Few histories are crueller than Russia‘s, and the girl who started life as Svetlana Stalina and ended it, at the age of 85, as Lana Peters felt it more than most. To be the daughter of the Soviet dictator Stalin was a heavy enough burden, but to be child of her epoch proved an intolerable one.
When she was six years old, her mother, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, Stalin’s second wife, killed herself. Three of her marriages ended in divorce. Her fiance died. She defected in 1967, went back to Moscow in 1984, and left again two years later. She attempted a variety of homes, continents and faiths, Hinduism, Christian Science, a hut in Wisconsin, a Roman Catholic convent in Switzerland, a house in Bristol, a care home in west London. In that time she had many personas: little princess, celebrity defector, architect’s wife, the penitent mother who had abandoned her children, destitute old woman. She rarely found peace.
The author of two bestselling autobiographies – 20 Letters to a Friend (1967) and Only One Year (1969) – Peters struggled with words when it came to depicting the key moments of her troubled global wanderings. On her arrival in New York in April 1967, she willingly became a propaganda tool in the cold war, denouncing her father as a moral and spiritual monster, burning her Soviet passport in public, denouncing the Soviet regime. But on her voluntary return 17 years later, a similar thing happened in reverse.
She called a press conference to explain that her return to Moscow was not a political affair, but to improve relations with the son and daughter she had left so many years previously. It turned out badly.
In an interview with Raymond Anderson, a former Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, she explained: “I said that ‘Everyone was nice to me – I was a pet.’ The word ‘pet’ was translated as ‘pet dog of the CIA’. To this was added formulas like ‘I was constantly supervised by the CIA,’ or ‘I was under constant pressure from the CIA.’ This was something I never said … My words at the Moscow news conference were turned into propaganda cliches.”
The Moscow she returned to was a far cry from the spartan puritanism, or what was termed the “communist simplicity”, of the 1930s. Svetlana’s upbringing was a hard one. Depicted as Stalin’s favourite, his little sparrow, she became a celebrity, and thousands of babies were named after her. So was a perfume. But her real life was far from being that of a princess, entertained with American films.
When she was six, she was told her mother had died of appendicitis. In fact, Alliluyeva had been bullied to suicide by Stalin. During the second world war, everyone was expected to work, and display “iron discipline”. Her half brother Yakov was captured by the Nazis and died in Sachsenhausen concentration camp after his father refused to exchange him for Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, who had been captured at Stalingrad. Her brother Vasili was largely thwarted by his father in his desire to be a hero fighter pilot and ended up an alcoholic.
However, the siblings emerged from their childhood protective, to some degree, of their father, and when de-Stalinisation started, Svetlana experienced a sense of injustice that all of the crimes of the Stalinist era were loaded on to the man himself. The murder of Sergei Kirov in 1934, which set off a chain of events that culminated in the Great Terror, was a case in point.
Svetlana’s attempts to break the loneliness of her childhood after her mother’s death were constantly frustrated. Her first love, a filmmaker, was sent to Siberia for 10 years. She was allowed to marry her second, Grigory Morozov, but their relationship broke up in 1947. Her second marriage, to Yuri Zhdanov, the son of her father’s right-hand man Andrei, was a bid to please her father. That, too, ended soon afterwards. In the 1960s she fell in love with an Indian communist, Brijesh Singh. She was refused permission to marry him, but in 1967 was allowed to take his ashes to India after his death.
Once in India, Svetlana walked into the US embassy in New Delhi seeking political asylum. She began a disastrous fourth marriage in 1970. Invited to Arizona by the widow of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who believed she was the reincarnation of her own daughter, Svetlana met and married William Peters, Wright’s chief architect. That lasted for 20 months, and divorce followed in 1973.
The rest of her life, as Lana Peters, was spent on the move, in one act of disappearance after another. In the end she seemed to have decided that moving to America was a mistake, although the Russia she knew and still dreamed about, the Russia of lakes and natural wilderness and a kindly father with a tickly moustache, was lost too, one of memory’s cruellest tricks.
She was predeceased by Iosif, her son from her first marriage, and is survived by her daughters, Yekaterina, from her second marriage, who lives on Kamchatka in eastern Siberia studying volcanoes, and Olga, from her marriage to Peters.
• Lana (Svetlana) Peters, writer, born 28 February 1926; died 22 November 2011
• This article was amended on 30 November 2011. The original said that Lana Peters was born in 1936. This has been corrected.