Authors: Rosemary Sullivan
Nadya and Stalin together at a picnic, from a photo taken in the early 1920s.
The family needed to believe that he was devastated, and it is possible that he was. He had, in his way, loved Nadya, as his love letters to her attest. Even dictators can be sentimental. But his reaction was cruelly egocentric and focused on himself. Stalin’s sister-in-law, Maria Svanidze, recorded in her private diary the moment when she told Stalin that she blamed Nadya: “How could Nadya have left two children?” He responded, “The children have forgotten her after a few days, but I am left incapacitated for the rest of my life.”
It is hard to imagine a father saying this of his grieving children, but Stalin’s self-pity seems convincing. Svetlana always believed, more realistically, that her mother’s suicide exacerbated Stalin’s paranoia: No one could ever be trusted; even those closest betrayed.
Why did Nadya, just thirty-one, kill herself? We will never know the truth, but speculations abound. The easiest explanation is that she was mentally ill. Initially, even Svetlana believed this. The historian Simon Sebag Montefiore writes: “[Nadya’s] medical report, preserved by Stalin in his archive, and the testimonies of those who knew her, confirm that Nadya suffered from a serious mental illness, perhaps hereditary manic depression or borderline personality disorder though her daughter called it ‘schizophrenia,’ and a disease of the skull that gave her migraines.” Nadya suffered multiple other ailments. She had had several abortions, a not uncommon form of contraception in those days, which resulted in a number of gynecological problems.
She retreated to spas and German health resorts, an indulgence, indeed almost a fetish, of most of the Party elite.
But eventually Svetlana came to see her mother’s despair as motivated by her opposition to Stalin’s repressive policies. The question is whether there is any credibility to this idea.
Nikita Khrushchev, her fellow student at the Industrial Academy, claimed Nadya tried to assert her independence
When she registered at the Academy in 1928, she retained her own name, Alliluyeva, though in truth this was not unusual among Bolshevik wives. She refused to travel to the Academy in a government car and rode the tram; this was why she had a pistol. Her brother Pavel had brought back two Mauser No. 1 pistols from a trip to England, giving one to Nadya and one to Molotov’s wife, Polina. Alexander Alliluyev, Pavel’s son, would later remark, “They took the tram to their school, and there was some real danger at that time in Moscow. Because of that, my father brought those two damned pistols from England. And in regards to this, Stalin said to my father, ‘You couldn’t find another gift?’ The gun had tiny bullets, but they were enough for Nadya to shoot herself in the heart.”
From her correspondence as a teenager, it is easy to see Nadya as a dogmatic, idealistic young Communist. During the Civil War that raged after the Bolsheviks’ triumph, she seemed able to rationalize the violence as necessary to the survival of the Great Revolution. When, in June 1918, Lenin sent Stalin south to Tsaritsyn (renamed Stalingrad in 1925) with 450 Red Guards to secure food supplies for Moscow and Petrograd, the seventeen-year-old Nadya and her brother Fyodor accompanied him as his assistants. A railway carriage was pulled to a siding, and Stalin used it as his headquarters. They hadn’t yet registered their marriage, but under Bolshevik convention, Nadya was already considered Stalin’s wife.
Immediately Stalin began to purge the city of suspected counterrevolutionaries. When he wrote repeatedly to Lenin demanding sweeping military powers, Nadya typed his letters. When Lenin ordered him to be ever more “ruthless” and “merciless,” Stalin replied, “Be assured that our hand will not tremble.”
Stalin conducted a campaign of “exemplary terror.” He burned villages to show the consequences of failure to comply
with the Red Army’s orders and to demonstrate what counterrevolutionary sabotage would lead to. His enthusiasm for indiscriminate violence did not seem to faze Nadya, typing away in her railway carriage.
