Svetlana Iosifovna Stalina was born in February 1926, the only daughter of Russia’s communist dictator, Joseph Stalin. Her mother was Stalin’s second wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva, and Svetlana was their first child. Svetlana had a half-brother, Yakov, from Stalin’s first marriage, and a younger brother Vasiliy.
Svetlana had a highly troubled life. Her woes started at an early age when her mother died in 1932. Svetlana was just six years old, and the circumstances of her mother’s death were murky. Officially, she died from a burst appendix, but there was widespread speculation that Stalin may have ordered her death or even killed her himself. Others believed Stalin had driven her to suicide.
Stalin, of course, was one of history’s most ruthless rulers. All of his potential rivals were killed or sent to brutal prison camps in Siberia. Even those who escaped the Soviet Union were not safe from the long arm of Stalin’s secret police led by the pitiless Lavrentiy Beria, pictured here with Svetlana on his knee.
For example, one leading rival of Stalin’s, Leon Trotsky, had escaped to live in exile in Mexico City. But he was assassinated in 1940 by a Soviet agent who thrust an ice pick into his skull. Another rival, Grigor Zinoviev, one of the leaders of the 1917 revolution, was subjected to a show trial in 1936. He pled guilty to spurious charges on Stalin’s promise that he would be spared. Stalin had him shot the day after the trial.
But it wasn’t just Stalin’s senior political rivals that were killed off. Millions of ordinary Soviet citizens died during Stalin’s rule in the vast network of forced labor prison camps run by the Soviet regime. Numbers of deaths in the camps are notoriously hard to pin down, but some researchers have put the figure as high as 10 million.
So this was the man that was Svetlana’s father: a cruel absolute ruler. Stalin even eschewed the chance to save the life of his own son, Svetlana’s half-brother Yakov. He fought for the Red Army in World War II and was captured by the Germans at the Battle of Smolensk in 1941. Hitler offered to swap him for a captured German field marshal. Stalin refused, and Yakov died in a concentration camp.
However, it does seem that Stalin showed normal paternal affection towards his daughter during her childhood. But as she grew up and fell in love, aged 16 with a 40-year-old filmmaker, Stalin disapproved. The unfortunate suitor was sentenced to a 10-year stretch in the labor camps.
But a year later, Svetlana fell in love again, this time with a perhaps more suitable partner, a classmate at Moscow University. This time Stalin allowed Svetlana to marry, although he pointedly refused to meet Svetlana’s husband-to-be. A son, Iosif, came along in 1945, although an apparently amicable divorce followed in 1947.
Then Svetlana remarried in 1949, this time to Yuri Zhdanov, whose father Andrei, on the extreme left of this photograph, was a key lieutenant of Stalin’s. The two had a daughter, Yekaterina, in 1950 but divorce again followed. Settling down did not seem to be easy for Stalin’s daughter.
Then in 1953, Stalin died and Svetlana’s life was about to change forever. After his death, Svetlana had yet another short-lived marriage lasting about a year to a nephew of Stalin’s, Ivan Svanidze. Then she met an Indian communist, Brajesh Singh, and started a relationship that was to have far-reaching consequences for her. Singh died in 1966, and Svetlana was given permission to travel to India so that his ashes could be consigned to the Ganges.
After her father’s death, Svetlana and other Russians gradually found out the truth about the dictator’s crimes against the Russian people. And this motivated her to take a drastic course of action. While she was in India, she made her way to the American Embassy in New Delhi.
At the embassy, she declared her desire to defect from the Soviet Union. Chester Bowles, the U.S. ambassador, granted her political asylum. This started a momentous episode in Svetlana’s life. Her subsequent appearance in New York was a massive media event. At the height of the Cold War, Stalin’s daughter had turned her back on the Soviet Union, embracing its most bitter enemy, the United States.
At the press conference she held in New York on her arrival in the United States, Svetlana unreservedly disowned communism and the Soviet Union. It’s been said that the KGB, the Soviet secret service, actually considered plans to have Svetlana killed. But no operation was ever mounted since it would have been all too obvious that the Soviets would have been behind any assassination plot.
After her spectacular arrival in the United States, Svetlana started to build her new life in a new country. But settling down proved to be difficult, perhaps not made any easier by the fact that her adult children were still in the Soviet Union, and she apparently was not in touch with them.
She had some success as an author, publishing a memoir called Twenty Letters to a Friend, which she’d written while still in Russia in 1963, which is said to have netted her $2.5 million. Svetlana continued her fractured romantic life, marrying architect William Peters in 1970 but divorcing him three years later. Svetlana now took on the name Lana Peters and the couple had a daughter, Olga.
Svetlana largely disappeared from public view until 1984, moving for a time from 1982 to Cambridge, England with Olga. After the bombshell of her defection from the Soviet Union to the United States, she now hit the headlines again by traveling in the opposite direction. In 1984, Svetlana, against all the odds, returned to the Soviet Union.
Svetlana had been away from Russia for 17 years. So what made her decide to return to the country that she had so wholeheartedly denounced all those years ago? As with her 1967 arrival in New York, Svetlana called a press conference to explain herself. In fact, she said that there was nothing political about her return to Russia. Her motivation was simply that she wanted to reconnect with her two children who had remained in the Soviet Union.
But the Russians were quick to jump on what they saw as a propaganda coup. Svetlana told the New York Times, “I said that ‘Everyone was nice to me – I was a pet.’ The word ‘pet’ was translated as ‘pet dog of the CIA’… My words at the Moscow news conference were turned into propaganda clichés.”
But this second attempt at life in the Soviet Union didn’t work out for Svetlana, and she returned to America in 1986, just two years after leaving the West. After a spell in the United States, Svetlana went back to England in 1992, where she lived in the city of Bristol until 2009.
Finally, in 2009, Svetlana returned to the United States for the last time. She ended her days in a small Wisconsin town, dying more or less penniless in November 2011. Not long before her death, in an interview with The Wisconsin State-Journal, she said, “Wherever I go, here, or Switzerland, or India, or wherever. Australia. Some island. I always will be a political prisoner of my father’s name.”