Ed Pilkington: Being Stalin's Daughter

Roundup: Talking About History

Ed Pilkington writes for the Guardian.

To his many detractors, Joseph Stalin was a monster on an epic scale who sent millions of "class enemies" to their graves. To the considerably smaller band of his enduring admirers, he was the man who saved the world from the far worse fate of Nazi tyranny. And then there was Svetlana. For her, his "little sparrow", Stalin was the imposing father whose long shadow haunted her throughout a lifetime spent in vain pursuit of escape.

The story of Lana Peters, nee Svetlana Stalina, is on one level quite unexceptional. Spanning as she did the period from 1926 to her death last week in the American heartlands of Wisconsin, she experienced extremes of hardship and joy, success and poverty, that were common to generations of Europeans and Americans who lived through the brutal 20th century.

On another level, though, it was unique, and uniquely poignant. It was not just the dichotomy of the love she felt towards a man who others saw as a cruel, ruthless dictator. It was also that she became the ultimate cold war plaything, the defector heralded by the US in 1967 as proof of the moral corruption of the Soviet Union, only to be lauded in equal measure by Moscow in 1984 when she made a celebrated, albeit brief, return home.

Born on 28 February 1926, her childhood reveals a quality in Stalin rarely discussed in the history books, testament perhaps to the truism that even political monsters have their softer sides. She was spoiled as the "little princess of the Kremlin", a Soviet version of Shirley Temple....

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