Svetlana Alliluyeva “had a lot to deal with in her life and she never really found peace,” Associate Librarian for Special Collections Anne Dondertman (photo by Noreen Ahmed-Ullah)

Letters of Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, acquired by U of T's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

The tragic life of Josef Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, who defected from the Soviet Union but always remained in the shadow of one of history’s most reviled figures is the subject of the award-winning book Stalin’s Daughter.

Winner of the 2015 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for non-fiction and recently longlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, the book was written by U of T professor emeritus Rosemary Sullivan.

Read more about Sullivan's book

Now, thanks to Sullivan, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has acquired letters used in the book that were written by Alliluyeva in the final years of her life to her best friend, Mary Burkett. 

Several hundred letters − some typed, some handwritten, a few with doodles and photographs − offer a rare glimpse into the woman who shocked the world in 1967 when she stepped into the American Embassy in India to defect to the United States. With Burkett, a British art historian and adventurer, Alliluyeva was able to open up and talk about her childhood in the Kremlin, offer a glimpse into her politically astute mind and feel free to both denounce Stalin and criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

“Svetlana always read the political landscape very well, and the letters reflect that,” said Sullivan. “In her letters, Svetlana could be completely candid. She speaks of her childhood, her brother, her mother, of her father. 

“Not only does she give a sense of what it was like to grow up in the Kremlin, but she talks about how you could tell the change in politics, by the change of the rugs that were arriving at the Kremlin from foreign dignitaries: Caucasian rugs when her mother was alive, then Persian rugs during the war and, after 1949, Chinese rugs.”

Of her father, Alliluyeva wrote in one of the letters: “Being Russian means never saying sorry. Even today, Russians are incapable of grief and atonement for Stalin’s crimes…That failure to face the bad bodes ill for the future. I see all things from the dark side.” 

Sullivan, who had used the letters during the course of her research, was alerted by a friend when Burkett’s possessions and collections from her 14th Century manor – including the letters – went up for auction.

Negotiating by telephone during some tense moments on behalf of the library, Sullivan was able to acquire the letters for about $2,000, using funds from the Joan Randall Endowment Fund at the Fisher Library. 

Sullivan had first come across Burkett when she was researching her book, and Alliluyeva’s daughter suggested Sullivan speak to her mother’s pen pal. Burkett and Alliluyeva had met in 1995 and bonded over felt art. Burkett, a champion of the arts was considered a world authority on the art of felt making.

In the letters, Alliluyeva calls Burkett “Dear Warrior,” and Burkett calls Alliluyeva “Dear Nomad.” The letters run from 1995 to 2011, the year of Alliluyeva’s death.  

photo of letter    

The challenges of Alliluyeva’s early years included the death of her mother, who committed suicide when Alliluyeva was only six years old. At the age of 16, her relationship with her father soured after he sent her first love to Siberia for 10 years. Even after her father’s death, she could never quite escape his legacy. The Soviets denied her the chance to marry an Indian citizen, saying it was inappropriate for the daughter of Stalin to marry a foreigner, and it was during a trip to return her partner’s ashes to India that she defected, leaving behind two children.

After her defection in 1967, Alliluyeva spent most of her life wandering the world. She settled for a while in the United States, where she married a fourth time, had a third child and took on a new name: Lana Peters. The marriage was short lived. She defected back to the Soviet Union in 1984, and had her Soviet citizenship reinstated but returned to the United States in 1986. She also spent time in the United Kingdom, eventually dying in Wisconsin in 2011.

No matter where she lived, she continued to feel that she was often used as a political pawn by governments, says Sullivan.

The letters will be available to the public as part of a collection of archives of Sullivan’s research papers, correspondence and early manuscripts. The library has similar collections from authors Margaret Atwood and George Elliott Clarke.

“It’s a moving book,” said Anne Dondertman, Associate Librarian for Special Collections. “You read it and you realize this person had a lot to deal with in her life and she never really found peace. And now we have a part of that story here.” 

For Sullivan, the letters played a significant role in helping her understand Alliluyeva. For those who read Sullivan’s award-winning book, they offer another look at Alliluyeva.

“You find the real voice of the woman,” Sullivan said. “When Svetlana was allowed out of the confinement of projections as Stalin’s daughter, she was a very warm woman.”

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