worsened over time. What is touching is that she loved him, and I suppose the monster that I have read about in my history classes must have loved her too.
There are a couple of things that could have improved her memoir. She didn’t say much about the Soviet gulags that her father worked so hard to populate. She also didn’t write much in scenes. Most of her letters were strictly telling, not much showing. The letters she wrote about her mother and her first husband were the most gripping, where I actually forgot I was reading and lost myself in her story.
Svetlana is extremely self-conscious throughout her memoir, always watching what she says, always crafting an impression. And this is certainly understandable given the very public nature of her life. Unfortunately, in this writing, she hasn’t unraveled her own denial, even though I have the feeling that she sincerely tried.