Episode 47: A View From The Top

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, along with co-host Manuel Castaneda in Oregon.

Today we’re going to look at a fascinating autobiography by a different kind of victim of Communism:   Svetlana Aliluyeva, the daughter of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.   Now of course, we can’t have too much sympathy for her, having lived a life of relative security and prosperity at the top of a system that was murdering millions of people.   But she was not directly involved in the government, and had to spend decades watching helplessly as almost all her family and friends fell victim to the horrible fates shared by so many who had the misfortune to live in Stalin’s soviet union.   As we’ll see, her tragic story can give us some new insights into the fundamental nature of the Soviet system.   We’ll be looking at excerpts from her memoir “Twenty Letters to a Friend”, which was released after she escaped the USSR and defected to the United States in the late 1960s.

In Svetlana’s early years, she actually had relatively positive memories of her father, and a lively family life.   There was even a romantic legend about how Stalin first met her mother Nadezhda, many years before they eventually got married as adults:

There is a family legend that as a young man my father rescued my mother from drowning. It happened in Baku when she was two years old. She was playing on the shore and fell in. He is said to have gone in after her and fished her out. Years afterward my mother met my father again. She was a schoolgirl of sixteen by that time, and he an old friend of the family, a thirty-eight-year-old revolutionary just back from exile in Siberia. Maybe the fact that he had rescued her seemed significant to her, for she was a romantic, full of feeling and imagination.

Alliluyeva, Svetlana. Twenty Letters to a Friend (pp. 49-50). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 

When Nadezhda and Stalin met again, they were both involved in the revolutionary movement that led to the formation of the Soviet Union.   Both were viewing it somewhat idealistically at that point, though she was probably much more naive, being over two decades younger than her husband.    Both dedicated themselves fully to the Revolution, at first.

My father loved Russia deeply all his life. I know no other Georgian who had so completely sloughed off his qualities as a Georgian and loved everything Russian the way he did. Even in Siberia my father had a real love of Russia—the nature, the people, the language. He always looked back on his years of exile as if they were nothing but hunting, fishing and walks through the taiga. This love remained with him always.

(pp. 125-126)

It was not the thing at that time for a woman, especially a woman Party member, to spend much time with her children. My mother worked first on the staff of a magazine and then enrolled in the Industrial Academy. She was forever attending meetings somewhere, and she spent all her free time with my father. He was her whole life. We children generally had to be content with her simply checking on our progress. She was strict and she had high standards. I cannot recall her kissing or caressing me ever.

(p. 30)

In this first revolutionary generation, many of the leaders seemed to take their beliefs about personal property and luxury very seriously, not trying to accumulate special wealth or privileges directly.    Stalin and his family actually seemed to hold on to these principles longer than most of their allies.   Naturally, they still lived very well compared to the average Russian of the period, but the ostentatious displays and conspicuous consumption that later dominated the Soviet elites did not seem to be very prevalent in this group.    

All the Soviet leaders lived pretty much like this at that time. No one cared about luxury or possessions, though they did try to give a good education to their children. …  All the wives had jobs and read all they could in their spare time. …The women paid no attention to makeup or clothes, but they looked nice just the same. … It was only after my mother died that they started building him special dachas. My mother didn’t live to see all this luxury, paid for out of limitless public funds. That happened after she died, when the house came to be run at state expense, on a military footing, by agents of the secret police. During my mother’s lifetime we had a normal, modest life.

(p. 34)

For all their “golden hands” and their industriousness, both my grandparents were utterly impractical. During later years when they …had some small token privileges, such as ration books, to which Old Bolsheviks were entitled, both of them continued to show the utmost scorn for worldly goods. They kept on wearing the same old clothing left over from before the Revolution. They would wear the same overcoat for twenty years, and out of three old dresses my grandmother would make a perfectly good new one. … The relatives of other important men in the Party, meantime, were using similar positions to carve out lives of luxury for themselves and their relations, both close and not so close.

