Valentina Istomina was a quiet witness to history. “Valechka” was the housekeeper for Joseph Stalin during his final eighteen years. Stalin, the prototypical totalitarian leader of the 20th century had few really close, personal acquaintances. This was by design. Stalin had overseen the arrest, imprisonment and murder either directly or indirectly of the majority of those close to him. Being “friends” with him was a lethal enterprise. He was brutal, cruel, controlling and highly suspicious of everyone he came into contact with, either via his professional (i.e. political) or personal life. His behavior and beliefs touched the lives of everyone from the lowest Russian peasant to immediate family members. He is most often portrayed as a malevolent, paranoid, mass murderer. That is most certainly true.
Invisible Woman – Always There, Hardly Noticed
There is at least one notable exception to the common portrait of Stalin. At least one individual was intimately familiar with his private affairs. A different perspective on Stalin comes from his relationship with Valechka, who dutifully served him for many years. She would remain a part of Stalin’s intimate circle up to the final moments of his life. A biographical sketch of Valentina Istomina is difficult. Though she was present in Stalin’s life throughout the most notable historical events in the Soviet Union during the final two-thirds of his reign – the Great Terror, the Great Patriotic War, Yalta and Potsdam – she seems to be almost invisible. Always there, but hardly noticed. This was most likely the main reason she was able to serve Stalin for so long without fail.
Valechka did not involve herself in politics in any way. She was never a member of the Communist Party. Her personality was submissive and simplistic. She knew her role and kept to it. Her looks were typical of a Russian woman from the countryside, plump, but not fat, busty, but not voluptuous, a woman not a diva. From all accounts she was pleasant, practical minded and good natured. She blended in well, almost to the point of anonymity. Her presence was rarely noted and even less discussed. She was less concubine and more of a companion. She asked for nothing while being left to do her job. This she did well.
Loyalty Above All Else – In The Service of Stalin
Valechka first served the Stalin household as a maid beginning in the early 1930’s. In 1938 her career received its biggest boost when she was made head housekeeper at Stalin’s home in Kuntsevo. This is where Stalin would spend the majority of his time outside the Kremlin in the later years of his life. Here Valechka would take care of his clothes, meals and private quarters. She also took care of his physical needs as well. Little if anything is known about any romantic interactions between them. Here was Valecka’s greatest quality, to always remain not so much behind the scenes, as part of the scene.
One can only imagine the conversations she overheard, but never divulged. Secrets were something to be ignored. They would get in the way of her duty, which was day after day of unfailing loyalty to this terrible man’s private affairs. Did she understand what Stalin was up to, the extent and scale of his crimes? Did she silently and tacitly commiserate? This was blind loyalty to the point of ignorance. She was privy to thousands of secrets that never passed from her lips. We do not know, we will probably never know, what she thought, felt or believed during all those years.
As In Life, As In Death – Tears of Sorrow
We do know what Valechka felt when Stalin died. In her autobiography, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana tells how when Valechka “came in to say good-bye. She dropped heavily to her knees, put her head on my father’s chest and wailed at the top of her voice as the women in villages do. She went on for a long time and nobody tried to stop her.” This horrible dictators’ life was over, but Valechka represented a feeling that was experienced across much of the Soviet Union. She was heartbroken, as were millions of others. This is hard to believe, but that makes it no less true. He was a monster, a horrible man, but he was their monster. For Valechka he was her beloved. In his life, Stalin had caused countless tears of sorrow among his enemies, real or imagined. In his death, he caused tears of sorrow, to the one who had known him best. Everything with this man, including his most private affairs was a tragedy.