Accidental Subversion: The Awakening of Svetlana Stalin

The control of information is critical to any totalitarian society. Propaganda plays a large role in shaping the views and prejudices of the populace. Nowhere was this truer than in the Soviet Union. The Soviet citizenry was bombarded with highly suggestive images, text and sound through a variety of methods. These included art, television and radio that warned about “enemies of the state” both internally and externally. The people were brainwashed into believing that anything other than Communist orthodoxy was subversive.  Just as important as the creation of ideological conformity within the state, was the need to keep out information from abroad.

Joseph Stalin with his daughter Svetlana in the 1930s

Joseph Stalin with his daughter Svetlana in the 1930s

A State of Paranoia – The Soviet System
This could be highly dangerous to the ruling clique. It might possibly show the Soviet people that their society was not nearly as advanced as professed by its own propaganda. Even worse, it might shed light on the backwardness of communism. They were supposed to be creating a new society, not a degenerate one. Nonetheless, the lack of free expression, the sublimation of the individual to the state and a capricious system of justice was enough to make even the most unthinking person feel that something must be wrong. The Soviet Union was highly paranoid, and for good reason. It rested on an uneasy foundation, of control, disinformation and terror. This was most apparent in the hardline Stalinist system that ruled the nation from the late 1920’s up through the early 1950’s. Fear and terror were critical for system cohesion. It was a world where justice was turned on its head, wrong was right and everyone was a possible enemy. Any Soviet citizen could find themselves in prison, the Gulag or even worse if they so much as said the wrong thing or were found with subversive materials in their possession.

For those who lived in free and democratic societies, the paranoia engendered by the Communist system seemed absurd. What in the world would it matter if someone had an English language book or expressed a dissenting opinion? If Communism was so mighty why was it threatened by subversion, especially subversion from the relatively mundane? Yet the hardline communist would have told them that ideas matter, that knowledge truly is power and both must be subject to total control. No one believed this more than Joseph Stalin. He set up the prototypical totalitarian system and then ruled over it for twenty five years. Thus it is quite ironic that Stalin, try as he might, ended up having one of the great secrets of his family life exposed by the failure to control information from abroad. The influence of the foreign was something he guarded the entire Soviet Union against, yet he could not keep such an influence from his own daughter.

The unhappy couple - Joseph Stalin & Nadezhda Alliluyeva

The unhappy couple – Joseph Stalin & Nadezhda Alliluyeva

A Turn For the Worse – The Suicide of Nadezhda Stalin
Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana was the product of his second marriage to Nadezhda Alliluyeva. During her youth in the 1930’s, he displayed a warmth and love for Svetlana that he had scarcely, if ever shown to anyone else in his life, including Nadezhda. Svetlana was the one ray of light he allowed into the world of darkness he had created and dominated. Yet as with everything else with Stalin, darkness loomed on the horizon. This darkness was the suicide of Nadezhda, which had occurred in November of 1932. Svetlana was only six years old at the time. No one, especially her father ever told Svetlana that her mother had died of suicide. The official announcement claimed that the death had been caused by appendicitis. In truth, Nadezhda had shot herself with a pistol.

As the story goes, on the fateful night when Nadezhda killed herself, she had been insulted by her husband. He had spoken to her in a very harsh manner, humiliating her in front of friends and colleagues. To make matters worse, he also flirted with another woman. This sent Nadezdha over the edge. She had always been fragile, moody and given to wild swings in emotion. Armchair psychologists believe she may well have been bipolar. Whatever the case, she exacted an eternal revenge on Stalin by killing herself. Reports from those closest to him, state that he was in shock for months afterwards. His behavior in the years that followed became even more brutish and cruel than before. Despite the shock to his system, he continued to pour adoration on Svetlana for the rest of her adolescent years. He would continue to treat her with loving kindness. It was only during the latter part of her teenage years that their relationship took a turn for the worse.

Nadezhda & Svetlana - Love and Fate

Nadezhda & Svetlana – Love and Fate

Accidental Subversion – The Awakening of Svetlana Stalin
One of the most significant turning points in Svetlana’s life occurred in 1942. She was only fourteen at the time. As with all the Communist elite’s children, she was heavily involved with school.  They were given first class educations. This included access to information and creature comforts that the rest of the Soviet Union could only dream about. Part of such an education included learning a foreign language. For Svetlana this meant courses in English. To supplement her studies, as well as out of curiosity, she would read magazines in English. This would have been unheard of for any other Soviet citizen. Even having such a publication in your possession could result in a sentence to the Gulag. This was subversive literature full of dangerous ideas. No one knew this better than Joseph Stalin, who sat at the top of the Soviet hierarchy. He was the master of control, except for, in this case, control of what his daughter read. While reading one of these publications, Svetlana and her world, changed almost instantly.

As she recounted in her autobiographical book, Twenty Letters to a Friend, “I made a terrible discovery that winter. I used to read English and American magazines like Life, Fortune and the Illustrated London News, both for the information they contained and to practice reading English. One day I came across an article about my father. It mentioned, not as news but as a fact well known to everyone, that his wife, Nadezhda Sergeyevna Alliluyeva, had killed herself on the night of November 8, 1932. I was shocked and couldn’t believe my eyes….The whole thing nearly drove me out of my mind. Something in me was destroyed. I was no longer able to obey the word and will of my father and defer to his opinions with questions.”

The Limits of Control – The Truth (Eventually) Comes Out
Here was the beginning of a precipitous decline in the relationship between father and daughter. It would eventually leave them estranged for long periods of time. Stalin had been correct. There was subversive literature in the west. It was subversive because it told the truth, in contrast to his lies and evasions, the silences and secrets he kept from everyone, including Svetlana. Of course, it was not just Stalin who had kept the truth from Svetlana, it was also family and friends. Nonetheless, ruling over all of them, just as he ruled over the Soviet Union was Josef Stalin. He controlled their lives, but there was a limit to even his mighty control. This was a man who engendered fear and also lived in fear. He feared that the truth would be told. Eventually Svetlana stumbled upon the truth and her discovery changed the relationship between daughter and dictator forever.

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