(pp. 48-49)

My mother… refused to go to the Academy in a car or even let on to the other students who she was. Many of them didn’t know for a long time whom Nadya Alliluyeva was married to. Life was altogether simpler then. … I can give you a good example. After Lenin died, or possibly even before, the Central Committee made a ruling that members of the Party were not to keep the fees they were paid for books and articles but must donate them to the Party. My mother didn’t agree. She thought it more honest to keep what you’ve actually earned than to give it up and spend unlimited funds belonging to the state on the upkeep of your household, on cars, dachas, servants and so forth. …Thank heaven my mother didn’t live to see the day when leaders of the Party, while refusing fees for their work, proceeded to maintain themselves and all their kith and kin at the expense of the state.

(pp. 110-111)

As you may recall from other episodes, Stallin’s international propaganda efforts flowered throughout the 1930s, winning him numerous foreign admirers.   You may remember that we’ve previously alluded to the infamous Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times articles on the Ukraine famine, which made the claim that Soviet farming was actually wildly successful.   Foreign officials and his other admirers from around the globe regularly sent lavish gifts to Stalin and his family, but Stalin considered these more appropriately the property of the state.

As for the presents which were sent to [my father] from all corners of the earth, he had them collected in one spot and donated them to a museum. It wasn’t hypocrisy or a pose on his part, as a lot of people say, but simply the fact that he had no idea what to do with this avalanche of objects that were valuable, sometimes priceless: paintings, china, furniture, weapons, clothing, utensils and products of local craftsmanship from everywhere in the world. 

Once in a while he gave one of them, a Rumanian or Bulgarian folk costume or something like that, to me. On the whole, however, he considered it wrong that any personal use should be made even of the things that were sent to me. Maybe he realized that the feelings that went into them were symbolic, and he thought the things themselves deserved to be treated as symbols. In 1950 a Museum of Gifts was opened in Moscow. While my father was still alive and even after, women of my acquaintance used to tell me, “What a wonderful set of furniture!” Or: “What a marvelous record player! Couldn’t they let you keep it?” But there could be no question of that.

(pp. 214-215)

We can’t be too impressed at how noble this sounds, as Stalin was meanwhile involved in launching and expanding the gulag that would imprison millions, and imposing ill-advised economic policies that would lead to mass poverty and famine.   It’s likely the pressure of learning this kind of information, as well as Stalin’s clear prioritization of the State over her family, that led to increasing depression and strains in his marriage to Svetlana’s mother Nadya.    After a major argument at a large party where Stalin prominently toasted “the destruction of the Enemies of the State”, she went back to her bedroom and shot herself.   This was a shock to the entire family, and Svetlana seems to think this fundamentally changed her father, distancing him from humanity in general and hardening his heart against human empathy.

What was the effect of my mother’s death? Did it simply leave my father free to do what he would have done in any case? Or was it that her suicide broke his spirit and made him lose his faith in all his old friends? And then—could she have halted the terrible process had she lived? I doubt it. She, of course, would never have betrayed her old friends. Nothing would ever have convinced her that Yenukidze, her godfather, was an “enemy of the people.” But in that case wouldn’t she have gone the same way as they did? She would never have been a match for her mortal enemy, Beria. One can only speculate. I think fate saved her from an ordeal she could never have borne.

(p. 147)

As power became increasingly concentrated in Stalin himself, Svetlana saw her family surrounded by an army of clever flatterers and manipulators, ready to take advantage of the situation to enrich their own families and friends.  The problem grew as Stalin was now so prominent that only a small circle of trusted advisors could be allowed any form of direct contact, and they were able to filter any information he received secondhand.

I must now mention another general, Nikolai Vlasik, who was first assigned to my father by the Red Army as a bodyguard in 1919 and remained with him for a very long time, finally attaining immense power behind the scenes. He was in charge of all my father’s security arrangements and considered himself closer to my father than anybody else. And though he was incredibly stupid, illiterate and uncouth, he behaved like a grandee and took it on himself in my father’s last years to dictate “Comrade Stalin’s tastes,” which he thought he knew well, to various luminaries in the arts. 

And they had to listen and take his advice. No Bolshoi gala performance on the eve of November 7 or state banquet in St. George’s Hall of the Kremlin was allowed to take place without Vlasik’s passing on the program first. His insolence knew no bounds. He would graciously pass the word to people in the arts whether this or that movie or opera or even the shapes of the skyscrapers being built in those days had found favor or not with my father.