Nadya loved Stalin and seemed comfortable rationalizing, indeed even glamorizing, the Bolshevik cult of violence. The passionate love letters they sent each other when they were apart had an electric, if conventional, intensity. As late as June 1930, when Nadya was in Carlsbad talking a cure for debilitating headaches (another report suggests that she was actually suffering acute abdominal pains, possibly from an abortion), Stalin wrote: “Tatka [his pet Georgian name for her]. Do write to me something…. It is very lonely here, Tatochka. Am sitting at home, alone, like a little owl. I have not been to the country—too much work. I have finished my own task. I plan to go the day after tomorrow to the country, to the children. Well, good-bye. Do not stay there for too long, come back soon. I—kiss—you. Yours, Josef.”
One of her letters to him ended: “I beg you to take good care of yourself. I kiss you warmly, as you had kissed me at my leaving. Yours, Nadya.”
But domestic life with Stalin had a different tenor and was extremely volatile. Nadya made a first attempt to leave him in 1926, when Svetlana was only six months old. After a quarrel, she packed up Svetlana, Vasili, and Svetlana’s nanny and took the train to Leningrad (as Saint Petersburg was renamed in 1924 after Lenin’s death), where she made it clear to her parents that she was leaving Stalin and intended to make her own life. He telephoned and begged her to come back. When he offered to come to get her, she replied, “I’ll come back myself. It’ll cost the state too much for you to come here.”
Perhaps Stalin’s worst characteristic as a husband was the tantalizing quality of his affection. With her pride and reticence, Nadya rarely revealed family secrets, but her sister Anna
remarked that she was a “long-suffering martyr.” Stalin, usually distant and inscrutable, could flare up with an uncontrollable temper and could be callously indifferent to his wife’s feelings. Nadya complained that she was always running Stalin’s errands—he needed a document in the commissar’s office; he needed a book from the library. “We wait for him, but never know when he will come home.”
Nadya’s second year at the Industrial Academy, 1929, was the Year of the Great Turn and the forced collectivization of the peasantry into kolkhozy, or collective farms. The process was brutal. In order to root out private enterprise, village markets were shut down and livestock was confiscated. Kulaks, or prosperous peasants (owning one cow could constitute prosperity), were deported. Under this policy, known as dekulakization, peasants, “treated like livestock … often died in transit because of cold, starvation, beatings in the convoys, and other miseries.”
By the year of Nadya’s death, 1932, the infamous Gulag (forced-labor camps) held “more than a quarter of a million people,” and 1.3 million, “mainly deported kulaks,” were living as “special settlers.”
In 1932 and 1933, famine raged in the Ukraine. Stalin and his ministers were shipping grain supplies abroad to pay for smelters and tractors in order to sustain the rapid pace of industrialization. Though the Ukraine Politburo begged for emergency relief, no assistance came. Millions died. In 1932, a number of Nadya’s fellow students at the Industrial Academy were arrested for speaking out about the famine. Nadya, too, was rumored to oppose “collectivisation and its immorality.” Critical of Stalin, she secretly sympathized with Nikolai Bukharin and the right-wing opposition.
Stalin commanded Nadya to stay away from the Academy for two months.
In the early days, Nadya attempted to exert some influence. When Stalin was vacationing alone in Sochi in September
1929, Nadya wrote him a careful letter, reporting that the Party was exploding over a dispute at
; an article had been published without first being cleared by the Party hierarchy. Though many had seen the article, everyone was laying the blame on her friend Leonid Kovalev, and demanding his dismissal. In a long letter with the simple salutation “Dear Josef,” she wrote:
Don’t be angry with me, but seriously I felt pain for Kovalev, for I know the colossal work that he has done in the paper…. To dismiss Kovalev … is simply monstrous…. Kovalev looks like a dead man…. I know that you detest my interference, but still I believe that you should look into this absolutely unjust outcome…. I cannot be indifferent about the fate of such a good worker and comrade of mine…. Good-bye, now, I kiss you tenderly. Please, answer me.
Stalin wrote back four days later: “Tatka! Got your letter regarding Kovalev…. I believe you are right…. Obviously, in Kovalev they have found a scapegoat. I will do all I can, if it is not too late…. I kiss my Tatka many, many, many times. Yours, Josef.”
