Svetlana, the only daughter of Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin, died on 22 November 2011 [aged 85], at a nursing home in Wisconsin, USA. The story of her conversion to the True Church is uniquely poignant and shows how the Faith has power to change the most hurt, the most desperate of seekers.
Asked whether Stalin had loved her she replied: “Oh yes, I looked like his mother. I had this red hair, which I still have. It’s not coloured. It’s my own hair. I have freckles all over, like her.” As this rather shallow reasoning shows to some degree, her relationship with her father was far from normal, and, as may be expected from a very hurt person she both denounced and defended her father in later years.
Soviet Shirley Temple
She was spoiled as the “little princess of the Kremlin”, a Soviet version of Shirley Temple. Outsiders were amazed at how such a brutal man as Stalin could be so gentle with his daughter. “Hail to our boss Svetlana,” his lieutenants would write in their letters to him. At the height of the terror, he would come home every evening after a hard day signing death warrants, shouting: “Where’s my little boss?” He would sit down and help her with her homework and dine with her and her friends.
Yet Svetlana’s childhood was punctuated by unexplained disappearances. On 8 November, 1932, when she was six, her mother, who was probably suffering from clinical depression, put a gun to her head and shot herself after an apparently trivial argument with her husband at dinner. Svetlana was not told about her mother’s death until, some days later, she was taken to see the body lying in its coffin. The cause was officially ruled as peritonitis resulting from a burst appendix. Meanwhile, enraged by what he partly interpreted as Nadezhda’s treachery, Stalin had many of her relatives exiled or executed. Aunts and cousins to whom Svetlana had been close mysteriously disappeared from her life.
Later Stalin dispatched her teenage love, a film-maker called Aleksei Kapler, to Siberia because he did not approve of him. In 1945 Svetlana had a son, named Josef, but she and her husband were seemingly forced apart in 1947. Another marriage, this time arranged by her father, gave her a daughter, Ekaterina, but this marriage was also dissolved soon afterwards.
Stalin’s menacing death
On the night of 28 February, 1953, Stalin suffered a severe stroke. He was not discovered until 24 hours later and it took him two-and-a-half more days to die. Svetlana was brought in to witness his end.
“The death agony was terrible. He literally choked to death as we watched. At what seemed like the very last moment he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry and full of fear of death. Then he suddenly lifted his left hand. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace. The next moment, after a final effort, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh.”
Later there were suggestions that he might have been poisoned; Svetlana’s name was among many possible suspects.
Search for belonging
By 1966 Stalin’s memory had fallen from favour entirely in Soviet Russia. Svetlana adopted her mother’s maiden name of Alliluyeva and worked as a teacher and translator in Moscow. In 1963 she met an Indian Communist visiting Moscow, Brajesh Singh. They may have married but he died within a year and after this she gave her KGB minders the slip on a 1967 trip to India, where she was carrying his ashes. She sneaked into the US embassy and was granted asylum.
Her life became a constant seeking of a place where she belonged. She married again and bore her third child, Olga. In 1990 she told a newspaper,
“I don’t any longer have the pleasant illusion that I can be free of the label ‘Stalin’s daughter.’ You can’t regret your fate, though I do regret my mother didn’t marry a carpenter.” She also admitted, “Wherever I go, here, or Switzerland, or India, or wherever, Australia, some island, I will always be a political prisoner of my father’s name.”
Separated again she returned to Russia, via England where she had become a Catholic, in order to try and make a reconciliation with the two children she had left there upon defection. Olga (her American daughter, who became a Catholic with her) insisted on wearing a crucifix which went down badly with the Soviet authorities. Hopes of a passionate reconciliation with her two abandoned children came to nothing, and after a fleeting sojourn in Soviet Georgia she accepted defeat and returned to Wisconsin, where she remained in almost total seclusion until her death.
But there was another side to this terrible life. In her own words (from a translation):
My paternal grandmother, Ekaterina Djugashvili, was an almost illiterate peasant, widowed early, trusted in God, and was nurtured in the (Orthodox) Church. Very pious and hardworking, she dreamed of making her surviving son, my father (an Orthodox) priest. The dream of my grandmother never happened. At age 21 my father left the seminary forever. My maternal grandmother, Olga Alliluyeva, gladly talked of God [...] For her, God and the soul were the very foundations of life. I thank God that He has allowed my dear grandmother to give us the seeds of faith. Although they were outwardly obsequious to the new order of things, deep in the heart they retained their faith in God and Christ.
When my brother died, my 18 year old son was very sick. I did not want to go to hospital, despite the insistence of the doctor. For the first time in my life, at age 36, I asked God to heal him. I knew no prayer, not even the Our Father. But God is good, I could not stop listening. I listened, I knew. After his healing, an intense feeling of the presence of God came over me. To my surprise, I asked some friends to join me in being baptized into the (Orthodox) church [...] I had need to be educated about the fundamental dogmas of Christianity. I was baptized on 20 May, 1962, 1 had the joy of knowing Christ, but was ignorant of almost all Christian doctrine. […]
[Later in America, where every denomination tried to invite me and] despite the friendship that I had begun with intellectual Orthodoxy, such as with the Florovsky family, my spiritual thirst remained unsatisfied.
One day I received a letter from an Italian Catholic priest from Pennsylvania, Fr Garbolino who invited me to
make a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, for the anniversary of the apparitions. At the time it was not possible, but our friendship and correspondence lasted over 20 years and taught me many things. Through this exchange of letters more than once the question was raised of my joining the Catholic faith […]
In 1969, Fr Garbolino who was in New Jersey came to visit me at Princeton. I continued writing to Pittsburgh. At that time I was divorced and unhappy, but he, as a good priest, always found the right words and promised to always pray for me. In 1976 in California I found a Catholic couple, Rose and Michael Ginciracusa. I lived two years with hem. Their piety and discrete solicitude for me and my daughter moved me deeply. In 1982 we left for England. [There] on a cold December day, the Feast of St Lucy, in the Advent, a liturgical season that I’ve always loved, the decision […] to enter the Catholic Church, came to me very naturally, while living in Cambridge, England. […] One thing I learned for the first time in Catholic convents: the blessing of everyday existence, even the most hidden, of every little action and the same silence. Overall I am most happy in my solitude in the quiet of my apartment, I feel so alive in the presence of Christ. It is now 13 years since 1982, full of happiness. But just as I was never educated properly in the Russian Orthodox Church to be admitted 30 years ago, so I have not received any more teaching in the Catholic Church. I had to learn everything by reading books. […]
The difference between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church I found was that in Eastern Orthodoxy, a confession is rarely heard, usually once a year at Easter. […] Only now I understand the wonderful grace that the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist produce, no matter what day of the year, and even on a daily basis. Before I was unwilling to forgive and repent, and I was never able to love my enemies. But I feel very different from before, since I attend Mass every day. The Eucharist has given me life. The Sacrament of Penance with God Whom we abandon and betray each day, the sense of guilt and sadness that invades us then, all this makes it necessary to receive it frequently.
[…] So, really, I was taken into the arms of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom I had the habit of invoking […] Who else could be my advocate but the Mother of Jesus? She suddenly drew me close to her, she whom all generations call Blessed among Women.