(p. 132)

Stalin seemed to be somewhat aware of what was going on here, but felt that even he was powerless to stop it:  when he replaced these kinds of people, he just ended up with more of the same.

Sometimes he’d pounce on his commandants or the generals of his bodyguard, someone like Vlasik, and start cursing: “You parasites! You’re making a fortune here. Don’t think I don’t know how much money is running through your fingers!” But the fact was, he knew no such thing. His intuition told him huge sums were going out the window, but that was all. 

From time to time he’d make a stab at auditing the household accounts, but nothing ever came of it, of course, because the figures they gave him were faked. He’d be furious, but he couldn’t find out a thing. All-powerful as he was, he was impotent in the face of the frightful system that had grown up around him like a huge honeycomb, and he was helpless either to destroy it or bring it under control.  

General Vlasik laid out millions in my father’s name. He spent it on new houses and trips by enormous special trains, for example. Yet my father was unable even to get a clear explanation of how much money was being paid out, where and to whom.

(pp. 218-219)

But as you might expect, the scariest aspect of Svetlana’s childhood was her father’s campaign of purges and terror that started in the 1930s.   Some of Stalin’s relatives tried to convince him to stop some arrests and save their friends, but this just made Stalin suspect them as well.   Surprisingly, while most senior officials of the regime tried to do their best to protect their family members, he was easily manipulated by secret police leader Lavrenti Beria to approve arrests even of his own relatives.   Many of these victims had been very close to him and his children, such as Svetlana’s uncles and aunts.   

In 1938, after Alexander Svanidze and his wife and my Aunt Anna’s husband, Stanislav Redens, had all been arrested, Uncle Pavel came to my father again and again to plead for colleagues of his in the army who’d been swallowed up in the giant wave. It never did any good. In the autumn of 1938, Pavel went to Sochi on vacation, and it was bad for his weak heart. When he got back he found that every one of his colleagues had disappeared. There had been so many arrests that it was as though the place had been swept by a broom. Pavel dropped dead of a heart attack in his office.

(p. 57)

My father loved both [Uncle Alexander & Aunt Maria], especially Uncle Alexander, and treated them like real members of the family. Did they have their differences when it came to politics? Were there political disagreements between my father and Uncle Alexander or Redens or Uncle Pavel? Maybe. People weren’t afraid of having their own opinions in those days, and they had them on every subject. They were unafraid of life and refused to close their eyes to its complexities….

How could such a thing happen? How could my father do it? The only thing I know is that it couldn’t have been his idea. But if a skillful flatterer, like Beria, whispered slyly in his ear that “these people are against you,” that there were “compromising material!” and “dangerous connections,” such as trips abroad, my father was capable of believing it. I’ll tell you later how shattered he was by the death of both my mother and Kirov. Maybe he never trusted people very much, but after their deaths stopped trusting them at all.

(pp. 79-80)

Once he had cast out of his heart someone he had known a long time, once he had mentally relegated that someone to the ranks of his enemies, it was impossible to talk to him about that person any more. He was constitutionally incapable of the reversal that would turn a fancied enemy back into a friend. Any effort to persuade him to do so only made him furious. … The only thing they accomplished by it was loss of access to my father and total forfeiture of his trust. When he saw each of them for the last time, it was as if he were parting with someone who was no longer a friend, with someone, in fact, who was already an enemy.

 (p. 61)

Despite all this, he still appeared to have a slight soft spot for Svetlana, who was at least able to protect her nurse, nicknamed “Granny” due to their closeness, from being sent to the gulag.   But this was unusual:  in general, he had a standing rule that Svetlana was not allowed to bring up such cases with him or attempt to intervene in police matters.   “Granny” attempted to treat the whole matter lightheartedly, refusing to be overcome by the general culture of fear surrounding her.

They told my father that my nurse was “untrustworthy” and that her son had undesirable friends. My father had no time to go into these things himself. He liked having the people whose job it was go into such matters thoroughly and only bring them to his attention when they had “closed their case.” When I heard there was a plot afoot to get rid of my nurse, I set up an outcry. My father couldn’t stand tears. Besides, maybe he, too, wanted to express some inner protest against all this insanity. In any case, he got angry all of a sudden and commanded them to leave my nurse in peace. She was a member of the family thirty years in all, from 1926 to 1956, when she died at the age of seventy. 

