When Stalin’s 'little sparrow' strained our Soviet ties...

By defecting in Delhi, while on an India visit following her husband's death, Stalin's daughter caused ruptures in Indo-Soviet relations.

Uttara Choudhury November 30, 2011 06:29:45 IST
When Stalin’s 'little sparrow' strained our Soviet ties...

New York: The only daughter of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Svetlana Alliluyeva, also known as Lana Peters, died of colon cancer at a care home in Wisconsin at the age of 85, US officials confirmed on Tuesday. Svetlana had an enduring India connection and sparked a diplomatic row between Moscow and New Delhi by defecting on Indian soil.

Svetlana had a relationship with mild-mannered and erudite Brajesh Singh, one of the many Indian Communists who made Moscow their home in the 1930s. Although Svetlana referred to Singh as her husband, the two were never allowed to marry by Soviet authorities.

In early 1967, when Singh died, Svetlana saw to it that he was cremated according to Hindu rites and brought his ashes to India to scatter in the Ganges. Again, controlling Soviet leaders tried to dissuade her from making this trip to India with Singh’s ashes.

When Stalins little sparrow strained our Soviet ties

Lana Peters, then known as Svetlana Alliluyeva, speaks to reporters in New York on April 26, 1967, not long after her defection from the Soviet Union. New York Times.

Svetlana’s trip to India was played out against a tense leadership struggle between Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai.

“After completing the rituals in her late husband's ancestral village in Uttar Pradesh, she arrived in Delhi at a time when India was in the throes of a general election,” recalled journalist Inder Malhotra in the BBC.

It was because of the excitement over these elections that neither the media nor any of the political leaders took any interest in Svetlana's presence in Delhi. “And then the sensational news broke one morning, with nuclear force, that Stalin's daughter had defected to the United States on Indian soil,” the BBC reported.

The Soviet Union was furious with New Delhi, but there was nothing India could do. Svetlana, who was staying at the Soviet embassy in Chankyapuri in Delhi, just sneaked off, jumped into a taxi and drove straight to the American embassy. The US embassy quickly gave her a visa and she flew out of India that night escorted by a CIA officer.

Svetlana’s 1967 Cold War-era defection from the Soviet Union while in India involved the CIA and created a commotion between Moscow and Delhi despite previously close relations. Interestingly, Svetlana said her defection was partly motivated by the Soviet authorities' poor treatment of Singh.

When Svetlana reached the US she denounced communism and her father and his policies, calling him "a moral and spiritual monster." Naturally, the US got a lot of mileage from giving Svetlana political asylum.

She did, however, sour on the US for a few years. She returned to the Soviet Union briefly in the 1980s, renouncing the US, but left again after squabbling with relatives. Though she spent 1983 and 1984 in the Soviet Union at the government's invitation, Svetlana found she couldn't really live in the state her father helped create. The KGB hoped her triumphal return after almost 15 years in the West would bolster the failing Communist regime. It didn’t work.

She had a complicated life that the New York Times said was "worthy of a Russian novel." Svetlana was married three times and had two daughters and a son. She wrote two best-selling memoirs, including Twenty Letters to a Friend in 1967 that earned her about $2.5 million.

"Wherever I go, here, or Switzerland, or India, or wherever. Australia. Some island. I always will be a political prisoner of my father's name," Svetlana said in an interview last year to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Svetlana was just six-years-old when her mother committed suicide. While growing up she was close to her father, who called her his "little sparrow". But they grew distant over the years and she grew increasingly bitter after he exiled her first love, Jewish filmmaker Aleksei Kapler, to Siberia.

Kapler had introduced her to the arts — giving her books, taking her to galleries — and Svetlana said her father "broke" her life again when she applied at a university to study the arts, but Stalin insisted that she study history instead and become an “educated Marxist.”

When she was free of her father, Svetlana studied religions varying from Hinduism to Christian Science. She got drawn to Hinduism after travelling to India to scatter Singh’s ashes in the Ganges. Religion was something that was forbidden to her during Stalin’s era, but she immersed herself in it when she defected to the West.

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