A biography of haunting fascination portrays its subject as a pawn of historical circumstance who tried valiantly to create her own life.
Canadian biographer Sullivan’s previous works (Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille, 2006, etc.) often took her into the complicated lives of women artists, and in this sympathetic biography of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva (1926-2011), the author has illuminated another challenging, mercurial subject. There is a parallel strangeness to the two halves of Svetlana’s life. In her early years, she grew up in the ideologically strenuous Soviet Union, with the run of the Kremlin and various dachas. She was the darling of her supreme dictator father, but before she turned 7, her mother killed herself—though suicide was not the “official” cause of death. Svetlana was also held somewhat apart in school, shadowed by bodyguards and agents, and she learned the shattering truth about her mother’s death from English-language magazines when she was 15. In the second half of her life, she walked into the American embassy in New Delhi in 1967, where she had been allowed to scatter her husband’s ashes, and defected, carrying a manuscript and abandoning her two older children in Moscow. Determined not to end up silenced as an artist, she enlisted the help of former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan and others. Svetlana had seen her family and artist friends disappear—executed or vanished into the gulags—and she had grown disillusioned and embittered by the Soviet system, to the skittishness of American officials, who were afraid of a Soviet political backlash. With great compassion, Sullivan reveals how both sides played her for their own purposes, yet she was a writer first and foremost, a passionate Russian soul who wanted a human connection yet could not quite find the way into the Western heart.
The author manages suspense and intrigue at every turn.