Authors: Rosemary Sullivan
Stalin was forty-eight when Svetlana was born, and he preferred his vacations without noisy children. He and Nadya often took vacations in Sochi on the Black Sea, where the warm baths helped his rheumatism, in all likelihood a product of his numerous Siberian exiles. It seemed that often a whole retinue of Party members would drive south in a flotilla of cars. Svetlana kept her mother’s photographs of those trips. There was the image of Abel Enukidze, her mother’s beloved godfather, at picnics on the beach. Other Politburo members, like Molotov, Mikoyan, and Voroshilov, would be there. Taking vacations together was part of Party orthodoxy. Stalin had a deformed arm as a result of childhood accidents, as well as webbed toes on one foot, so he never swam. He preferred to stretch out on a deck chair on the beach reviewing documents. Svetlana was five years old before she was allowed to accompany her parents to their dacha in Sochi.
Looking back in her memoir, written when she was thirty-seven, Svetlana could speak only of these leaders’ “deaths,” not of their murders. “I want to put down only what I know and what I remember and saw myself,” is how she keeps the psychological trauma at a distance.
But here the split begins: Zubalovo was once a place of light and magic where old friends, revolutionary comrades, gathered to share summers and laughter with their children. And then everything turned murderously black.
In retrospect Svetlana would not deny the paradox of that childhood happiness. Its privileged isolation protected her from the terrible suffering of the time: the brutal internal Party struggles as Stalin asserted his ascendency over his rivals with purges of Old Bolsheviks and the Party elite; the deaths of millions of peasants from man-made famines caused by forced collectivization in the countryside in the name of rapid industrialization. The classless Bolsheviks had replicated the tsarist regime: now the people were the serfs and the leaders walled themselves within safe boundaries. There were not then the bourgeois excesses that the regime would become famous for after the war.
Nor could Svetlana deny the magic of that first world, when she lived with the timeless unconsciousness of a child in a place peopled with beings she loved. Should she merely have rejected this whole world? But she was at the core of a paradox. How could a world that seemed wonderful be also terrible? Her father petted and loved her and showered her with paternal tobacco kisses as, at her nanny’s urging, she trotted up to him with presents of violets and strawberries. How could he already be at the same time one of the world’s bloodiest dictators, biding his time?
Svetlana called her childhood normal, full of loving relatives, friends, holidays, pleasure. She even claimed that it was modest, and for the child of a head of state, perhaps it was, though the millions of Russians who were starving and displaced would have been outraged.
In her memoir she wrote: “If only out of respect for their memory, from love and profound gratitude for what they were to me in that place of sunshine I call my childhood, I ought to tell you about them.”
It was a willful declaration, for the memories were full of paradoxes and frustrations. “I keep trying to bring back what
is gone, the sunny, bygone years of my childhood,” she would write over thirty years later, as if acknowledging the impossibility of this.
From the child’s point of view, the world may have been undiluted sun, though with a child’s intuition, she must already have sensed the cracks in her paradise. From an adult perspective, it was a labyrinthine tangle of pain and anxiety.
Svetlana defines this in the margin of Nadya’s letter as “a peasant woman.”
Nadya with a young Svetlana, c. 1926.
uring the afternoon of November 7, 1932, Svetlana stood with her mother at the front of the crowd watching the soldiers march past the Hall of Columns to honor the fifteenth anniversary of the Great Revolution. This was the first time she had been allowed to attend the annual celebrations. It was an
extraordinary festival, with stilt walkers, fire-eaters, and circus performers moving into and out of the throng of thousands of people. She looked up at her father on the platform where his giant image hung behind the Party magnates lined up dutifully on either side of the
She was only six and a half, but she understood that her father was the most important man in the world.
Earlier that day, her mother had called her into her room. “I saw my mother so rarely that I remember our last meeting very well.” Svetlana sat on her favorite
and listened as her mother delivered a long lesson on manners and deportment. “Never drink wine!” she said.
Nadya and Stalin always quarreled when he dipped his finger into his wine and put it into his children’s mouths. She protested that he would turn her children into alcoholics. Her final words to Svetlana were in character. Nadya dismissed as self-indulgence the emotional effusiveness that she associated with her mother, Olga; and her sister, Anna. Crying, confessions, complaining, and even frankness were not in her repertoire. The most important thing was to do one’s duty and to hide one’s secrets in the small square over one’s heart.
As her nanny put her to bed, Svetlana recounted how Uncle Voroshilov led the whole parade riding on a white horse.
On the morning of November 9, Alexandra Andreevna got the children up early and sent them out to play in the dark, rainy dawn. When they were bundled into a car hours later, the staff all seemed to be crying. They were driven to the new dacha at Sokolovka. Stalin had begun to indulge his penchant for building dachas, and that fall the family was using the Sokolovka dacha instead of Zubalovo. The house was gloomy, with a dark interior that seldom got any light. The children knew something was terribly wrong and kept asking where their mother was. Eventually Voroshilov arrived to take them
back to Moscow. He was in tears. Their father seemed to have disappeared.
So many apocryphal stories have gathered around what had happened the previous night that it is impossible to sort fact from fiction, gossip from truth, but a rough outline of the night can be reconstructed.
