What is life like for the only daughter of one of the twentieth century’s most monstrous figures? Perhaps, unsurprisingly, it turned out to be a difficult, tumultuous one. But this is what good biographies are made of and seasoned biographer, Rosemary Sullivan, knew it as soon as she read Svetlana’s Alliluyeva’s obituary in 2011. Her 539 page book took over 3 years of research to prepare. The result is a biography that has won over a dozen literary prizes both inside and outside her native Canada.
Sullivan herself is a petite woman, now in her fifties, whose dexterity with her spectacles, as my grandmother always referred to them, suggests many hours spent pouring over books, manuscripts, transcripts and the like, in pursuit of the hidden gems that lie buried in the past, waiting to be discovered and brought to light by biographers such as herself. She tells us that once she got the idea of writing the biography, she immediately contacted her publisher who told her that she had 10 days in which to come up with a more detailed proposal for the book. Sullivan duly did so and the rest, as they say is history. Yet the work had just begun. Sullivan does not speak Russian and so employed the services of two young Russian speakers who would take turns in what she terms the ‘exhausting process of translation’ – interviews would sometimes last for over 5 hours.
Visits to Russia, the United States, India, Britain and France in order to speak with family members, state officials, federal agents and others, were all part of this extensive programme of research. The manner in which this biographer talks about many of those whom she met and interviewed leaves one in no doubt as to the incredibly detailed knowledge she acquired on all things related to Svetlana Alliluyeva’s life. She tells us, not without some pride, that the book has been translated into Russian and, that, when it was published, she received a message from Svetlana’s youngest daughter telling her she liked the book because she could tell that Sullivan was ‘on my mother’s side’. Perhaps empathy is what makes a good biographer. Certainly it is difficult to imagine anyone writing over 500 pages about someone with whom s/he felt no connection or sympathy.
Yet Svetlana was by no means an easy person to understand or to capture in words. A writer herself, her books, Twenty letters to a friend and Only one year, both sold well in the United States because of their focus on Stalin. Writing about her own life, proved far less successful. In many ways, this reflects Svetlana’s life more generally. ‘No matter where I go …. I will always be a political prisoner of my father’ she said. Indeed, her life, from the outside, may be seen as a series of brave, if dramatic attempts to break free of the long shadow of Joseph Stalin. In what one reviewer described as ‘a fine portrait of a damaged life’, Sullivan tells us she attempted to be as balanced as possible in her presentation of Svetlana. Yet we sense her sympathy with this woman whose mother committed suicide when Svetlana was 6 and whose uncles, aunts, half-brother and first love were all systematically removed by her father/ the Party depending on who one believes.
Perhaps because of this, Svetlana was always in search of what Sullivan calls, ‘the great love, something that would last forever’. She never found it. Not in her adopted country, the USA or her mother Russia nor in any of her four marriages. Not even in her 3 children – two of whom remained estranged from her until her death. In Svetlana’s long and tragic life, one might find something of the Russian literary classics. The ending was never meant to be happy, at best it provides a modicum of enlightenment into the challenges of the human condition. However, one thing is clear, a deeper understanding of both Svetlana and her infamous father is made possible only by an appreciation of the Soviet system. She herself said that one could only understand her father as part of the murderous system in which he operated. It is a system that Stalin’s daughter never managed to escape but she gave it a damn good try. Souwie Buis 23rd May 2019