Her face was staring up at me from the front page of The New York Times. On the right edge of the grainy black-and-white photograph taken at Kennedy Airport that day forty-four years earlier, I could just make out the crescent-shaped smudge that had been the tip of my elbow, before I’d been digitally amputated from the frame. For years a copy of the original picture, with me still included, had hung on the wall of my law office, signed “To Peter with love.” Clients would frequently remark on it, such was her fame in those days.
“She’s really the daughter of Joseph Stalin?”
“Yep, she really is.”
“Jesus. Can you imagine what that must’ve been like?”
No, actually. The Great Famine, the Great Purge, the Great Terror . . . Stalin guilty of the murder—it’s clear now, if it wasn’t fully so at the time—of more than twenty million of his people through mass political executions, Gulag labor camps, enforced starvation, deportations, and other means. Of course, through much of this his daughter, Svetlana, had been just a girl—Daddy’s Little Housekeeper, as the dictator used to call her with tender affection. Many of her own family members had disappeared with the others.
She’d first defected while on a Kremlin-sponsored trip to India. From there, with covert American assistance, she’d managed to get to Switzerland, where she was forced to wait for months while the United States decided whether we would accept her. In 1967, at the height of the Cold War, Stalin’s daughter was seen by many in the CIA and State Department as too radioactive to handle, likely to upset the fragile balance of nuclear forces thought to be keep- ing the world, if only barely, from self-annihilation.
Meanwhile, one evening in Princeton, New Jersey, George Kennan, the greatest diplomat and Russia analyst of his era, was playing bridge with his neighbor Lucas Wardlow, Senior Partner of the Manhattan law rm Wardlow Jenks & Hayes and, as it happened, my employer and mentor. Which was how I came to be witness when, in the middle of a three no-trump bid, Kennan let Wardlow in on a secret then known to only a handful of people in the world: Svetlana Alliluyeva (she’d taken her mother’s family name after her father’s death in 1953) was in possession of the only manuscript of her unpublished “memoir.” Kennan asked Wardlow, with the State Department’s blessing, to look into arranging for possible publication of the book.
First, however, the U.S. government would have to agree to admit the author to our country. That very evening Kennan phoned the Attorney General’s office in Washington and requested that a meeting of the various “interested parties,” as he called them, be scheduled for the end of the week. Wardlow was to be there. See- ing my chance, I suggested to my boss that having me at the meet- ing as his assistant could be of practical bene t. To my surprise, he agreed.
As it turned out, on the day of the meeting I was not the only “young” man in the AG’s office. A CIA officer named Dick Thompson, a Yale grad about my own age with an affable but obscure manner and a noticeable limp, nodded to me as his superior from Langley launched into a speech about how the Soviets were likely to react if we took in Stalin’s daughter and then published her memoir on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution. “Brezhnev will blow his fucking top. As a matter of fact, Langley’s already picking up serious chatter about Russian plans to assassinate Svetlana while she’s still on Swiss soil.”
“Hold on a second,” Kennan broke in impatiently. “Don’t tell me we’re going to turn away the single most important Soviet defector in our country’s history?”
“Not our business,” the AG replied. “The United States government cannot officially be seen to be involved in this matter in any way.”
“Officially?” Kennan repeated, nailing home his point.
There was a knowing pause, an understanding in the room; then the renowned Russia expert shot a glance at Wardlow, who demanded a phone and placed a call. Within the hour a deal had been struck with Harper & Row for world publishing rights to the first memoir by the only daughter of Joseph Stalin for one and a half million U.S. dollars. This was the offer of welcome that would be presented to Svetlana Alliluyeva in return for her promise not to actively engage with her former nation while living in this one. Her father might be officially discredited in the Soviet Union, but never in the history of the world had there been a ghost with such stubborn and malevolent power over his traumatized people. No, she must not needlessly antagonize. Her presence would be enough. Her presence and her voice, captured in a book read and analyzed by millions of Americans and, eventually, by free people everywhere. Besides which, the woman would be rich. If that didn’t make her feel American, the men in Washington believed, nothing would.
However, it was not Lucas Wardlow who clandestinely traveled to Switzerland to smuggle the Cold War’s most famous defector out of that country and into ours. The eminent attorney was feeling his age; these days he preferred golfing at the Princeton Country Club to the cloak-and-dagger stuff. I, on the other hand, was thirty-four, married and with a young daughter, and—perhaps most relevant—considerably closer to the subject-in-question’s own age of forty-one.
Wardlow phoned me at home during dinner to check that my passport was up to date. I confirmed that it was. “Good,” he said, “because you’re leaving tomorrow afternoon. Keep your eyes open. You’ll be flying home under a different name.”
The next day, still as Peter Horvath, I flew to Frankfurt and took a taxi to the rail station, where I boarded a train to Basel. In Basel, I was met by a Swiss Italian gentleman, distinctly courteous, who I was to understand was head of the “Eastern Section of the Swiss Intelligence Facility.” Over coffee, he calmly made the observation that the Soviets would rather kill Svetlana on Swiss soil than see her handed over to the Americans; kill me too, was the implication. He then put me on the train to Zurich and waited patiently on the platform, a faint half smile on his very correct face, until he was sure the train had left the station with me still aboard.