Stalin did act on Nadya’s request and wrote to Sergo Ordzhonikidze, in charge of adjudicating cases of disobedience to Party policies, to say that scapegoating Kovalev was “a very cheap but wrong and unbolshevik method of correcting one’s faults…. Kovalev … IN NO CIRCUMSTANCES WOULD EVER let one line about Leningrad be printed, had it not been silently or directly approved, by somebody at the bureau.”
Kovalev was eventually dismissed from
—not as an “enemy of the people” but rather as “a straying son of the Party.”
Nadya wrote back rather pathetically: “I am very glad that in Kovalev’s matter you have shown me your trust” and went on to report that the Academy was very friendly. “The academic
achievements are judged according to rules: ‘kulak,’ the ‘center,’ the ‘poor one.’ We laugh a lot daily about that. I am already characterized as a right-wing,” a strange admission to make to Stalin who would soon destroy the so-called right-wing opposition.
There were clearly mounting tensions between Nadya and Stalin. She wrote in the summer of 1930, “This summer I did not feel that you might be pleased with a postponing of my departure, quite the contrary. The last summer I did feel that, but not now…. Answer me, if not too displeased by my letter, or rather, as you wish.”
He wrote back to say that her reproaches were “unjust.”
In October she wrote, “No news from you…. Maybe hunting quails absorbed you too much, or just too lazy to write.”
Stalin responded with irony: “Lately you have begun to praise me. What does that mean? Good or bad news?”
Nadya’s letters to Stalin in Sochi often contained reports of the hunger in Moscow, the long lines for food, the lack of fuel, the disrepair of the city. “Moscow looks better now, but in some places like a woman who covered with powder her defects, especially after rains, when the paint runs in stripes…. One wishes so that these shortcomings would one day leave our lives, and people would then feel wonderful and work remarkably well.”
By the time of her suicide, it is possible that Nadya was not schizophrenic but rather disillusioned with her husband’s revolutionary politics. The night of her death, she refused to raise her glass in Stalin’s toast to “the destruction of enemies of the state.”
Nadya’s friend Irina Gogua, who had known her since their shared childhood in Georgia, when the Alliluyev children, having no bathroom in their own apartment, had come for weekly Saturday baths at her house, remembered how Nadya behaved in Stalin’s presence.
[Nadya] understood a lot. When I returned [to Moscow], I understood that her friends were arrested somewhere in Siberia. She … demanded to see their case. So she understood a lot…. In the presence of Joseph she resembled a fakir, who performs in the circus barefoot walking over broken glass. With a smile for the audience and with a terrifying intensity in her eyes. This is what she was like in the presence of Joseph, because she never knew what was coming next—what kind of explosion—he was a real cad. The only creature who softened him was Svetlana.
Gogua was not surprised when she heard the gossip that Nadya had committed suicide. Though the truth about her suicide was immediately suppressed, Gogua claimed that it was known among the security organizations. She added an interesting detail to her story. “Nadezhda had very perfect features and very beautiful features. But here is the paradox. The fact that she was beautiful was observed only after her death…. In the presence of Joseph, she was always like a fakir—always internally tense.”
As recently as 2011, Alexander Alliluyev, the son of Nadya’s brother Pavel, offered a convincing detail in the puzzle of Nadya’s suicide with a piece of the story that came to him from his parents.
Pavel was at work when he heard the news that his sister had committed suicide. He immediately phoned his wife, Zhenya. He told her to stay where she was; he’d be right home. When he arrived, he asked where she had hidden the packet of papers that Nadya had given them. “In the linen,” Zhenya replied. “Get them,” he told her.
Nadya had been planning to leave Stalin. She intended to go to Leningrad and had even asked Sergei Kirov, head of the Communist Party organization there, about getting a job in
the city. In the packet of papers she left with her brother was supposedly a parting letter for him and his wife.