Twenty Letters to a Friend by Svetlana Alliluyeva

No matter how cruel or harsh our country may be, no matter how often we stumble and are hurt, no matter how many undeserved wrongs we may endure, no one who loves Russia in his heart will ever betray her or give her up or run away in search of material comfort. Her beauty, tranquil and wise, shines like a soft, sorrowful light from the pale sky. It will survive everything and go on forever.

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I’m still not precisely sure how I stumbled across this book—a first edition, no less—but I picked it up to read the other day and scarfed it down within the next forty-eight hours. Svetlana’s letters are some of the most intimate, delicate, psychologically-fascinating autobiographical works I have ever read. Yes, in large part, the book’s magnetism can be accounted for by the fact that her father was none other than Joseph Stalin himself, but there is more to it than that; Svetlana herself is a thoughtful, introspective, and very conflicted individual, and the way she puts her memories to paper is both captivating and haunting.

Perhaps my favorite part about this book was the pamphlet I found slipped inside the cover from the publishing company, sponsored by “The American Book of the Month Club.” I read through this little leaflet before diving into the book, and the amount of passive-aggressive jabs in it left me bracing myself for an altogether pathetic book. Here’s just a snippet of what the Book of the Month Club has to say about Ms. Alliluyeva’s work:

First, it cannot be claimed that this is a great work of art [read: our apologies for forcing this book on you]. The author is not an experienced professional writer. She has simply set down, in spontaneous fashion, what lies heavy on her heart and lives within her memory. She is clearly a woman of good will and character, of a rather innocent cast of mind [read: of low intelligence]. Biological accident gave her for father a man of ill will possessing a complex and evil mind. The contradiction between father and daughter has produced a book that of necessity is enormously interesting [the writer’s use of the word necessity makes their reluctance palpable].

What remains is a transparently sincere human document, often moving in its very lack of sophistication [taste the disdain?], that shows us a Stalin which no historian, no scholar, and indeed no other Russian could show us. What remains is a pathetic [yes, pathetic] yet never overwrought account of the tragedy of a strange family […].

Now, having read the book in full, I am left baffled, indignant, and admittedly a bit amused at America’s inability to say something nice about a Russian in 1967. Every single compliment veils scorn and judgment. While Svetlana may not be a professional author, her words paint vivid portraits of her family and the life they shared in Russia, and her perception into the personalities and motivations of her parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles is remarkably keen. She is introspective, humble, and, despite what the Book of the Month Club may imply, highly intelligent. In particular, I found myself entranced by the psychological complexity of her relationship with her father, Joseph Stalin.

Svetlana gives her readers a glimpse at a side of Stalin the history books will never illuminate: Stalin the father. Svetlana’s childhood was far from perfect, but despite being the daughter of the most powerful man in all of Russia, she was neither spoiled nor neglected as a child. While she remains candid in recounting her father’s bullying ways towards her brother Yakov (who eventually committed suicide), she also recalls his love for the outdoors, his longstanding jokes with her, his games, and his many kisses. To Russia and the world, he represented fear and power. To Svetlana, he was simply father. She doesn’t sugarcoat his monstrosities, doesn’t apologize for his sins, and doesn’t beg for our sympathy. She tells her story as it needs to be told: with care and candor. I love the way another reviewer described the power of Svetlana’s memoir:

Allilueva’s memoir is sensational, but it is anything but sensationalist.  Her prose is simple and clear, and her narrative style reminiscent of the child she was back then.  Even the familial tragedies – her mother’s suicide, the unrelenting destruction of the Alliluev family and, yes, the death of her father – are described plainly, in matter-of-fact language. This does not mean that Twenty Letters is devoid of emotion.  With next to nothing standing between us and the horror of those events, we are hit with their full emotional impact.  Not for a moment does the author try to elicit our sympathy; she simply relates how it happened.  This is the opposite of the misery memoir. [source]

There’s not much more can, or even should, be said about Svetlana’s letters. Whether she intends it or not, they illuminate a coexisting love and repulsion within her heart for her father, Stalin. She loves him with the unshakeable love of a daughter, yet she refuses to ignore the pain and death he wrought upon his family, his country, and the world. It’s this enigma of conflicting emotion, love and hatred, that make Svetlana’s letters so deeply haunting. I am not likely soon to forget them—or her.



History is a stern judge. 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.

I’d say this book is worth splurging for hardcover.


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