RIP Lana Peters, Stalin’s Exiled Wisconsinite Daughter

Born to the Soviet dictator, Svetlana Alliluyeva married and divorced powerful men—including Frank Lloyd Wright’s engineer—and lived throughout the world. But her final home was a tiny community in central Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin State Journal brings word that Svetlana Alliluyeva, aka Lana Peters, died last week at 85 in rural Richland Center, Wisconsin. Alliluyeva was, for a time, perhaps the most famous Russian dissident of the Cold War: Stalin’s only daughter, and it was considered a coup for the U.S. to land such a headline-making exile.

But Alliluyeva had a distant, difficult relationship with the dictator: her mother died when she was a young child, and Stalin both exiled her teenage boyfriend—a 40-year-old Jewish filmmaker—and refused to meet her first husband, whom she married at 17. After the couple divorced, a short-lived marriage was arranged between her and bigwig Yuri Zhdanov, son of Andrei, from whom we get the term Zhdanovism. That marriage too failed; later, the Soviets refused to let her marry Indian politician and longtime companion Brajesh Singh. Though Singh died, she lived for awhile in India, from where Chester Bowles was able to lure her to the U.S. in 1967. When she arrived in the U.S., she greeted her new country with a press conference:

But Alliuyeva’s life in America was unhappy, as she told the London Observer—republished in the Chicago Tribune not long before she moved to central Wisconsin—in 1984:

When I first arrived, I unfortunately had the status of a celebrity. People were only interested in me as the daughter of my father. They thought I was his confidante, which I never was. I was exposed to big press conferences, and I completely lost my privacy. I was confined to a narrow circle of Sovietologists, Kremlinologists, Russian historians. It was all Russia, Russia, Russia—it was absolutely sickening. I terribly wanted to learn something else.

Then I got married, but the publicity and lack of privacy just got worse. Two years later I got divorced, and being a single mother with a little baby was not an attractive situation at all. Nobody likes all these divorcees walking around. You are not welcome, and then you really disappear into the seclusion of your home, and you sit with your child. That’s what happened to me. There is a wonderful group of enlightened Americans, writers and artists, but I never gained access to them, and they never gained access to me.

[snip]

You see, I lived for 40 years in Moscow under the constant supervision of the KGB, and then I lived in America, where the supervision was more subtle—I was put in the hands of lawyers and asked to sign legal documents without being told what they meant—but my life was again paralyzed. I was not at all free to do or say what I wanted. No defector is ever entirely free.

Alliuyeva got the name “Peters” from her third marriage to William Wesley Peters, Frank Lloyd Wright’s structural engineer (and ex-husband of Wright’s daughter, also named Svetlana); falling into the Wright circle meant a move to Taliesin, landing her again in a communal, utopian society. It proved to be too much for her, and led to her third divorce.

Shortly after her interview with the Observer ran, Alliluyeva returned to Moscow to reunite with her children from her two Soviet marriages, but in 1986 she moved to Spring Green, Wisconsin, via Zurich and Chicago. “I think she was disappointed not being able to re-establish a relationship with her children,” a friend told the Tribune. “Apparently, that simply didn’t work out.”

But it wasn’t the only reason. The Soviet Union, in the mid-1980s, was a difficult place to be Stalin’s daughter, she told People:

With Olga, she moved to Tbilisi, in Soviet Georgia, the republic where Stalin was born. But life in the provinces proved no less difficult. Alliluyeva lamented the dearth of food and clothing and found herself almost isolated. “Only a few former classmates, my university friends and people like that, showed some warm feelings,” she says. “Otherwise, everybody was terribly embarrassed. They didn’t know how to treat us.”

By the end of the year both she and Olga wanted out. In December 1985 Stalin’s daughter wrote Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to ask for permission to leave the country once again. Finally, she says, the Soviets realized “there was no other way. I think they just preferred to have me out.”

After an itenerant life, marriages to powerful men, struggles with alcoholism, and a last attempt to go home again, Alliluyeva settled in modest, subsidized housing in tiny Richland Center, sewing, reading, and listening to the radio. Last year, the private Alliuyeva was the subject of Svetlana About Svetlana, a documentary by Russian-American filmmaker Lana Parshina; in the trailer, she talks about the “in-between” life she was born into and struggled for so long to accept.

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