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Rosemary Sullivan awarded Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction

A Q & A with the celebrated author

Rosemary Sullivan, the University of Toronto professor emerita of English and celebrated critic, poet and biographer, has won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

The $60,000 award, one of the most prestigious in the country, goes to Sullivan’s latest book, Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva. Published earlier this year to critical acclaim, the book tells the astonishing story of a woman fated to live in the shadow of one of history’s most monstrous dictators. 

The prize is the latest in a series of accolades for Sullivan’s work. Her first collection of poetry, The Space a Name Makes (1986), was awarded the Gerald Lampert Award. Her biography of Gwendolyn MacEwen, Shadow Maker (1995), won the Governor General's Award. She was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2012 for her outstanding contributions to Canadian literature and culture. 

On November 1, Sullivan is appearing at the International Festival of Authors, where she will be in conversation with U of T alumna Anne Michaels; they will be joined onstage by Chrese, Svetlana’s daughter, in a rare public appearance.

Listen to an excerpt from Stalin's Daughter on the Faculty of Arts and Science Planet artsci podcast below:

Diana Kuprel, a writer with the Faculty of Arts & Science, interviewed Sullivan.

What inspired you to write a literary biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva, otherwise known as Stalin’s daughter?

When the obituaries of Lana Peters (aka Svetlana Alliluyeva) began to appear in November 2011, I was intrigued by her quoted words: “No matter where I go, to Australia, to some island, I will always be a political prisoner of my father’s name.” What would it be like to live in the shadow of such a name? She was also quoted as saying: “You can’t regret your life, but I do regret my mother didn’t marry a carpenter.” To range from tragedy to humour! Who would this woman turn out to be? I talked with my editor at HarperCollins, NY, and she gave me seven days to write a proposal; it was accepted immediately. 

I have always been fascinated by Russia – I first visited in 1979 in the Brezhnev era.  I knew this would have to be a book focused on a woman’s life, but in the background would be the most tragic events of the 20th century: from Stalin’s Terror and his postwar anti-Semitic campaigns, to the Cold War and up to current Russian politics.

Your research is prodigious, including interviews, Alliluyeva’s own letters, the contents of CIA, KGB and Soviet archives – and your journey took you across three continents. Can you describe what was involved?

I began my research by contacting two people: Svetlana’s American daughter and Robert Rayle, the CIA officer who escorted her out of India. Chrese gave me permission to quote from her mother’s published and unpublished manuscripts and letters, and Rayle gave me his unpublished account of Svetlana’s defection as well as copies of several hundred letters she had written to the Rayles over the years. Once I had their cooperation, I knew I had a book.

I contacted Lynne Viola, a U of T historian, to ask for her recommendations about Russian-speaking research assistants. She was wonderfully generous and put me in touch with my brilliant young researcher, Anastassia. Then came the collecting of material under FIOA. The FBI files had just been released; there were troves of material at the Yale and Princeton libraries. My US research assistant, Sim, found me an invaluable collection of Svetlana’s papers at the Hoover Institute, which included some authentic KGB documents. Each time I met someone, the circle of people I had to interview widened. 

People, including Stalin’s relatives, were very willing to talk with me and to give me copies of their correspondence with Svetlana. They wanted the real story told. When I’d finished the book, I asked Lynne to read it to correct any inaccuracies I might have made in the historical backdrop; she was wonderfully generous with her time.

It turned out this was the right moment to write this story. Several of the people I interviewed have, sadly, since died. It was an honour to meet them. 

Svetlana seems to be different to every person with whom she came in contact – or rather, each person cast upon her their own interpretation of who she was. Who, for you, is the ‘real Svetlana’?

This would seem to suggest she was unstable, as she was often portrayed in the US. But she only “changed her identity” once. After Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956, she assumed her mother’s name Alliluyeva, which was a common practice in the US. She did say the name Stalina felt like steel in her mouth. In 1970, she married Wesley Peters and legally became Mrs. Lana Peters, the name she kept for the rest of her life. But yes, she was on the receiving end of people’s projections, though, as the Dowager Lady Pamela Egremont told me, Svetlana herself was solid as a rock.

Svetlana was a writer at a time when “Soviet officialdom believed books were bombs”. This is something she understood well.  Do you think her contemporaries in the West understood or appreciated this? What power can books today wield? 

It is a strange irony that under any repressive political system, literature often flourishes because it is driven by a moral imperative to break the silence. So many writers wrote “for the drawer,” as they said in the USSR, and circulated their manuscripts as samizdat. Literature was a matter of life or death. The price is high – I think of Sinyavsky sentenced to seven years in the labour camps as late as 1966 for allowing his work to be published in the West. The regimes are always afraid of books, of writers who can touch the heart of a people. Most of the masterpieces of Latin American literature were written by writers exiled from their countries. 

In the West, alas, books are often seen as a commodity. I doubt that Svetlana understood this. Selling her memoir for $1.5 million in 1967 had no meaning for her. As a Soviet, she did not understand the concept of money and lost most of it. And I wonder if, since 1967 when she defected, things have only gotten worse. Often the books that achieve prominence are self-help books, or formula novels, which get the publicity departments of publishing houses behind them. But this may be an exaggeration: books will always be read, and they do have an impact. 

What reception do you think your biography will have in the former Soviet Union?

Russian rights were sold early on for a modest sum. Someone wanted to know the story. Because I quote Svetlana’s correspondence after 1999, in which she warns friends that the election of a former KGB colonel would inevitably mean the development of a parallel government run by the FSB, the secret service, and was very critical of President Putin’s echoing her father’s cult of personality, there may be problems. According to the historian Stephen Cohen, modern Russian is split 50/50 on their response to Stalin, whose memory is still very much alive. Perhaps the reception of my book in Russia will follow the same lines. 

What does Svetlana’s story tell us – in Western democratic countries – about our own society and what we should take heed of?

Perhaps one of the surprises of my research was to discover that the US State Department initially refused Svetlana political asylum when she defected. My book opens with the cloak and dagger intrigue of her flight from India in March 1967. I suppose what we may learn from Svetlana’s story is that power structures control our lives in ways that we do not imagine. We think these are abstract matters, but in fact, political power structures are created by the personalities of the people who run them. Svetlana was a brilliant reader of the subtext of politics, which is why she detested politics.