(p. 130)

When, during and even before the war, the entire household staff was put on a military footing, “Granny” was officially listed as an employee of the secret police. … “Granny” was highly amused to be given the rank of junior sergeant! She saluted the cook whenever she went into the kitchen and said things like “Attention!” or “Aye, aye, sir!” She took the whole business like a nonsensical joke or a game. She didn’t want any truck with all these foolish rules. She took care of me and did a good job of it. She couldn’t have cared less what rank they chose to give her. She’d seen all she wanted of life and witnessed a great many changes. “First they abolished ranks,” she liked to point out, “and then they brought them back.” But as she saw it, life went on just the same, and it was up to her to do her job, which in her case was to love children and help people live no matter what might be going on around them.

(pp. 239-240).

Svetlana also tells the tragic story of her two brothers, Yakov and Vasily, who present contrasting attitudes among the Communist elite.   Her oldest brother Yakov tried to live modestly, and avoided taking advantage of his father’s name.  When the Germans invaded, he immediately took on his duty to protect his country by joining the military, not seeking any special privileges.   Yakov was captured at the front, and ended up spending the final years of his life in a German prison camp, eventually being shot after they decided he wasn’t sufficiently useful for propaganda.   Stalin had refused to deal with the Germans to get him out, but sought revenge in the wrong place in his own cruel way, blaming his wife Yulia.

The war broke out on June 22, 1941. My oldest brother Yakov left for the front the next day with his battery and his graduating class at the Frunze Military Academy. They finished just in time to go to war. He never took advantage of who he was, never made the slightest attempt to avoid danger—to be assigned to the rear or to a headquarters behind the battle lines, even to get out of being sent to Belorussia, the worst part of the front. Everything about him, his character and his entire scrupulous, honorable, incorruptible approach to life, precluded any such thing.

(p. 165)

Somehow [Stalin had] gotten the idea that someone had “tricked” Yakov and “betrayed” him intentionally. Mightn’t Yulia have been a party to it? When we got back to Moscow that September he told me, “Yasha’s daughter can stay with you awhile. But it seems that his wife is dishonest. We’ll have to look into it.” So Yulia was arrested in Moscow in the fall of 1941 and was in prison until the spring of 1943 when it “turned out” she’d had nothing to do with Yakov’s capture and when his conduct as a prisoner finally convinced my father that he hadn’t surrendered on purpose.

 (p. 169)

Svetlana’s other brother Vasily presented the opposite picture:  lazy and egotistical, he took advantage of his family privileges at every opportunity, eventually ending up as a penniless drunk and convicted criminal after his father died.

[Vasily’s] life was tragic in a way. He was a product and victim of the same system and environment that nurtured and gave rise to the “cult of personality.” The system that gave rise to the “cult” also enabled Vasily to make a spectacular career. … He was pushed higher and higher. Those responsible couldn’t have cared less about his strengths and weaknesses, any more than they cared what his real abilities were. Their one thought was to curry favor with my father. Vasily was transferred to Moscow from East Germany in 1947 and promptly made chief of aviation of the Moscow Military District. It was an enormous responsibility. Yet everyone knew he was an alcoholic. He was so ill he could no longer fly his own plane. Nobody seemed to care.

(pp. 221-222)

Vasily stopped at nothing. He engaged in intrigue and exploited his proximity to my father. Anybody who’d fallen out of favor with him was kicked out of his path and some even went to jail. No privilege was denied him. … They gave him medals, higher and higher rank, horses, automobiles, privileges, everything. They spoiled and corrupted him, just as long as they needed him. But once my father was dead and they didn’t need him any more, they abandoned and forgot him.

(pp. 222-223)

A military collegium sentenced him to eight years in jail. Vasily couldn’t believe it. He bombarded the government with letters—letters of despair, letters admitting all the accusations against him, even threatening letters. He’d lost sight of who he was or where he was and failed to realize that he was a nobody now. (p. 225)

Svetlana, meanwhile, was growing up.   By the late 1940s she had been married once, to a Jewish man who didn’t meet her father’s approval, but the marriage had not worked out.   For her second husband, she made a more conventional choice, marrying the son of a prominent Communist leader.   But she was soon disgusted by the attitudes and lifestyle of her new family, especially by their treatment of “Granny”, her old nurse, who now visited regularly as a friend.

