Given the endless parade of biographies of Founding Fathers and Tudor monarchs, one might be forgiven for wondering whether there are any fresh candidates for a lengthy life study left. Canadian writer Rosemary Sullivan (Villa Air-Bel) proves the answer is yes with Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, the masterfully told and meticulously researched story of a truly remarkable life.
Born in 1926 and raised in luxury in Moscow, the only daughter of Russia’s all-powerful leader Joseph Stalin, Svetlana Iosifovna Stalina (who later took her mother’s name of Alliluyeva) was beautiful, intelligent and privileged. But not even Stalin’s favorite child was exempt from the terror that his reign ushered in. Before her father’s death in 1953, Alliluyeva would suffer the loss of her mother, two brothers, numerous aunts and uncles and even her first love to death or deportation. Her father’s role in their fates was something she spent her entire life struggling to reconcile.
If that were all that ever happened to Alliluyeva, her story would still be worth reading. But life had much more in store for this proud, passionate and impulsive woman. After Stalin’s death, she was alternately lauded, spied on and reviled, depending on the prevailing politics of the day. She married three times and bore three children, two of whom she left behind in the Soviet Union after she took the remarkable step of defecting during the height of the Cold War, at the age of 41. It was a desperate attempt to escape her father’s shadow, but Alliluyeva was not able to put the past completely behind her—in fact, she shaped her writing career around it, beginning with a best-selling memoir that made her a millionaire. By the time of her death in 2011, Alliluyeva was living in near poverty in Wisconsin—an anything but predictable end for a Kremlin princess.
Sullivan weaves Svetlana’s fascinating story with cinematic grace, bringing settings as diverse as Moscow, India, England and the United States to life with equal ease. She also sustains a surprising amount of suspense—Alliluyeva’s defection in 1967 in particular has the tension of a spy thriller or an episode of “The Americans.” Combining archival research with journal excerpts and testimony from friends and family, most notably Alliluyeva’s youngest daughter, Olga, Stalin’s Daughter is an intimate portrait of a complicated woman who was a symbol to many but truly known by only a few.