From Stalin’s Daughter
by Rosemary Sullivan
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At 7:00 pm on 6 March 1967, a taxi drew up to the open gates of the American Embassy on Shantipath Avenue in New Delhi. Watched carefully by the Indian police guard, it proceeded slowly up the circular drive. The passenger in the back seat looked out at the large circular reflecting pool, serene in the fading light.
Svetlana Alliluyeva climbed the wide steps and stared at the American eagle embedded in the glass doors. All the important decisions of her life had been taken precipitately. Once she crossed this threshold, she knew that her old life would be irrevocably lost to her. She had no doubt that the wrath of the Kremlin would soon fall on her head. She felt defiant. She felt terrified. She’d made the most important decision of her life; she’d escaped, but into what she had no idea. She did not hesitate. Clutching her small suitcase in one hand, she rang the bell.
Danny Wall, the marine guard on desk duty, opened the door. He looked down at the small woman standing before him. She was middle-aged, neatly dressed, nondescript. He was about to tell her that the embassy was closed when she handed him her passport. He blanched. He locked the door behind her, and led her to a small adjacent room. He then phoned Robert Rayle, the second secretary of the embassy, who was in charge of walk-ins – defectors. Rayle had been out, but when he returned the call minutes later, Wall gave him the secret code indicating that the embassy had a Soviet defector, the last thing Rayle was expecting on a quiet Monday evening in the Indian capital.
When Rayle arrived at the embassy at 7:25, he was pointed to a room where a woman sat talking with the consul, George Huey. She turned to Rayle as he entered, and almost the first thing she said to him was: ‘Well, you probably won’t believe this, but I am Stalin’s daughter.’
Rayle looked at the demure, attractive woman, with copper hair and pale blue eyes, who stared steadily back at him. She did not fit his image of Stalin’s daughter, though what that image was, he could not have said. She handed him her Soviet passport. At a quick glance, he saw the name: Citizeness Svetlana Iosifovna Alliluyeva. Iosifovna was the correct patronymic, meaning ‘daughter of Josef’. He went through the possibilities. She could be a Soviet plant; she could be a counter-agent; she could be crazy. George Huey asked, nonplussed: ‘So you say your father was Stalin? The Stalin?’
While he waited for a response from Washington, Rayle interrogated Svetlana. How did she come to be in India? She claimed that she had left the USSR on 19 December on a ceremonial mission. The Soviet government had given her special permission to travel to India to scatter the ashes of her ‘husband’, Brajesh Singh, on the Ganges in his village – Kalakankar, Uttar Pradesh – as Hindu tradition dictated. She added bitterly that because Singh was a foreigner, Aleksei Kosygin, chairman of the Council of Ministers, had personally refused her request to marry him, but after Singh’s death, she was permitted to carry his ashes to India. In the three months she’d spent here, she’d fallen in love with the country and asked to be allowed to stay. Her request was denied. ‘The Kremlin considers me state property,’ she said with disgust. ‘I’m Stalin’s daughter!’ She told Rayle that, under Soviet pressure, the Indian government had refused to extend her visa. She was fed up with being treated like a ‘national relic’. She would not go back to the USSR. She looked firmly at Rayle and said that she had come to the American Embassy to ask the US government for political asylum.
Following his advice as to the wording, she then wrote out a formal request for political asylum in the United States and signed the document. When Rayle warned her that, at this point, he could not definitely promise her asylum, Svetlana demonstrated her political shrewdness. She replied that ‘if the United States could not or would not help her, she did not believe that any other country represented in India would be willing to do so’. She was determined not to return to the USSR, and her only alternative would be to tell her story ‘fully and frankly’ to the press, in the hope that she could rally public support in India and the United States. The refusal to protect Stalin’s daughter would not play well back home. Svetlana understood how political manipulation worked. She’d had a lifetime of lessons.
