Authors: Rosemary Sullivan
Life at the Kuntsevo dacha also had a military tone, with commandants and bodyguards. Two cooks, a charwoman, chauffeurs, watchmen, gardeners, and the women who waited on Stalin’s table all worked in shifts. They, too, were employees of the OGPU. The commandants and bodyguards, in particular, were high functionaries rewarded for their services with Party privileges: good apartments, dachas, and government
cars. Valentina Istomina—everyone, including Svetlana, affectionately called her Valechka—soon joined the household as Stalin’s personal housekeeper and stayed with him for eighteen years. According to Molotov, there were many unconfirmed rumors that she was Stalin’s bed companion.
Though the nanny Alexandra Andreevna was permitted to stay with Svetlana in the Kremlin apartment, a new governess, Lidia Georgiyevna, arrived in 1933. Svetlana disliked this governess immediately for reprimanding her nanny: “Remember your place, Comrade.” The seven-year-old Svetlana shouted back, “Don’t you dare insult my nanny.”
With her mother gone, Svetlana’s devastation was palpable, and she directed her neediness toward her father. She spent August 1933 with her nanny in Sochi. There she wrote to her father, who was in Moscow:
AUGUST 5, 1933
Hello my dear Papochka [Daddy],
How are you living and how is your health? I received your letter and I am happy that you allowed me to stay here and wait for you. I was worried that I would leave for Moscow and you would come to Sochi and I would not see you again. Dear Papochka, when you come you will not recognize me. I got really tanned. Every night I hear the howling of the coyotes. I wait for you in Sochi.
I kiss you.
It had been nine months since her mother’s death. A child, afraid of the dark, listens to the coyotes howling in the woods, worried that her father will disappear. She was seven years
old. She waited. This unappeasable emotional hunger would return without warning to sabotage Svetlana throughout her life.
Stalin seems to have been somewhat aware of his young daughter’s psychological needs. Candide Charkviani, a visiting writer and politician whom Stalin admired and promoted, described in his memoirs how shocked he was to discover that “Stalin, someone who absolutely lacked sentimentalism, expressed such untypical gentleness towards his daughter. ‘My little Hostess,’ Stalin would say, and seat Svetlana on his lap and give her kisses. ‘Since she lost her mother I have kept telling her that she is a homemaker,’ Stalin told us.”
Stalin had loving diminutives for Svetlana. She was his “little butterfly,” “little fly,” “little sparrow.” He developed a game for her, which they continued to play until she was sixteen. Whenever she asked him for something, he would say, “Why are you only asking? Give an order, and I’ll see to it right away.”
He called her his hostess and told her he was her secretary; she was in charge. He would descend from his office on the upper floor of the Yellow Palace and head down the hall, shouting, “Hostess!”
But this was still Stalin. He also invented an imaginary friend for Svetlana called Lyolka. She was Svetlana’s double, a little girl who was perfect. Her father might say he’d just seen Lyolka and she’d done something marvelous, which Svetanka (the affectionate diminutive Stalin used) should imitate. Or he might draw a picture of Lyolka doing this or that. Secretly, Svetlana hated Lyolka.
When he was staying at his dacha in Sochi, Stalin would write his daughter letters in the big block script of a child, signing them Little Papa:
To My Hostess Svetanka:
You don’t write to your little papa. I think you’ve forgotten him. How is your health? You’re not sick, are you? What are you up to? Have you seen Lyolka? How are your dolls? I thought I’d be getting an order from you soon, but no. Too bad. You’re hurting your little papa’s feelings. Never mind. I kiss you. I am waiting to hear from you.
Stalin called himself Secretary No. 1. Svetlana would write short notes to Secretary No. 1 with her orders, and pin these with tacks on the wall near the telephone above his desk. Amusingly, she also sent missives to all the other “little secretaries” in the Kremlin. Government ministers, such as Lazar Kaganovich and Vyacheslav Molotov, had no choice but to play the game.
Svetlana would order her Secretary No. 1 to take her to the theater, to ride the new subway, or to visit the Zubalovo dacha.
OCTOBER 21, 1934
To Comrade J. V. Stalin.
Secretary No. 1
Order No. 4
I order you to take me with you.
Signed: Svetanka, the Hostess
Signed: Secretary No. 1
I submit. J. Stalin
Stalin always spent several months each fall working alone at his southern dacha in Sochi; Svetlana would be left in her
nanny’s hands. She would write her father loving letters, but one can hear the solicitude and tentativeness in her tone:
Hello my dear Papochka,
How do you live and how is your health? I arrived well except that my Nanny got really sick on the road. But everything is well now. Papochka, don’t miss me but get better and rest and I will try to study excellently for your happiness….
I kiss you deeply.
Stalin’s letters could be affectionate and teasing:
Hello Little Hostess!
I’m sending you pomegranates, tangerines and some candied fruit. Eat and enjoy them, my little Hostess! I’m not sending any to Vasya [Vasili’s nickname] because he’s still doing badly at school and feeds me nothing but promises. Tell him I don’t believe promises made in words and that I’ll believe Vasya only when he really starts to study, even if his marks are only “good.” I report to you, Comrade Hostess, that I was in Tiflis for one day. I was at my mother’s and I gave her regards from you and Vasya. She is well, more or less, and she gives both of you a big kiss. Well, that’s all right now. I give you a kiss. I’ll see you soon.
He signed his letters: “From Svetanka-Hostess’s wretched Secretary, the poor peasant J. Stalin.”