In Zurich, a discreet Swiss lawyer picked me up at the station and drove me to a “motel” (I seemed to be the only guest) near the airport. It was almost midnight. He advised me in his clipped German-English to get some sleep as “they” would be coming for me at half past five. With these words of good night he left me and, after locking my flimsy door and securing it with a tipped desk chair (I too had seen The Third Man and read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold), I collapsed on my bed with my eyes wide open.
Six hours later, wearing a clean shirt but the same suit and tie, I was led by an armed guard into a small windowless room in the departures terminal at Zurich Airport. Seated at a table were yet another Swiss “lawyer” (likely a secret service agent of some kind) and a pretty woman roughly my own age with pink cheeks and a head of thick red hair worn in a short, full style that, while feminine and attractive on her, nonetheless—to my mind, anyway— suggested an upper-echelon Eastern Bloc aesthetic.
“Mr. Staehelin?” Svetlana Alliluyeva said to me in a strong Russian accent, a lively smile on her face.
I stared dumbly at her.
“Our passports,” she explained in clear, excellent English. “We are the happy couple?”
“Yes!” I blurted out, suddenly remembering the names on our false documents. “Right. Sorry. I’m Mr. Staehelin. And you must be Mrs. Staehelin?”
By now I was smiling too, unable to help myself. Her Russian-accented English was rich and charming. Her blue, brown-streaked eyes radiated intelligence and an unfiltered vivacity that hit me where I stood. Her figure—in a gray skirt-suit that flattered without trying—was athletic, full-breasted but trim.
“I’ve come a long way to find you,” I heard myself saying.
“Yes,” she confirmed, “it is the same for me.”
Her smile retreated then, and I could only wonder at the life, and the woman, behind it.
We were the last people to board the plane. At my request, the Swiss stewardess brought us each a vodka martini almost as soon as we took our seats in the first-class cabin.
“Cheers, Mr. Staehelin.” Svetlana winked at me, raising her glass, her smile now willfully brave.
“Cheers, Mrs. Staehelin.” My own attempt at a wink felt more like a grimace.
Then we clinked glasses like astonished, intimate strangers who have just robbed a bank together and are escaping with the loot in broad daylight. But what sort of loot was this?
Too late to ask the question: we were already in the air.
An hour into the journey, the stewardess murmured in my ear that the pilot would like a word. I followed her to the cockpit— and there was accosted by a grim-faced aeronaut in a crisply pressed uniform who, for a Swiss, appeared apoplectic. No one had warned him of the dangerous, incendiary cargo he was carrying—he’d only just now learned the news from the control tower in New York. The daughter of Joseph Stalin? Had he known, he would have refused to y and faced the professional consequences. But now, obviously, this was no longer possible. We would have to hope that we were not all blown out of the sky by the fucking Soviets. And then on landing—if we landed—there would be the press to deal with. But that would no longer be his or his country’s problem—no, from then on it would be America’s problem. Good day to you, sir.
On my way back to my seat, even more rattled, I ordered second martinis for Mrs. Staehelin and myself. Having some inkling now of the historic madhouse awaiting us at Kennedy (more people to greet her, it would turn out, than were there for the Beatles in ’64), I offered to help her write out a simple public statement. But with a rm, con dent set to her expression that, like the sad- ness buried in even her most winning smile, I would come to know better, Svetlana assured me that when the moment arrived she would feel most comfortable speaking her own words.
We finished our second round of drinks. Then she turned to me, hand warm on my arm and tears in her eyes, and confessed that at this moment she was missing her dear brother Yakov terribly. Yakov, captured by the Germans during the war, whose father, the Supreme Commander of the Soviet Republic, had refused to exchange him for a captured Nazi general, leaving him to die in a concentration camp.
She never saw him again, the one brother she truly loved.
“You are like him,” Svetlana insisted. “You are like my Yakov.”
I could only shake my head. Because though I never knew this dead brother of hers and in fact hardly knew her yet, I believe I already understood that it was not her brother I hoped one day to be.
It was three weeks after I’d seen Svetlana’s obituary in The New York Times—mid-December, 2011, now, the early-darkening air just above freezing—when the UPS man rang my bell.
“Got two boxes for you today, Mr. Horvath—good-size.” He checked the return labels before handing them over. “Looks like somebody in Spring Green’s wishing you happy holidays.”
I stared at him: I had been to Spring Green, Wisconsin, only once in my life, for a wedding in the spring of 1970.
“Thanks, Mario. Happy holidays.”
I closed the door. My breath was starting to come shallow and quick. I half-carried, half-dragged the boxes into my living room one at a time, then cut the first open with a pocketknife. My hands were trembling.
A thick layer of bubble wrap obscured the weighty contents of the box. On top of the bubble wrap was a letter.