At 9:40 pm, a second flash cable was sent to headquarters in Washington with a more detailed report, stating that Svetlana had four hours before the Soviet Embassy noted her absence. The message concluded: ‘Unless advised to the contrary, we will try to get Svetlana on Qantas Flight 751 to Rome leaving Delhi at 1945Zulu (1:15 am local time).’ Eleven minutes later, Washington acknowledged receipt of this cable.
The deciding factor was that Svetlana had her Soviet passport in her possession. This was unprecedented. The passports of Soviet citizens travelling abroad were always confiscated and returned to them only as they boarded their flights home.
Svetlana easily passed through Indian customs and immigration and, in five minutes, with a valid Indian exit visa and her US visitor’s visa, she joined Rayle in the international departure lounge. When Rayle asked her if she was nervous, she replied: ‘Not at all,’ and grinned. Her reaction was in character.
Svetlana was at heart a gambler. Throughout her life she would make a monumental decision entirely on impulse, and then ride the consequences with an almost giddy abandon. She always said her favourite story by Dostoyevsky was The Gambler.
Though outwardly cool, Rayle himself was deeply anxious. He was convinced that, as soon as they discovered her missing, the Soviets would definitely insist that she be handed over. If she was discovered at the airport, the Indian police would arrest her, and there would be nothing he could do. He felt that the consequences for her would be grave. Execution would have been the old Stalinist style, but her father had been dead for fourteen years. Still, the current Soviet government took a hard line on defectors, and imprisonment was always a possibility. When the classical dancer Rudolf Nureyev had defected in 1961, he was sentenced in absentia to seven years’ hard labour. In Rayle’s mind must also have been the recent trials of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel. In 1966 they’d been sentenced to labour camps for their ‘anti-Soviet’ writings, and they were still languishing there. The Kremlin would not risk a public trial of Svetlana, but she might disappear into the dark reaches of some psychiatric institution. Svetlana, too, must have had this in mind. Sinyavsky was an intimate friend of hers. At the very least she must have known that, were she apprehended, she would never be allowed out of the Soviet Union again.
The Qantas flight to Rome landed punctually, but Rayle’s relief soon turned to dread when he heard the announcement that the return flight would be delayed. The plane had developed mechanical difficulties. The two sat in the departure lounge, waiting as minutes turned to hours. Rayle looked at Svetlana. She, too, had begun to be agitated. To cope with the mounting tension, Rayle got up periodically to check arrival desks. He knew that the regular Aeroflot flight from Moscow arrived at 5:00 am, and a large delegation from the Soviet Embassy always came to greet the diplomatic couriers and the various dignitaries arriving or departing. Members of the Aeroflot staff were already beginning to open their booth. Finally, the departure for Rome was announced. At 2:45 am, the Qantas flight for Rome was airborne at last.
As they were in mid-air, a cable about the defector arrived at the American Embassy in New Delhi. In Washington Donald Jameson, who served as CIA liason officer to the State Department, had informed Deputy Under-Secretary of State, Foy Kohler, of the situation. Kohler’s reaction had been stunning – he exploded: ‘Tell them to throw that woman out of the embassy. Don’t give her any help at all.’ Kohler had recently served as Amerian ambassador to the USSR, and believed that he personally had initiated a thaw in relations with the Soviets. He didn’t want the defection of Stalin’s daughter, especially coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, muddying the waters. When the embassy staff read the flash cable rejecting Svetlana’s appeal for asylum, they replied: ‘You’re too late. They’ve gone. They’re on their way to Rome.’
The staff had failed to check the status of the Qantas flight. Had they discovered that Svetlana and Rayle were sitting for almost two hours in the airport lounge and could have been recalled, Svetlana would have been driven back to the embassy and ‘kicked out’. The whole course of her life would have gone very differently.
But Svetlana’s life always seemed to dangle on a thread, and chance or fate sent her one way rather than another. She would come to call herself a gypsy. Stalin’s daughter, always living in the shadow of her father’s name, would never find a safe place to land.