Book Review of “Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva”

Posted: July 13, 2016 in Quintessential Leadership
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Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana AlliluyevaStalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve read in a long time. There are times reading about Svetlana Alliluyeva’s life when you just want to reach out – although she’s been dead for several years now – and hold her in comfort and fix all that is emotionally broken in her to give her peace and stability. And yet that is beyond me – indeed, it is beyond any human capability.

Even though she was the daughter of Joseph Stalin, Svetlana was also just another one of his victims. Stalin’s effect on his family, his associates, and indeed on the citizens of Russia shows what tyrants, despots, narcissists, and power-hungry people in positions of leadership leave in their wake. The damage outlives them and it is, in the end, their only lasting legacy.

Joseph Stalin was a cruel, heartless, and loveless man. Whether he began life that way isn’t clear, but in his effort to gain power and control over Russia after Lenin’s death, he lost any humanity that he may have had before he embarked on that quest.

He treated Svetlana’s mother, his second wife, with a cruelty that perhaps drove her away from her home and her children from the time they were born. (In many ways, Svetlana never had a mother, although she did have a nanny who loved her and whom she loved, but it was not the same as having a mother.) What is certain is that Stalin’s last act of cruelty to Svetlana’s mother was the catalyst for her subsequent suicide when Svetlana was 6 1/2 years old.

Stalin was in the midst of consolidating his power and his purges and gulags were already in motion when Svetlana’s mother died. Until then, both sides of the family were around and a part of Svetlana’s life. Because many of her mother’s relatives knew Stalin when he began as a Georgian Bolshevik, they also knew his secrets as a young man.

Suddenly, they began disappearing from Svetlana’s life into exile or the death camps that took care of Stalin’s problems and rivals. Death, secret police, and the constant threat of harm were things that Svetlana became aware of early on. Neither she nor her brothers were exempted from that threat or the sudden eruptions and violence that accompanied her father’s wrath.

Stalin and Svetlana had a push-pull relationship that was never secure for Svetlana. When she matured enough to realize how terrible her father was and the extent of his cruelty and disregard for human life, she began what would be a complicated love-hate view of Stalin the rest of her life.

All of this led to an emptiness, a restlessness, a searching in Svetlana that never got filled, not got eased, and never got found in her lifetime. The hole of emptiness was bottomless. The persistent restlessness never found a quiet, peaceful place to alight and anchor to. The endless searching was chasing ghosts and illusions of things that never existed to begin with.

Yet despite all the psychological damage that Svetlana suffered, she was generally sane, very cogent, extremely intelligent and insightful, and, most amazingly, enduringly resilient. Although she had trouble forming and maintaining stable and healthy relationships (she suffered from anxious-preoccupied attachment and made terrible decisions and choices because of it), she took whatever came her way – and it was a rollercoaster from the beginning to the end of her life – and, for the most part, dealt with it with a stoicism that is quite remarkable.

The leadership – or lack of it – lessons abound in this book. And Svetlana’s life – as well as the detailed descriptions of Russian life in general and Russian lives specifically in Stalin’s family and associates – puts the results (which lasts beyond the grave) of unquintessential leadership under the microscope.

It’s an education we can’t afford to miss.

View all my reviews

  1. Martha Peeples says:

    I have to read this — it sounds too compelling to pass up. Great review!


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