Josef Stalin’s Daughter Dies in Wisconsin at Age 85
Published: November 30, 2011 (Issue # 1685)
MADISON, Wisconsin — Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s daughter, whose defection to the West during the Cold War embarrassed the ruling communists and made her a best-selling author, has died. She was 85.
Lana Peters — who was known internationally by her previous name, Svetlana Alliluyeva — died of colon cancer Nov. 22 in Wisconsin, U.S. where she lived off and on after becoming a U.S. citizen, Richland County Coroner Mary Turner said Monday.
Her defection in 1967 — which she said was partly motivated by the poor treatment of her late husband, Brijesh Singh, by Soviet authorities — caused an international furor and was a public relations coup for the U.S. But Peters, who left behind two children, said her identity involved more than just switching from one side to the other in the Cold War. She even moved back to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, only to return to the U.S. more than a year later.
When she left the Soviet Union in 1966 for India, she planned to leave the ashes of her late third husband, an Indian citizen, and return. Instead, she walked unannounced into the U.S. embassy in New Delhi and asked for political asylum. After a brief stay in Switzerland, she flew to the U.S.
Peters carried with her a memoir she had written in 1963 about her life in Russia. “Twenty Letters to a Friend” was published within months of her arrival in the U.S. and became a best-seller.
Upon her arrival in New York City in 1967, the 41-year-old said, “I have come here to seek the self-expression that has been denied me for so long in Russia.” She said she had come to doubt the communism she was taught growing up and believed there weren’t capitalists or communists, just good and bad human beings. She had also found religion and believed “it was impossible to exist without God in one’s heart.”
In the book, she recalled her father, who died in 1953 after ruling the nation for 29 years, as a distant and paranoid man.
“He was a very simple man. Very rude. Very cruel,” Peters told the Wisconsin State Journal in a rare interview in 2010. “There was nothing in him that was complicated. He was very simple with us. He loved me and he wanted me to be with him and become an educated Marxist.”
Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin denounced Peters as a “morally unstable” and “sick person.”
“I switched camps from the Marxists to the capitalists,” she recalled in a 2007 interview for the documentary “Svetlana About Svetlana.” But she said her identity was far more complex than that and never completely understood.
“People say, ‘Stalin’s daughter, Stalin’s daughter,’ meaning I’m supposed to walk around with a rifle and shoot the Americans. Or they say, ‘No, she came here. She is an American citizen.’ That means I’m with a bomb against the others. No, I’m neither one. I’m somewhere in between. That ‘somewhere in between’ they can’t understand.”
Peters’ defection came at a high personal cost. She left two children behind in Russia — Josef and Yekaterina — from previous marriages. Both were upset by her departure, and she was never close to either again.
Raised by a nanny with whom she grew close after her mother’s death in 1932, Peters was Stalin’s only daughter. She had two brothers, Vasily and Jacob. Jacob was captured by the Nazis in 1941 and died in a concentration camp. Vasily died an alcoholic at age 40.
Peters graduated from Moscow University in 1949, worked as a teacher and translator and traveled in Moscow’s literary circles before leaving the Soviet Union. She was married four times — the last time to William Wesley Peters, an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright. They were married from 1970 to 1973 and had one daughter.
Peters wrote three more books, including “Only One Year,” an autobiography published in 1969.
Her father’s legacy appeared to haunt her throughout her life, though she tried to live outside of the shadow of her father. She denounced his policies, which included sending millions into labor camps, but often said other Communist Party leaders shared the blame.
“I wish people could see what I’ve seen,” Lana Parshina, who interviewed Peters for “Svetlana About Svetlana,” said Monday. “She was very gracious and she was a great hostess. She was sensitive and could quote poetry and talk about various subjects. She was interested in what was going on in the world.”
Charles E. Townsend, who was on faculty at Princeton University’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literature when Peters arrived in Princeton in 1967, said she wasn’t very politically active.
“She was very pleasant,” Townsend said. “Unassuming would be the word for her.”
After living in Britain for two years, Peters returned to the Soviet Union with her daughter Olga in 1984 at age 58, saying she wanted to be reunited with her children. Her Soviet citizenship was restored, and she denounced her time in the U.S. and Britain, saying she never really had freedom. But more than a year later, she asked for and was given permission to leave after feuding with relatives. She returned to the U.S. and vowed never to go back to Russia.
She went into seclusion in the last decades of her life. Her survivors include her daughter Olga, who now goes by Chrese Evans and lives in Portland, Oregon. A son, Josef, died in 2008 at age 63 in Moscow, according to media reports in Russia. Yekaterina (born in 1950), who goes by Katya, is a scientist who studies an active volcano in eastern Siberia.
“She was my only family,” Evans, 40, told The Oregonian. “We were very close. It was a huge loss; I thought she was going to outlive me. She had a lot of friends, and a lot of people who really loved her.”
Evans, who manages a boutique in Portland, said she grew up “kind of a normal kid” although she and her mother moved around the U.S. often.
She said in an email that her mother died at a Richland Center nursing home surrounded by loved ones.
Tom Stafford, owner of the funeral home in Richland Center, Wisconsin, handling the arrangements, said no services were planned at this time, though one might be scheduled later.