The Tablet - 7 January 2012
The faith journey of Svetlana Stalin
From Communist princess to Catholic penitent
When Stalin’s only surviving child died in November last year aged 85, she was portrayed as perpetually restless. Yet recently released correspondence with an English priest reveals that her Christian faith – and Catholicism in particular – was a constant in her life
We are all shaped in some way by our parents, most of us for the better. Others, though, have a more traumatic inheritance to cope with. Lana Peters was one. Her death in November at the age of 85 in the American Midwest state of Wisconsin was reported globally.
She used various names during her long life, but was born Svetlana Stalin, only daughter of one of the most murderous dictators in history. It was that baggage that she carried, despite her best efforts, to her grave.
As the obituary writers recorded, Peters (the surname of her fourth husband) spent much of her life under intense public scrutiny: first as “Stalin’s princess”, regularly photographed as a girl with her father and held up as a role model to other children in the old Soviet Union; then, in 1967, when her defection to the United States was played out against the backdrop of the Cold War; and later in the mid-1980s when she returned home (briefly and unhappily) to a new Russia struggling to emerge from the fag end of Communism.
Reference was also made in assessments of her life to her religious faith. The common theme was that she flip-flopped between denominations, in search of a personal redemption that remained elusive. However, a cache of correspondence between Peters and the English Catholic priest who received her into the Catholic Church in London on 13 December 1982 tells a different, more nuanced story.
“Thank you again and again,” she writes to him 10 days after her reception, “for having opened this door for me. I cannot describe to you in what darkness I’ve been the last years, and what a great joy and inner peace I possess now.” Ten years later, in a letter dated 7 December, 1992, her commitment remains strong. Far from moving restlessly between faiths as has been suggested in the obituaries, Peters describes being a daily Mass-attender and communicant at her local Carmelite church on Kensington Church Street in west London, writing: “I feel stronger and stronger, after these 10 years, that I am at the right place.” Her last letter to her priest, on 23 January, 1993, sees her fixed on being confirmed in the Catholic faith.
Her correspondent – who has asked to remain anonymous (“this is the story of her faith journey, not mine”) – first came into contact with Peters when she relocated to Cambridge from the US in the summer of 1982. A mutual friend introduced them. In correspondence dated 7 November 1982, she describes “my constant (during these 15 years) and persistent admiration towards the Church of Rome and desire ‘to be there’. Like a compass turns always towards the North Pole, I keep turning all the time towards the same direction: Rome.”
She has been attending Mass at a local Catholic church in Cambridge, Our Lady and the English Martyrs, she writes, and observing as the congregation return to their seats after receiving Communion: “I watch those elevated, cleansed faces of the people. I love to watch that transformation so visible.” It was something she wanted for herself.
Peters was born in 1926, when her father was already first general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Her mother, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, was his second wife. She died six years later, officially of peritonitis, but later it emerged she had committed suicide after being brutalised by her husband.
In January 1983, Peters sends a short story, strongly autobiographical, albeit written in the third person, to her priest friend. In it, she writes of her relationship with her father: “They were never close, because there was such a big difference in age between them. Little girls love young fathers and mothers, such who could play and run and sing songs with their children, and have fun together. Her father never did.”
The story, entitled “The Last Words” and dedicated to the priest, describes Peters’ devout paternal grandmother, who had sent the young Stalin to Orthodox school and then to the Orthodox seminary in Tiflis (later Tbilisi) in their native Georgia. He dropped out at 20 and went on to abolish religion. When, in 1939, he came to his mother’s bedside (he later told Peters, she recalls), Stalin was rebuked with the words, “Oh what a pity you have not become a priest.” Writing of herself, still in the third person, Peters continues: “She thought now that all the troubles and cruelties her father had caused, all the unhuman [sic] politics of his party, all that was due to their abolishing of Christianity. And she thought that his own troubles started when he dropped out from his seminary, at the age of 20. It was then, exactly then, that his young soul, not used to fight Evil, had been grabbed by Evil and never let alone since.”
