Sunday 25 April 2010
Love in the Twilight
Lana Peters is alive, well and living Richland Centre, Wisconsin. Who is Lana Peters, you ask? She is the daughter of one of the most infamous tyrants in modern history; she is the daughter of Stalin.
Her full name is Svetlana and before her marriage she was generally known by the surname Alliluyeva, her mother’s maiden name, or occasionally Stalina. Now eight-four years old, she defected to the West from the old Soviet Union in 1967. She was eventually to publish Twenty Letters to a Friend, both a wistful memoir of a comfortable childhood and a denunciation of the crimes of her father. There is a profound ambiguity here, a contradiction between a daughter’s love of her father and the horror with which she perceives his actions. It’s an ambiguity that continues to the present day.
Although she now generally avoids any publicity I was interested to read a press report at the weekend of an interview she gave to David Jones, a British journalist she has spoken to in the past. She seems to despise her native land, to which she returned briefly, despising in particular the political leadership it has thrown up, from Lenin to Putin. And then, of course, there is Stalin, the bleak legacy that he left her.
It was Stalin’s notorious paranoia, his pathological distrust, that was the principal motor of the Great Purge, a process that destroyed so many lives; and his paranoia did not stop short of his own family. Svetlana, whose mother had committed suicide when she was only six years old, lost relatives, including an aunt to whom she was particularly close. At this point of the interview Jones remarked that her father was responsible for this. “No!” she replied in anger, “Not my father. It was Beria.”
Here we have the ambiguity, the denial at its deepest. Lavrenti Beria, who succeeded Nikolai Yezhov, as head of the NKVD, the secret police responsible for the mass arrests and deportations of the late 1930s, was indeed a repellent man; but he was never more than a tool. Indeed, the worst stages of the Purge were over before he took command of the security apparatus. This is where Svetlana’s memories become incredibly selective;
My mother would never allow Beria in the house. She knew what he was. But after she died, of course, things changed and he was promoted from the Caucuses to Moscow. He seemed to have some sort of hold on my father.
The truth is that Nadezhda Alliluyeva killed herself in November 1932 and Beria was only promoted from his post in the Caucuses in August 1938. When Jones reminded Svetlana of the Terror Famine of the early 1930s, which took so many lives in the Ukraine, she dismissed this with a wave of her hand, saying “Oh, yes, my father too.”
There is history, there is truth and there is the recognition of truth. But Stalin loved her, her father loved her, no matter how brutish he could behave; and it is that love that she cannot quite forget in the twilight of her life.