There were others who remembered the little “hostess.” Nikita Khrushchev managed to stay in Stalin’s favor after Nadya’s death. He recalled Svetlana as a lovely little girl who was “always dressed smartly in a Ukrainian skirt and an embroidered blouse” and, with her red hair and freckles, looked like “a dressed-up doll.”
Stalin would say: “Well, hostess, entertain the guests,” and she would run out into the kitchen. Stalin explained: “Whenever she gets angry with me, she always says, ‘I’m going out to the kitchen and complain about you to the cook.’ I always plead with her, ‘Spare me! If you complain to the cook, it will be all over with me!’” Then Svetlanka [sic] would say firmly that she would tell on her papa if he ever did anything wrong again.
The game of the Hostess and the Peasant might have seemed charming, but it had a dark side. Khrushchev claimed that he felt pity for little Svetlana “as I would feel for an orphan. Stalin himself was brutish and inattentive…. [Stalin] loved her, but … his was the tenderness of a cat for a mouse.”
A British journalist, Eileen Bigland, recalled meeting Svetlana in 1936 when she was a “lumpy schoolgirl” of ten. “Her father adored her. He loved listening to her exploits in the Park of Rest and Culture. He patted her delightedly when she played ‘The Blue Bells of Scotland’ on the piano. He was a rough and tumble father to her, a pincher and a teaser—like a bear with a cub—and you felt at any minute that he might cuff her like a bear. She was a jolly little girl.”
The Kremlin contained a small cinema on the site of what had once been the Winter Garden, linked by passageways to the Kremlin Senate. After the usual two-hour dinner, which ended at nine p.m., Svetlana would beg her father to let her stay
up. He would feign displeasure and then laugh. “You show us how to get there, Hostess. Without you to guide us we’d never find it.”
It was thrilling for the child to race ahead of the procession through the passageways and out across the grounds of the deserted Kremlin. Behind her followed her father, his cronies, the security guards, and at a distance, the slow-moving armored car that now always accompanied the
The movies would end at two a.m. When the last film was over, Svetlana would race back through the empty grounds, leaving the men behind to continue their discussions.
Stalin viewed all new Soviet films in the Kremlin before they were released to the public, so the ones Svetlana watched were often Russian:
Chapayev, Circus, Volga-Volga
. But Stalin loved American Westerns and particularly Charlie Chaplin films, which would send him into fits of laughter—with the exception of Chaplin’s
The Great Dictator
, which was banned.
She would always think back nostalgically to these times: “Those are the years that left me with the memory that he loved me and tried to be a father to me and bring me up as best he knew how. All this collapsed when the war came.”
After her mother’s death, as Svetlana put it, her father became the “final, unquestioned authority for me in everything.”
None was more brilliant at psychological manipulation than Stalin, the “poor peasant” controlling his little “hostess.” Svetlana would spend a lifetime trying to rip off the mask of compliance that she had invented for her father. She would often succeed, spectacularly, only to find the mask slipping back over her face. A paradox was forming: a child who could order around the most powerful members of the Politburo as her secretaries, but also a dreadfully lonely little girl who learned to behave.
Though it is often said that the family disintegrated after Nadya’s death, the family members refute this. All of them—Grandfather Sergei and Grandmother Olga, Uncle Pavel and Aunt Zhenya, Aunt Anna and Uncle Stanislav, Uncle Alyosha and Aunt Maria Svanidze—continued to visit. For the next two or three years, the Alliluyevs and Svanidzes remained close to Stalin. There were shared trips in the summer to Sochi, and the New Year and birthdays were celebrated at Stalin’s Kuntsevo dacha. According to Svetlana’s cousin Alexander Alliluyev, the family was fragile but united, still absorbing the shock of Nadya’s suicide, all of the relatives asking themselves: “Why did we not see it coming?” Alexander’s father, Pavel, felt particularly guilty about giving his sister that small gun.
Vasili, future Supreme Soviet chairman Andrei Zhdanov, Svetlana, Stalin, and Svetlana’s half brother Yakov at Stalin’s dacha in Sochi, c. 1934.
It is even possible that Stalin was keeping up some semblance of family ties. When Svetlana was nine, he arranged
for her, Yakov, and Vasili to visit his mother, Keke, in Tiflis. It was 1935, two years before Keke’s death. Though the palace in Tiflis was grand, she continued to live like a peasant in a ground-floor room. The visit was not a success. Keke terrified Svetlana. Sitting up in her black iron cot surrounded by old women dressed in black who looked like crows, she tried to speak to Svetlana in Georgian. Only Yakov spoke Georgian. Svetlana took the candies her grandmother offered her and retreated outside as soon as she could.
Stalin was not on this trip. Before her death, he did manage to visit his mother in her final illness. It was supposedly on this visit that Keke made her famous rebuke to her son. She asked, “Joseph, who exactly are you now?” Stalin answered, “Remember the tsar. Well, I’m like a tsar.” Keke responded, “What a pity you never became a priest.” Svetlana reported that her father always recounted this conversation “with relish.”
Svetlana was now attending Model School No. 25 on Staropimenovsky Street in the center of Moscow. When she turned seven, Stalin ordered Karl Viktorovich Pauker, in charge of security for Stalin and his children, to check out the best schools.
Her brother, Vasili, then twelve and in grade five at the less rigorous School No. 20, was transferred to Model School No. 25 to join her. At 7:45 a.m. each weekday, a Kremlin limousine dropped Svetlana and Vasili off at Pushkin Square. They walked the short distance to the school, through the large oak doors, and up the stairs to the second floor, where their father’s and Lenin’s portraits hung on the wall of the imposing landing.