I found myself in a household where a show, albeit a purely external, hypocritical show, was made of what was called “Party spirit” on the one hand, while on the other hand there existed a dyed-in-the-wool acquisitiveness of the worst female kind. There were trunkloads of possessions. The whole setting, with its vases… and worthless still lifes on the walls, was vulgar and totally lacking in taste. The place was presided over by [my mother-in-law] Zinaida Zhdanov, the widow and the ultimate embodiment of this mixture of Party bigotry and the complacency of the bourgeois woman. 

After we were married my husband’s friends started coming less and less often, our circle narrowed down to the family, and it became hopelessly and intolerably dull. The years 1949 to 1952 were terribly trying for me, as they were for everyone. The whole country was gasping for air. Things were unbearable for everyone. The most orthodox Party spirit reigned in the house I lived in, but it had nothing in common with the spirit of my grandfather and my grandmother, my mother… all the old Party people I knew. It was all hypocritical, a caricature purely for show.

(pp. 205-206).

We’d drink tea and jam when I went out to see [Granny]. She told me about her ailments and we’d talk about our affairs. She came to see me at Uspenskoye, the Zhdanovs’ country house, two or three times, but they treated her with utmost condescension—all except little Josef, who always flung himself on “Granny,” as he called her—and she would leave quickly. She wasn’t used to being treated that way. All her life, no matter whom she worked for, she’d been treated as one of the family. Even the families of the nobility she had worked for before the Revolution treated her better than the Zhdanovs. It hurt her pride.

(pp. 206-207)

At this point, Svetlana saw the final wave of arrests of her own family members.  On this occasion, Stalin stuck with his usual policy, and dismissed his daughter’s attempts to intervene.   And even worse, he added an ominous comment that seemed to indicate she was actually putting herself in danger.

A new wave of arrests got under way at the end of 1948. My two aunts, the widows of Uncle Pavel and Redens, were sent to prison, and so was everyone who knew them. J. G. Morozov, the father of my first husband, was arrested, too. Next there was a campaign against people who were called “cosmopolitan,” and a whole new group of people were arrested.  …. When I asked him, he told me what my aunts were guilty of. “They talked a lot. They knew too much and they talked too much. And it helped our enemies.” He was bitter, as bitter as he could be against the whole world. He saw enemies everywhere. It had reached the point of being pathological, of persecution mania, and it was all a result of being lonely and desolate. “You yourself make anti-Soviet statements,” he told me one day angrily and in complete earnest. I didn’t try to object or ask where he got that from.

(pp. 204-205). 

Her memoirs are continued in a second volume, where she discusses her escape from the Soviet Union and her defection to the United States, though we’re not covering that topic today.   At the end of Twenty Letters, she tries to sum up her thoughts about her father’s crimes and the progress of the Communist revolution during her lifetime:

As for those who wanted to set themselves above the Revolution, who wanted to speed up its progress and make tomorrow come today, those who tried to do good by doing evil and make the wheels of time and progress spin faster, have they accomplished what they wanted? 

Millions were sacrificed senselessly, thousands of talented lives extinguished prematurely. The tale of these losses could not be told in twenty books, never mind twenty letters. …. It’s not for me but for history to decide who served the cause of good and who that of vanity and vainglory. I certainly don’t have the right. All I have is my conscience. …  I do not think they’ll call our era a “progressive” one, or that they’ll say it was all for the “good of Russia.” Hardly . . . 

They will have their say. And what they say will be something new and cogent. Instead of idle whining, they will give voice to a new sense of purpose. They will read through this page in their country’s history with a feeling of pain, contrition and bewilderment, and they’ll be led by this feeling to live their lives differently. But I hope they won’t forget that what is Good never dies—that it lived on in the hearts of men even in the darkest times and was hidden where no one thought to look for it, that it never died out or disappeared completely.

(pp. 244-246).

<closing conversation with Manuel>

You can use the link in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com to read more of Svetlana Alliluyeva’s fascinating memoir.   

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


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