In the late afternoon of November 8, Nadya was in the apartment in the Poteshny Palace preparing for the inevitably boisterous party to celebrate the Revolution. Her brother Pavel, currently stationed in Berlin as the military representative with the Soviet trade mission, was visiting and had brought her gifts, one of which was a lovely black dress. The Kremlin wives always complained that when they met Nadya at the fashionable Commissariat of Internal Affairs dressmaker on Kuznetsky Bridge, reserved for the Party elite, she selected the most drab and uninteresting clothes. They were amused that she was still following the outdated Bolshevik ethic of modesty.
That night, in her elegant black dress, she was beautiful; she had even placed a red rose in her black hair.
Accompanied by her sister, Anna, Nadya crossed the snowy lane to the Horse Guards building and entered the apartment of Comrade Voroshilov, the defense commissar, who was hosting the anniversary celebration for the Party magnates and their wives. Stalin sauntered down the lane from his office at the Yellow Palace in the company of Comrade Molotov and his chief of economics, Comrade Valerian Kuibyshev. They had only one or two guards with them, though the Politburo had banned the
from “walking around town on foot.”
The Politburio had concluded that Stalin was no longer safe, so hated were the policies of terror he had already adopted against so-called industrial saboteurs, bourgeois experts, and political terrorists conspiring with foreign powers. Assassination seemed a real possibility.
For everyone this was an occasion to unwind. The food arrived from the Kremlin kitchen—an ample spread of hors d’oeuvres, fish, and meat, with vodka and Georgian wine—served by the housekeeper. The men, many still sporting the tunics and boots that were a throwback to their revolutionary past, and the women in their designer dresses, sat at the banquet table. Stalin sat in his usual spot in the middle of the table, across from Nadya. This was a hard-drinking, exuberant lot, ready to down toast after toast to the old revolutionary triumphs and the new industrial achievements.
In the anecdotal reports in the multiple memoirs left behind by those present at the party that night, stories coalesce around the following details. Stalin was drunk and was flirting boorishly with Galina, a film actress and the wife of the Red Army commander Alexander Yegorov, by lobbing bread balls at her. Nadya was either disgusted or simply tired of all this. There had been gossip about Stalin’s current dalliance, with a Kremlin hairdresser. Stalin liked to confine his philandering to those from whom discretion could be ensured, and a hairdresser working at the Kremlin would have belonged to the secret police. Nadya had seen it all before and knew these affairs never lasted, though neither she nor anyone else seemed to know how far they went. Years later Stalin’s bodyguard Vlasik made the suggestive comment to Svetlana that her father “was a man after all.”
That night, Nadya was seen dancing coquettishly with her Georgian godfather, Abel Enukidze, then administrator of the Kremlin complex, a usual stratagem for an angry woman to demonstrate her studied indifference to her husband’s flirtations.
Many accounts claim that it was a political toast that inflamed Nadya. Stalin toasted “the destruction of enemies of the state” and noticed that Nadya did not raise her glass. He shouted across the table, “Hey you, why aren’t you drinking? Have a drink!”
She replied venomously, “My name is not
,” before storming out of the room. The revelers could hear her shouting over her shoulder, “Shut up! Shut up!” as she exited. The room fell silent in shock. Not even a wife would dare turn her back on Stalin. Stalin only muttered contemptuously, “What a fool,” and kept on drinking.
Nadya’s close friend Polina Molotov rushed out after her. According to Polina, she and Nadya circled the Kremlin a number of times as Polina reminded her of how much pressure Stalin was under. He was drunk, which was rare: he was just unwinding. Polina said Nadya was “perfectly calm” when they said good night in the early hours of the morning.
When Nadya returned to the Kremlin apartment, she entered her room and closed the door. After fourteen years of marriage, she and Stalin slept separately. Her room was down a hall off to the right from the dining room. Stalin’s room was to the left of the dining room. The children’s rooms were down another hall, and much farther down that hallway came the servants’ rooms.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning, Nadya took the small Mauser pistol that her brother Pavel had given her as a gift and shot herself in the heart.
Nobody seems to have heard the shot—certainly not the children and none of the servants. In those days, the guard stood outside at the gate. Stalin, if he was home, seems to have slept through it all.
The housekeeper, Carolina Til, prepared Nadya’s breakfast, as she did every morning. She claimed that when she entered the room, she found Nadya lying on the floor beside her bed in a pool of blood, the little Mauser pistol still in her hand. Til ran to the nursery to wake Svetlana’s nanny, Alexandra Andreevna, and together they went back to Nadya’s room. The two women laid Nadya’s body on the bed. Rather than call Stalin, whose
anticipated reaction terrified them, they phoned Nadya’s godfather, Abel Enukidze, and then Polina Molotov. The group waited. Finally Stalin woke and entered the dining room. They turned to him: “Joseph, Nadya is no longer with us.”
Rumors would later surface that, after the party, Stalin had gone to the Zubalovo dacha with another woman and had arrived home in the wee hours of the morning. He and Nadya quarreled, and he’d shot her. Stalin was a kind of magnet for vengeful myths, but this one is unlikely. More convincing is the relatives’ certainty that Nadya committed suicide, and they were angry: how could she abandon her children like that?
They also claimed Nadya left a bitter and accusatory suicide note for Stalin, though supposedly he destroyed it immediately upon reading it. Pavel’s wife, Zhenya, reported that for the first few days, Stalin was in a state of shock. “He said he didn’t want to go on living either…. [Stalin] was in such a state that they were afraid to leave him alone. He had sporadic fits of rage.”