Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
Svetlena Alliluyeva was 65 years old when she attempted to take her own life. Her emotions were sent on a spiral when she learned that her dear friend Jerzy Kosinski had recently committed suicide, leaving a note : “I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity.”
Living in gloomy-weathered London with virtually no money, Svetlena walked to the London Bridge one day, contemplating on choosing the same path as her friend did. As she hiked up her skirt and looked down on River Thames, one could imagine that her long, difficult life was replaying in her mind for the last time, awaiting its curtain call. In a way, it might have been an act of anger towards the phantoms of her past who had failed her — Her father, her mother, her lovers, her current life.
Her father was Joseph Stalin, the tyrannical leader of the Soviet Union, and one of the cruelest men that history has ever recorded, whom Svetlena continually struggled to empathize with.
Her mother was Nadya Alliluyeva, an emotionally absent parent who shot herself in the heart when Svetlena was only four. For a very young child, a parent’s death leaves a profoundly deep scar, because her young mind could not grasp the idea of death –She understands only abandonment. Especially as an orphan of suicide, Svetlena would require decades to be able to forgive Nadya for abandoning her.
With such a rocky relationship with her parents, Svetlena would develop an anxious attachment as she adulted. Particularly in her romantic relationships, she would ache to belong to somebody — Terrified of being abandoned, of losing the people she loved.
Growing up in the Kremlin, Svetlena slowly learned who her father truly was. Though he was capable of showing affection as a father, she would realize he was capable, too, of the mass imprisonment and murder of millions of innocent lives.
She witnessed that as Stalin’s power grew, so did his paranoia. He had an extreme mistrust in people, believing that everyone was capable of treason and deceit, as he tortured and imprisoned anyone who could even potentially be a threat to the Soviet Union. It went so far that when his agents reported to him with alarming news, Stalin ordered them to be deported to prison camps to be “ground into dust”.
Stalin once told his associates, “We will destroy each and every enemy even if he was an old Bolshevik; we will destroy all his kin, his family. We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts — Yes, his thoughts — Threatens the unity of the socialist state.”
Under Stalin’s rule, the purging of suspected counterrevolutionaries and potential threats, wiretapping, imprisonment, torture, forced labor, disappearing families, villages burned in demonstration of the consequences of not complying with the Red Army — All became the new norm.
For Svetlena, a portrait that hung in her home slowly became an empty shell of what used to resemble a family, as her aunts and uncles would suddenly disappear, either executed or imprisoned. She recalled how one of her aunts was sent to prison, simply because she spoke of Stalin as a human being. It was a crime, because in Stalin’s mind, he was a historical luminary. To paper over the trauma, her surviving family members would tell themselves, “It was just something that happened. It was fate.”
Svetlena lamented, “The whole thing nearly drove me out of my mind. Something in me was destroyed. I was no longer able to obey the word and will of my father and defer to his opinions without question.”
When Stalin eventually fell ill with cerebral hemorrhage, Svetlena wished that she could shed a tear for her father. But she couldn’t. She saw his face darken, and his lips swollen black. Ironically, Stalin’s subordinates had to ask for expert advice from a doctor he had imprisoned. The doctor, who was awaiting a torture session, was surprised to hear that a patient needed his help. And that patient was Stalin himself.
In his last breath, Stalin executed an unusual gesture, one that would ever haunt Svetlena. “It was rage, a raging rejection of death. His soul had finally fractured,” she remembered.
“At what seemed like the very last moment he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry and full of the fear of death and the unfamiliar faces of the doctors bent over him. The glance swept over everyone in a second. Then something incomprehensible and awesome happened that to this day I can’t forget and don’t understand. He lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something above and bringing down a curse on us all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace, and no one could say to whom or at what it might be directed. The next moment, after a final effort, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh.”
While Svetlena certainly had her father’s intelligence and iron will, she did not share his evil. Towards the end of her life, Svetlena struggled with her label of being Stalin’s daughter. All of her attempts to live a normal life as a human being were thwarted by the varied perceptions of others. She said, “You are Stalin’s daughter. Actually you are already dead. Your life is already finished. You can’t live your own life. You exist only in reference to a name.”
She explained further, “My greatest burden lay in the need of everyone to tell me ‘what a great man’ my father was : some accompanied the words with tears, others with hugs and kisses, a few were satisfied with only stating that fact…They were obsessed with his name, his image, and, being obsessed, they could not leave me alone. It was a torture for me. I could not tell them how complex were my thoughts about my father and my relationship with him. Nor could I tell them what they wanted to hear — So they departed from me in anger. I was continually on edge and nervous.”
