Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Phil Yakushev, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Rosemary Sullivan about her book Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva (HarperCollins), which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Phil Yakushev: In one of the last lines of the prologue to Stalin’s Daughter, you describe Svetlana as “always living in the shadow” of her father. I was struck by how deep into that shadow this book managed to get. Particularly in Part I, when Stalin is still alive and at the height of his power—both politically and personally, as a father to a lonely child—his actions are described almost as much as Svetlana’s. And even when he’s off-stage, his shadow manages to seep into Svetlana’s life and influence it at every turn. Did you find it difficult to be that close and personal to the darkness of that era? How did you balance such a close perspective with a broader need for historical objectivity and justice? Did Svetlana’s presence at the structural center of the narrative make that task easier or harder?
Rosemary Sullivan: You have identified the most difficult challenge in writing this book: how to foreground Svetlana’s life and not have it subsumed and overwhelmed by the political violence, what you call “the darkness of the era.” I had to figure out how to give just enough of the backdrop so that even those unfamiliar with Stalin’s world could follow the narrative, but she had to be the focus. I scrapped my first draft of 100 pages because it read like a biography of Stalin.
We know the “darkness of the era” from reading Solzhenitsyn, N. Mandelstam, Ginzburg, Grossman, Victor Serge, etc. But I had the opportunity to write about that darkness from within Stalin’s very family, from his daughter’s perspective. As long as I was looking for her story, I could keep the focus.
Always in my mind was the question: what is the difference between being the dictator’s daughter and the dictator’s son? How could you face the fact that the father you loved was responsible for the death of millions?
When I went to Russia to research this book in 2013, I was able to follow the chronology of Svetlana’s life—I visited the Alliluyev apartment in Saint Petersburg, which belonged to her grandparents; the Kremlin compound; “Model School No. 25” (which has a small museum); Moscow University; the Gorky Institute of World Literature; The House on the Embankment (which also has a small museum), etc. This provided the narrative map, as it were.
PY: The impact of her father’s name is a major focus of the book. Up until Svetlana’s defection, she was considered “state property”; you describe how people at her university and at her work would just come into her room and stare, either with awe or disgust or hatred; people were quick to dismiss any of her quirks or traits as proof that she was indeed her father’s daughter. But Svetlana’s perspective is also present from her memoirs, her cadences and mannerisms from her letters. How did you navigate the dual tasks of examining the impact of her childhood while also allowing her to become such a complex and interesting person, with her own voice, in these pages?
RS: When I began the project, I requested a general permission from Svetlana’s daughter to quote from her mother’s published and unpublished works, including any of her letters that people might offer me. She generously agreed, saying: “I want my mother’s voice in the book.”
Svetlana’s own memoir provided one narrative thread, but I had to find out how candid she was—we all invent ourselves somewhat. This is where the interviews came in, and the many Russian memoirs in which she makes a cameo appearance. I discovered from these other perspectives how remarkably candid Svetlana could be. For example: Olga Rifkina, her fellow student, reported how humble and natural she was at Model School No 25; David Samoilov offered a fascinating portrait of their love affair. Was she truthful in claiming to defend Andrei Sinyavsky at the Gorky Institute? Her fellow worker at the Institute, Alexander Ushakov, whom I interviewed, confirmed this. Actually he was very put out that she spoke in defense of Sinyavsky when the authorities had censured him. I was able to interlace Svetlana’s version of her father’s death with the multiple versions I found in the memoirs of Stalin’s contemporaries, like Khrushchev, and in the accounts by Soviet historians and Stalin’s multiple biographers.
PY: This book is so thoroughly researched, weaving together memoirs, articles, personal interviews, and archival research. How did your understanding of Svetlana change as you learned more about her, and how did the narrative evolve along with that understanding?
RS: As I followed Svetlana’s story, I more fully understood the numerous tragedies in her life—the suicide of her mother, the imprisonment and execution of her close relatives, the death of her brother in a Nazi prisoner of war camp, the exile of her first love, Alexi Kapler, to the Gulag. I was increasingly amazed by her resilience and her capacity to maintain an affirmative attitude toward life, despite everything.
PY: Did you ever worry that either archives or memories might not be completely reliable? Do you feel like you would still like to know more about some aspect of her life?
RS: Of course, as a biographer, you maintain a healthy skepticism toward all source material. It was amusing, for instance, to read some of the “diplomatic speak” in the NARA files, which was easy to penetrate since I knew the factual story behind Svetlana’s defection. When reporting on Stalin, I tried to suggest the multiple possible interpretations of his actions, for instance regarding the suicide of Svetlana’s mother Nadya. Some still believe Stalin killed his wife. For me to confirm an incident, I had to find several sources, as in the account of Svetlana’s stay at Taliesin. There are several books about Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship that corroborate Olgivanna Wright’s plot to marry Svetlana to Wesley Peters, not to mention the comments by people I interviewed. There is always more to be said about a life, but Stalin’s Daughter was long enough!
PY: Toward the end of chapter thirteen, you include an extended quote from Svetlana’s memoir, Twenty Letters to a Friend. “Let the judging be done by those who come later…They’ll read through this page in their country’s history with a feeling of pain, contrition and bewilderment,” she writes. While that reaction seems to be common among outsiders, it seems like it’s become less so in Russia itself, at least officially, with textbooks now framing Stalin as a “modernizer” and his image being used as a symbol of victory, most notably during the Crimean conflict. Much of your research was done in Russia. Did you ever get any sort of pushback there, since you explore a more nuanced, and more truthful, narrative of that time, or because you focus on a highly polarizing defector? What do you think Svetlana would make of this new wave of idealization and whitewashing?
RS: In order to do research in Russia, I had to obtain a special “researcher’s visa” which I was able to do with the generous assistance of a professor at the University of Moscow. This was a long and complicated process. As a visitor you must register with the police within four days of your arrival. After that, no one, no official that is, seemed particularly interested in my work and I was, with some effort, able to visit the GARF and RGASPI archives. Reading the correspondence between Stalin and Svetlana when she was a child was particularly moving.
The current attitude towards Stalin is complex. The historian Stephen Cohen told me that 50% of Russians still revere Stalin—he won the Second World War—while 50% detest him as the chief architect of the horrors of the Gulag. Stalin perfected the “Cult of Personality” which some feel the current president Vladimir Putin is emulating. Many Russians seem convinced that a “Strong Man” is needed to hold the country together.
In her own words, Svetlana stated that, “Even today, Russians are incapable of grief and atonement for Stalin’s crimes….That failure to face the bad bodes ill for the future.” (Letter to Mary Burkett, Mar. 4th, 1996). I doubt, were she alive today, that she would have approved of any idealization of the past.
Biographer and poet Rosemary Sullivan is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. Her 14 books include the critically acclaimed Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape and a House in Marseille and Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion and Romantic Obsession. Shadow Maker, her biography of Gwendolyn MacEwen, won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction.
Phil Yakushev is a second-year fiction student in The New School's MFA Creative Writing program. He is currently writing a novel that explores memory and trauma across multiple generations of Russian nationals and immigrants. He lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend and his cat.