The chaos of wartime Europe runs through the pages of Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, by veteran biographer Rosemary Sullivan. The author was drawn to the subject matter after reading a 2011 obituary for Svetlana Alliluyeva, the youngest child and only daughter of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.
Born and raised in the seat of Soviet power, Alliluyevan defected to the United States, leaving her children behind. She returned to Moscow in 1984, but soon was back in the U.S., living out her life under the name Lana Peters.
We spoke to Sullivan about her motivations for writing Stalin's Daughter and what winning the 2016 RBC Taylor Prize means to her
What does it mean to you to win the Taylor Prize?
I think the Taylor Prize is a very special prize because it was founded 15 years ago, and has brought attention to non-fiction when we non-fiction writers always felt that literary non-fiction was overlooked. (And) it probably makes my editor more receptive to my next idea.
How important are these prizes for writers?
I teach creative writing and I always tell my students they have to write with their right hand and make money with their left, because you don’t make money as a writer. So the prizes are wonderful for your own pocketbook. But at the same time they also bring readership to Canadian writing. The mistake would be to write for prizes. You have to be passionately engaged in what you’re writing. And nothing, frankly, was more exciting than following the story of Stalin’s daughter. It’s such a tragic life, but there’s a kind of triumph in her survival.
What was the significance of her defection to the U.S. in 1967? (at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi)
It couldn’t have been bigger. The British - I consulted the British Secret Service file - they couldn’t believe that Stalin’s daughter had defected. This was such a gift for any American cold war momentum, because the child of Stalin had said ‘this system doesn’t work’.
And yet it almost didn’t happen.
The CIA, when Svetlana walked into the embassy and said ‘I’m Stalin’s daughter’… nobody could believe it.
When they telexed Washington, the CIA, the FBI, the State Department had no files, didn’t know Stalin had a daughter. When they were in mid-air, the undersecretary of state telexed to India, saying ‘kick her out, have nothing to do with her’.
One of the things I learned in writing the book that what we think are thought-out intellectual decisions of power policy are often just a product of personality.
Svetlana’s U.S.-born daughter Olga was a big part of your writing this book. How did you come to meet her?
When you’re writing a biography, because you’re using documentation you have to have permission. I had to get permission for all 63 photographs in the book, permissions for everything I quoted. So you start out by seeking out the literary executor, and I realized the executor had to be Svetlana’s American daughter.
So I flew to Portland, met her with some trepidation, thinking ‘I’m meeting Stalin’s granddaughter’. We had an immediate rapport.
If she had said no, I doubt I would have gone ahead (with the book).
Was a happy life possible for Svetlana, or was her fate set at birth?
Her fate was set at birth. As she said, she had never been allowed to escape the shadow of her father’s name. It was what defined her in people’s eyes. And it’s true. When you met Svetlana, whether you were sympathetic or not, you were still meeting Stalin’s daughter.
She never escaped that projection.
How was she like her father? Did she have a bit of the dictator in her?
She could, I suppose, be emotionally dictatorial. She was in some ways self involved, and so therefore very demanding.
What she shared with her father, according to her nephew, was his intelligence and his will, but not his evil. That makes us reframe Stalin. Stalin wasn’t just a monster, he was much more sophisticated than that. He was a man whose cynical intelligence allowed him to survive 25 years as head of the most mutually murderous group of leaders. Nobody got to Stalin. It was a Yugoslav writer who said there were five Stalins. He could be whatever you needed him to be, and that was how he deceived you.
One of the themes common in this year’s Taylor Prize nominees was the redemptive power of children. Was that key for Svetlana as well with her U.S.-born daughter?
Yes, I think that emotional connection, we all need something like that, otherwise she would have been too alone in the world. I think her love for her daughter, which persisted, was anchoring.
What do you hope people will take from this book?
I guess the notion that she suffered from a cliché, and turned out to be a woman who was much more nuanced than that. You asked me what qualities of Stalin she had. She had his anger, she was angry much of her life about the misrepresentations of her. So if there’s an idea to come away with, it’s to never allow our preconceptions to dictate our encounters with people.
And also just enjoy this very Russian story, because the Soviet period, for a long time at least, seemed like an interlude. There is this huge amazing Russian history that surrounds it. And Moscow, every corner is a celebration of a writer or a scientist. It’s such a rich culture. But the truth is, we now seem to be returning to some of the strategies of the Stalinist era, particularly the cult of personality and the notion that Russia needs a strong man. So maybe Svetlana’s story can also be a warning.
What do you think of the state of Canadian non-fiction these days?
I think the strength of Canadian writing has been evident for quite a while now. In the 1960s, we started out with Margaret Atwood and five tiny presses.
What worries me is how strong publishing is. We’ve got the writers and now we have to be very careful to protect the institutions that sustain them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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