The Keeper of Secrets – Valentina Istomina: Discovering Stalin’s Mistress

I have spent the last several months wondering why my post The Quiet Concubine – Valentina Istomina: Stalin’s Housekeeper has been far and away the most popular one on this blog. Just this year, the post was ten times more popular than the runner-up. What could possibly be the reason for such runaway popularity? Was there really an audience waiting to learn about the housekeeper/mistress who spent almost two decades with one of the 20th century’s worst mass murderers? The servant who neatly folded his underwear, took care of his every domestic need and made love to him, an invisible partner, who took care of the Soviet Union’s grimmest reaper, through deadly and decisive wars against his own people as well as foreign foes. Judging by the stats from WordPress it seems that such an audience is out there. After a bit of research I came up with a possible reason for the post’s popularity. Quite simply, there are very few English language sources on Valentina Istomina. Googling her name brought a paltry 11,400 hits. Compare this to Hitler’s closest female companion, Eva Braun, who brought back 14,500,000 hits and that’s just in English.

Valentina Istomina - housekeeper and long term mistress of Joseph Stalin

Valentina Istomina – housekeeper and long term mistress of Joseph Stalin

Valechka –  The Housekeeper Mistress
A large part of Valentina Vasilevna Istomina’s anonymity has to do with the society Stalin cultivated. In this world everything was a secret, the truth open to manipulation and propaganda created a new reality. The secretiveness extended to Stalin’s private life as well. The Soviet Union under Stalin came as close to total control over its citizens as any society in the history of humanity. Information about Stalin was manufactured and massaged to create a cult of personality, a man larger than life itself. Everything human about him was hidden, including the woman who came closer to being a true wife to Stalin, than either of the two women who had been unlucky enough to marry him. Yet in the giant, demonic shadow of Stalin was hidden the housekeeper nicknamed Valechka, unfailingly there for him during the final quarter of his life. It is quite incredible that the woman who spent years and years tending to Stalin’s domestic needs has gone almost entirely unnoticed by history.

With this in mind I tried to put together more information on Istomina from English language sources. This was a bit like trying to put together a puzzle with most of the pieces missing and where the few available offered little continuity. The best resources were Sebastian Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Svetlana Alliluyeva’s Twenty Letters To A Friend.  Montefiore’s book is an exhaustive account of the dictator’s private and what might be termed “court” life.  While Alliluyeva, who was Stalin’s daughter, offers a personal memoir of the fraught relationship she had with her father and anecdotes from this dysfunctional world. Montefiore devotes several pages to Valechka, more than any other book concerning Stalin. He also has several references to her scattered throughout the text. Putting together a picture of just who Istomina was and her appeal to Stalin is not easy, but the information does provide some fascinating insights.

The Blindness of Love & Loyalty
The sources Montefiore relies on to describe Valechka state that she was “cheerful” “laughed all the time” “like a kind woman from the villages” and “always smiling.” Details such as these raise the question of what exactly sparked an attraction between Stalin and Valechka. Perhaps it was the fact that they were opposites, after all no one ever accused Josef Stalin of perpetual smiles or cheerfulness. The attraction of an opposite is also evident in the fact that Valechka was said to take no interest in politics. Stalin was said to have preferred submissive women who knew and kept their place. He would brook no resistance.  Valechka certainly knew how to keep out of the way, blend into the background and do her masters bidding without attracting any notice whatsoever. She did not interject herself in affairs of state. This may seem obvious, but it is still remarkable, as she was witness to no end of incredible conversations and events that helped decide the future for much of the world. She accompanied Stalin to Yalta, Potsdam and on his postwar trip into southern Russia and Ukraine. She must have heard and witnessed extraordinary things on an almost daily basis, but never uttered a word publicly. Not while Stalin was alive and not after he was dead. His secrets were safe with Istomina. He had chosen the right woman.

Svetlana Alliluyeva (Svetlana Stalin) - spoke up about her father

Svetlana Alliluyeva (Svetlana Stalin) – spoke up about her father

One anecdote from Alliluyeva’s book conveys the blind devotion that Istomina had for Stalin. It is also a telling example of how a sheltered and secretive life influenced her view of the larger world. “The housekeeper Valechka, who accompanied my father on all his journeys, told me recently how upset he was when he saw that people were still living in dugouts and that everything was still in ruins (post World War II). She also told me how some Party leaders who later rose very high came to see him in the south and report on agricultural conditions in the Ukraine. They brought watermelons and other melons so huge you couldn’t put your arms around them. They brought fruit and vegetables and golden sheaves of grain, the point being to show off how rich the Ukraine was. Meanwhile the chauffeur of one leader….told the servants there was a famine in the Ukraine, that there was nothing to eat in the countryside and peasant women were using their cows for plowing. “It’s a wonder they weren’t ashamed,” wailed Valechka, the tears streaming down her face. ‘”To deceive your father of all people! And now they’re blaming him for it, too!” Deceiving Stalin, that master of deception and lies would have been quite an achievement. Stalin was one of the most controlling leaders in world history, and that control extended to knowledge and information over the entire Soviet Union. He would have been well aware of the situation in Ukraine. Of course Istomina, blinded by love and loyalty believed only what she wanted to. Her ability to suspend disbelief must have rivaled Stalin’s powers of manipulation and artifice. Then again her entire adult life had been lived in an alternate universe, the private world of Josef Stalin.

Stalin in death - many of his secrets were kept beyond the grave

Stalin in death – many of his secrets were kept beyond the grave

Confidentiality Agreements – In Life, Death & History
Perhaps the most interesting detail I learned from my research was that those who worked in Stalin’s household had to sign confidentiality agreements, as though the threat of being sent to the camps and ground into dust for so much as whispering a word about the personal affairs of Stalin was not enough. Istomina would certainly have signed one of these. Those lips, which on countless occasions had kissed Stalin’s, were sealed not only by officialdom and fear, but also undying affection. As Alliluyeva says, “During his last years Valechka and all the rest of them had known more about him and had seen more of him than I, who no longer felt close to him and was living in a different place. She (Istomina) had seen people from all over the world at that large table during banquets at which she always served. She had seen a good deal that was interesting, within her own narrow limits, of course, and whenever I see her now she tells me about it in the most vivid and amusing way.” Istomina may have shared those stories with Alliuyeva, but she kept them from the rest of the world. There was never any tell all memoir, there was never a diary or love letters. There was only an intensely private world that very few people ever glimpsed. It was a world never meant to be known because Valentina Istomina knew how to keep secrets. And perhaps that was what attracted Joseph Stalin to spend so much of his life with her.

 

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