A story is told about Svetlana, the daughter of Stalin, that soon after she had arrived in the United States George Kennan, the scholar of things Russian and Soviet, took her to Princeton. They called on Prince Paul Chavchavadze, a Georgian émigré married to a Romanov Grand Duchess and on the faculty. It so happened that something had gone wrong with the plumbing. Entering the house, Svetlana rolled up her sleeves and got to work. If someone had told me that Stalin’s daughter would one day clear up my kitchen, the Grand Duchess supposedly said, they would have been thought completely crazy.
Apocryphal or not, this story is in keeping with Svetlana’s character. Determined, strong willed, she asked for no favors. Mutual friends with an interest in Russia introduced me to her. She had never been to Wales, so I invited her to stay and she came for ten days. The cottage is uncomfortable, I warned her. Does it have running water? she asked. She was to spend most of the time in her room, except when she wanted to cook. She showed no interest in the Welsh landscape or the ancient churches nearby. The hooting of an owl in the wood bothered her.
Our friends had advised me that any questions about her father or her past made her angry. Anger did indeed rise quickly in her, and then she looked astonishingly like Stalin, with a sort of animal glare in her eyes. But at meals she reminisced of her own free choice. She evidently loved her father, remembering how he had spoiled her and called her his princess, helped with homework in the Kremlin, and educated her, insisting that she learn foreign languages. No less evidently, she couldn’t accommodate the knowledge that he was as frightening a murderer as anyone in history. She was sure in herself that Stalin was responsible for the death of her mother, whether he shot her or she shot herself. A photograph shows her as a child on the knee of Lavrenti Beria, head of the secret police, a Soviet Himmler. Her father’s crimes were really Beria’s, she badly wanted to believe, with that animal glare shining in her eyes.
I have a copy of her book Letters to a Friend, which in its way is a unique document because she emended it, restoring passages that had been cut out and adding commentary. After the interlude in Wales, she left for Spring Green, Wis. I suggested that we sit down with a tape recorder and collaborate on a book that would do justice to her feelings about her mother and father, to the significance of Communism and the Soviet experiment, to experiences of a life so unlike any other. It might have been a lasting memorial to the 20th century, but the wish to be anonymous proved stronger than the impulse to put herself into print for all to read. Hers was a genuinely tragic destiny, and she met it with dignity, and I am happy to add, anger.