As a 16-year-old, Peters had fallen in love with a Soviet film-maker, but her father had the man exiled to Siberia. She was allowed to marry fellow student, Grigory Morozov, in 1943, and had a son, Josef, but her father disapproved of the match, refusing to meet his son-in-law, and the marriage eventually collapsed under such pressure. In 1949, she was married for a second time, in a politically inspired match, to Yuri Zhdanov, son of her father’s right-hand man. They had a daughter, Catherine, but quickly divorced.
Nine years after her father’s death, with a gentle liberalising breeze blowing under Khrushchev, Peters was baptised into the Orthodox faith in May 1962 in the Church of the Deposition of the Shroud in Moscow, “because”, as she puts it in her short story, “she did not want to live without God”. She was later to tell her priest friend that, in their
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one and only meeting in the 1930s, her paternal grandmother had baptised her informally.
At the 1962 ceremony, she was given an icon of the Virgin Mary, which she kept with her ever after. “The mysterious line on the back about ‘And Word became flesh’ still needed a lot of explanation,” she recalls in 1990, in another autobiographical essay sent to the priest, entitled, “An Icon of Annunciation”, and inspired by reading about a conference on icons at Ampleforth Abbey.
At the time of her adult baptism, Peters was working as a translator and writer, bringing up her two children. She remained a well-known, well-connected figure in the USSR. Her third marriage, though banned by the Soviet authorities, was in 1963, with an Indian Communist, Brajesh Singh. He interested her in Hinduism. When he died in 1966, she was allowed to take his ashes back to his family in India. It was at that point that she made her celebrated defection to the West, abandoning her children.
She sought asylum in the US embassy in India, but the American authorities were initially reluctant to allow her to fly to their country, fearing she was a Soviet spy. So she spent a month in transit in Switzerland, where she was hidden from public view at the Carmelite Monastère de la Visitation in Fribourg. “This first impression of the wellestablished Catholic world of the French part of Switzerland, the feeling of warm hospitality,
care and concern about me, was never forgotten,” she writes in her essay on icons.
This was the starting point, she says time and again in her letters, for her reception into the Catholic Church. She was to hanker many times subsequently to return to live at Fribourg, or at another convent. Finally admitted to the US in the spring of 1967, she was feted as a cause célèbre, and two best-selling volumes of autobiography soon followed, denouncing her father as a “monster” and attacking the whole Soviet system.
These were always presented as her own work, but in her letters she confesses that a ghostwriter was involved. “It is exactly for me these days to say finally no,” she writes on 8 January, 1989, about her decision to refuse a CIA pension, “to all these people who continuously – since I came to the West – were pushing me into some propaganda business of their own interests. Because I depend on these people financially … I had to agree to their terms. But I cannot do that any more.”
In 1970, she married William Peters, an architect and member of the Taliesin community in Arizona, set up in memory of Frank Lloyd Wright and led by his widow, Olgivanna, a self-proclaimed mystic. Though she was 46, Peters had a daughter, Olga, with her new husband, but in 1972 left the community, taking the girl with her.
“It was too difficult for me to get adjusted to the ways of the Taliesin Fellowship,” she writes on 1 February, 1983, “so I left. This fills me with guilt towards them both [her exhusband and her daughter].” Moving to Princeton, New Jersey, she settled her daughter in a Catholic school, but found her local Episcopalian (Anglican) Church of All Saints “hospitable”, she recalls in her 1990 essay. “I finally could enjoy the year of the Church … it was there that I learned the fellowship of prayer.” When she tried to attend Orthodox worship in the US, she recalls, in the same document, she encountered a hostile reaction from many Russian émigrés. “In a Russian church in Washington, a parishioner yelled at the priest, ‘you Communist!’ and demanded that I would be led out. The priest ordered that man out, but I still remember the awful feeling.”
The publicity she had received since defecting had made her wealthy and a well-known face, but many still suspected her motives. Being “Stalin’s daughter” became an increasingly intolerable burden. Her unhappiness drove her to move to Britain. At first, after her reception into the Church, she experienced exhilaration. On 17 December 1982, she writes: “Josef [her son] calls me in Cambridge from Moscow.” It was their first contact since 1969. “It was very hard for me all those years not to hear from them, or about them. What happened now, why suddenly a change, I do not know, but God always knows all the answers.”
(Continued on page 12.)
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