Years later, just as Svetlena was about to jump off the London Bridge, a pair of strong hands grabbed hold of her and saved her. Two young police officers sent her home and told her, “Never do that again.” Later that night, she tried to suffocate herself by wrapping a plastic bag over her head. It didn’t work, though, and she went to sleep instead.
That morning, as biographer Rosemary Sullivan depicted, “Svetlena now understood what suicide was about. It happened in a crazy moment and for crazy reasons. It was a dark day, it was raining, the wind blew your umbrella inside out, someone didn’t keep an appointment for lunch, something triggered your despair.”
Suicide could be an impulsive decision, made in a moment where it truly seems like there isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel. Svetlena reflected, “You have to be very mad, mad like hell, with everybody or somebody or anybody or with everything.” For her mother, it was a moment of great frustration when Stalin yelled at her at a dinner party for not toasting the Revolution’s victory.
Svetlena would recall her nanny explaining that when Nadya was found dead, it looked as though she had been crawling toward the door, needing saving, and regretting her decision. She now understood her mother’s despondency. She had finally forgiven her for abandoning her.
The Soviet writer Konstantin Simonov articulated what it meant for good people to do nothing during Stalin’s reign. He said, “If we are honest, it is not only Stalin we cannot forgive, we cannot forgive anyone, including ourselves…We may have done nothing bad, at least at first glance, but what is bad is that we (became) accustomed to..What now seems incredible and monstrous, somehow gradually became some kind of norm, seemed almost customary. We lived amidst all this like deaf people, as if we did not hear the firing going on all round us all the time, people being shot, murdered, people vanishing.”
After Stalin’s death, Svetlena, who had a front-seat experience to his crimes against humanity, spent the rest of her life fighting off any glorification of her father. The younger generation who did not live through the same horrors under Stalin were tempted to see him as a great leader who turned a backward nation into a formidable superpower. For that reason, Svetlena dedicated herself to writing books to remind the world of the realities of life in the Soviet Union — Among them, her memoir Twenty Letters to a Friend.
She once said, “I want one thing : for my books to be published. I just dream that my story will finally reach readers. At least I would hope I can convince the readers of my book that I had nothing to do with my father’s philosophy and what he did. Then I shall feel I have done something. Without that, I see my life as totally useless.”
Svetlena came to terms with the fact that she could no longer hold on to the “pleasant illusion” that she could escape the label of being Stalin’s daughter. She remarked, “I lived my life the way I could — Though I could have lived it better — Within a certain limited framework called Fate. There is something fatal about my life. You can’t regret your fate, though I do regret my mother didn’t marry a carpenter. I was born into my parents’ fate.”
Teaching herself to be more accepting of her circumstances, she said, “I built myself a theory. I had to accept what happened to me. It was totally unjust. I had done nothing, but I had to accept. Otherwise, I saw people who couldn’t accept, who were bashing their heads on walls and protesting, and they were pretty soon dead, because they couldn’t. Oh yes, people get wise there. When it comes to the worst thing, you get wise.”
As dedicated as she was to her mission, the pain didn’t always go away. Svetlana’s daughter, Olga described that she would sometimes fall into “the night terrors of a child alone and lost”. There would still be moments where she was almost inconsolable, as if she had no control over her thoughts or where they were going.
“Something triggered a volcano of thoughts, memories, pain, anguish, fear about something coming up, surfacing to overwhelm her,” said Olga. She saw Svetlana, who was enormously misunderstood, as a person in need of unconditional love. “The people who have stuck by her the longest, who have remained friends, are the ones who saw that. They’d seen the volcano.”
The story of Svetlana Alliluyeva gives us hope that even though we have no control over the circumstances that we were born into, we can still choose to be the better people that we want to be. We can still use every ounce of it as an opportunity to make other people’s lives better, because we have had our own crosses to bear, and our own struggles to live through.
Of course, no one said that our scars will simply vanish. But even as we still feel the pain from them at times, we no longer suffer. Because we have given it a compelling meaning.
And also, on another note, it’s important to remember that as human beings, our brain heals by talking about things. The more we put our traumas, or our suffering into words, the better chance we have at outgrowing them. For that reason, never hesitate to get into therapy or counselling if you feel the need to. There’s no shame in getting help, and it’s really more powerful than you might think.