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Tea with Stalin’s Daughter

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I should have addressed the envelope to ‘Lana Peters’ at 280 Ladbroke Grove, but I didn’t, and the package I sent out from the London Review’s offices in the spring of 1992 was instead addressed to Svetlana Allilueva. Several days later, I heard that she was angry I’d used her better-known name. Worse, a story then appeared in the Evening Standard, which said that Stalin’s daughter was living in a halfway house in Notting Hill. Had I helped blow her cover? I apologised. She asked me to tea.

I’d met Allilueva at a party my parents had given a few weeks earlier; they’d been introduced through a friend they had in common. (My mother carried on a correspondence with Allilueva until she died; the last letter from Wisconsin, where she lived after moving to the US for the third time, arrived a month ago. Describing a recent operation, Allilueva said that she’d been ‘unzipped and zipped up again’.) As far as I remember, the mis-addressed package I sent her contained copies of the latest issues of the LRB.

Allilueva opened the front door and showed me into a kitchen on the ground floor: white formica, a worn white floor, hard fluorescent light. A man was at the stove making himself an omelette. That this was a hostel for people who weren’t well with themselves was obvious, but you wouldn’t immediately have said that all was not well with Allilueva. It wasn’t, though: she was broke, homeless, stateless, restless, pensionless, with a reputation for losing friends and exhausting the goodwill of others, living in a care home run by the charity Carr Gomm.

She made tea and cut some cake, and we went up to the first floor where she showed me into a small, narrow, tidy bedroom immediately above the hall. There was a chair, a west-facing window, a small bookshelf, a single bed that doubled up as a sofa, and a dressing table. No photographs on the walls, no paintings, but on the dressing table, next to a mirror, a life-size porcelain bust her daughter Olga had made of herself (she was a sculptor in the US). Allilueva talked about the resurgent Orthodox church, and about the long car journeys from Wisconsin to Arizona she had taken with her American husband, William Peters, in the late 1960s and early 1970s; they reminded her of long car journeys in Russia she had made as a child. Peters, her fourth husband, had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright and she spoke about their marriage as if it had lasted a long time, though it was over after less than two years. She talked about another daughter from an earlier marriage, a volcanologist who lived and worked in Kamchatka; they didn’t communicate much. She didn’t say a word about contemporary Russian politics, or about the envelope I had sent her.

I never went back to 280 Ladbroke Grove but saw Allilueva a few times later that year at other parties. She was always friendly, and I remembered to introduce her to people as Lana Peters. In March 1993 she wrote a letter to the LRB:

The publication of The Long Shadow: Inside Stalin’s Family by Rosamond Richardson has hit me like a bolt from the blue. The author, whom I used to know and with whom I was going to write a book about my mother’s side of the Stalin family, the Alliluevas, says that she had my full co-operation and in her introduction lays claim to my close friendship. In fact, neither friendship nor co-operation has existed since October 1991, when, in an exchange of letters between myself and Rosamond Richardson, on the one hand, and on the other between myself and Alan Samson, Ms Richardson’s editor at Little, Brown, it was agreed that I was no longer going to have anything to do with the author or her book. We have not met since and there has been no further correspondence.

It’s not surprising she fell out with people; she wasn’t shy of making demands. ‘You’re an ordinary person,’ Allilueva wrote to my mother a few years ago, as a prelude to asking her to type up all of her many notes. My mother declined.

Not long after writing to the LRB, Allilueva sent me a card – I’d moved to New York by then – asking me to help recover the copyright to her two books, Twenty Letters To A Friend (1967) and Only One Year (1969), which she’d apparently sold to a publisher that had since gone out of business. Recovering it would have taken a lot of lengthy and expensive legal work. See what you can do, she said.

Edmund Wilson wrote about Allilueva’s first arrival in the US in his journal of the 1960s, which was published in 1994 (Edward Said reviewed it in the LRB). Wilson was magnetised by Allilueva; he had her to stay at his house in Wellfleet, and wanted to write about her for the New Yorker. But the piece was never written, and that friendship too, it seems, didn’t last.

Comments on “Tea with Stalin’s Daughter”

  1. alex says:

    Interesting piece with a lot of vivid detail. However, the assertion that recovering copyright in her out-of-print work ‘would have taken a lot of lengthy and expensive legal work’ is wrong and an unnecessarily unpleasant thing to say, so soon after Svetlana’s death. All you would have needed to do is write about three letters.

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