Dear Mr. Horvath,
Following instructions from my mother’s lawyer in Spring Green (a man she contacted through the yellow pages, apparently), I’m sending you all the papers and notebooks that were found in her apartment after her passing last month. In her will—copy attached to this note—you are listed as her literary executor. As you know, my mother and I had a pretty complicated relationship. I doubt there was any other sort of relationship to have with her, frankly. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
I’ve chosen not to read these journals of hers. That might strike you as weird or coldhearted, but I have a son of my own now, with his own name, and I don’t want him tainted by association with that monster, the grandfather I never met. I never read her memoir for the same reason. It’s not my son’s fault who his relatives are. Just as it wasn’t my mother’s fault.
Whatever you decide to do with this material, I’d rather not know about it. I hope you can understand that this isn’t personal—you were always kind to me when I was younger. If by some unfortunate turn of events you end up publishing part or all of these contents, please give any profits to a local arts organization or a charity for the homeless. I don’t want the money for myself or my family.
I loved my mother very much. I know you did too, in your way. And she loved you. Even if it was never very easy, ever, for either of us. Because that’s how she was.
I think it’s safe to say that, except maybe for the nanny who raised her, you and I were the only two people who ever really understood her.
There were times I wanted to pity my mom, but she wouldn’t let me. She had such a deep heart, and so many wounds, and this crazy courage that never gave up or let go. She could be fierce. She loved her children—all of us, however it may have looked to the outside world. She survived her life, which under the circumstances is maybe sort of heroic. And she came to know, finally, what real love was. Yes, I believe she did.
Jacob “Yasha” Evans
Inside the same envelope as Jacob “Yasha” Evans’s letter was the original copy of the Last Will and Testament of his mother, Lana Evans, formerly known as Svetlana Alliluyeva; formerly known, before that, as Svetlana Stalina.
The document was written in English on one of those generic forms that can be bought at certain stationery or copy stores or downloaded from the Internet for a few dollars, signed by her and witnessed by a notary public in Spring Green in the early autumn of 2011. It left Svetlana’s limited possessions and all her “private journals” to her son Jacob “Yasha” Evans. These journals were to be organized and “made into catalog” by her “appointed Literary Executor Peter Horvath, Esquire, of Princeton, New Jersey.” It was very like Svetlana, I thought, to consider her appointments rm and binding regardless of whether the appointee had ever been notified of his position.
That was the end of her will; but it was not the end of the document, whose final page, I realized only as I came to it, was a letter, also written in English. I recognized Svetlana’s handwriting at once—the way the P of my name seemed to lean down over the letters that followed, as if not sure whether to scold or to embrace:
My Dearest Peter,
You will be surprised by all this. But you promised me, remember? On the plane from Zurich. You ordered vodka martinis from the stewardess for us both and I asked what is it and you said it’s only the greatest drink in world. All night and into the morning we drank, I was too frightened and excited to sleep, then finally out the blue window we saw your tiny island with its strange name: Block Island. My first sight of America. You said you had a summer house there. I must come and stay with you and your family. And I thought to myself, Americans, they are all like this? Come to my house, live with my family. Come inside, welcome. So that summer I stayed on Block Island with you. I saw your daughter, Jean, run naked on the rocks. Martha in her tennis skirt. We ate lobster over newspaper. You showed me American fishing. I took my first shower outdoors. You and I, we drank that evening on your porch. I know you remember.
But here is the thing, Peter: my father’s cage turned out to be attached to me. It went where I went. Years passed and the bars turned from gold to brass, but never disappeared. I feel them still in my breast now as I write these private words that I have been writing ever since I first came to this country so many years ago—this country that you brought me to with your own hands and heart.
Here they are, Peter. My other words, for what they are worth. I hope you know what to do with them. Since I do not.
Do not regret me, Peter. You I will never regret. I would take that flight again if I could, your hand on my arm, wherever we land.
In all, there were twenty-eight identical school-ruled notebooks with cardboard covers. Every page of every book filled with her Russian. They sat in my study for several months—unread, obviously, since I have never learned the language.
And then one day I received a reply to an ad I’d placed at the back of Princeton’s alumni magazine asking for a native-speaking Russian translator with experience. Vera Dubov is currently Visit- ing Lecturer in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She worked tirelessly on this challenging project for the better part of a year, and I am indebted to her for bringing Svetlana’s private world to life with the tone, rhythms, and emotion that I recognize as true. Reading my dearest friend translated from her own Russian allowed me to realize for the first time, with a force that still takes me by surprise, that until now I had known her only in her second language, that is in English, which, while accomplished, could never possibly show the whole of her.
Now that woman has been revealed to me. What else can I be but grateful? Yes, grateful and moved.
What you are about to read, then, is a selection of Svetlana’s private journals, made by me, from those twenty-eight notebooks that she put in my trust after her death.
I wish to emphasize that all “editorial notes” in this volume are mine alone. If in the end they strike the reader as more intimate and personal in nature than would be expected under such circumstances—giving my own story, as it were, mingled with hers—I make no apologies. I may call myself her editor, but that is not what I was.
There are things I’m trying to understand while there is still time. She might be gone, but I am still here. I still have my feelings. I still want to know—sometimes I think I do know—who she really was, and what, in the end, we were together.
Excerpted from The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz. Copyright © 2019 by John Burnham Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.