Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan

It was as if Svetlana had two modes: abject submission and total rebellion.

The second installment in my month of reading more books by women was Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter, which had the extra virtue of being both by and about a woman. Svetlana Alliluyeva was Joseph Stalin’s daughter by his second wife and, as the title might suggest, lived her entirely life in orientation to the Soviet dictator.

In Sullivan’s telling, Svetlana was her father’s favorite in her earliest years, even while being kept at arm’s length. These two factors sheltered her from her father’s excesses, all the while ensuring that she grew up a believer in communist doctrine even after her mother committed suicide (though the fact that it was a suicide was kept from Svetlana). Svetlana’s own interests were largely smothered by the whims of her father—e.g. her first love was forbidden her not because of his many foibles but because he was Jewish; she was diverted from the study literature in favor of modern history. She simultaneously lived a privileged position and one of great restriction, as is to be expected of a Soviet princess. Nor did the situation change overmuch with Stalin’s death, when her fate, and that of her children, were largely determined by the status of the cult of personality around her family.

The turning point in Svetlana’s life, and the hook Sullivan uses in her biography, was her defection to the US in 1967 while in India to spread the ashes of her deceased Indian partner. Defection in the midst of the Cold War, however, did not change that she was Stalin’s daughter. His shadow remained long and dark as she settled in with such luminaries as George Kennan. Despite the problems Stalin continued to pose her, the only thing worse might be when people in general forget because a small number of people with the ability to make her life very difficult did not.

Svetlana was a complicated woman and, as often happens in biographies, Sullivan slips into the role of armchair psychologist. Most of her observations are at least logical. Svetlana, she believes, was deeply scarred by her parents’ relationship: Stalin was disdainful of women except as sexual objects, Nadezhda died when Svetlana was six and was a distant mother. Moreover, Svetlana had effectively no conception of money or income because of her unique position in Soviet society and a constant need to move. Most of all, Sullivan suggests, was a deep-seated longing for a stable family life that she never had and thus led to numerous assignations, four marriages and two other relationships that probably would have ended in marriage had situations not dictated otherwise. Svetlana was rarely settled, though, and had a constant need for change in home or situation that could turn on a dime—abandoning children in other countries if it came to that—with a personality that flew fickle from charming to despotic without notice.

Svetlana led an extraordinary life (she passed in 2011), but, with few exceptions, the portion of the biography leading up to her defection was stronger than her experiences in America. The latter portions tended to devolve into endless legal wrangling over publications and financial rights when Svetlana’s whims led to hardship. (Svetlana herself lived frugally, but moving frequently, exorbitant donations, and exploitation by her fourth husband, Wes Peters, at the behest of the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation depleted her savings.) Sullivan’s narrative is brisk, despite its periodic and probably unavoidable repetition, laying bare the difficulties Svetlana had holding onto the many relationships made and broken throughout her life and reproducing sections of her lively letters. I quite enjoyed Stalin’s Daughter and particularly appreciated Svetlana’s story as a different perspective on the evolution of the Soviet Union through the twentieth century.

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Next up, I’m in the middle of reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, the second in her Farseer Trilogy.

NATO

The world we live in is very much the product of the world our parents grew up in. Sure, fashion, music, media, technology and the like have advanced or regressed, dependent upon your taste, but the groupings that the nation-states of the world are in are a product of the Cold War. NATO, the UN, and the EU are perhaps the most obvious examples of this, especially without the Warsaw Pact, but there is also SEATO, the African Union and the OAS, to name a few.

There is some argument that NATO, ostensibly a mutual defense pact against the Soviets has outlived its usefulness, but there are others that disagree. NATO was the driving force behind the interventions in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. Another indicator that perhaps this is untrue is that France, a country that had pulled out of full membership in 1966 under President De Gaulle, returned two weeks ago to reintegrate its military function with the organization.

The move was immediately criticized as it would “bring France further under the American thumb,” so to speak, and there is some truth to this since the overall commander of NATO forces (SACEUR – Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) is always an American, although his deputy is always a European. From a participatory sense this makes sense as the United States provides far and away the most manpower and equipment, yet it also breeds resentment (though NATO actions must be approved unanimously and any “no” prevents action from being taken).

President Sarkozy offered his position up for a confidence vote as a result, which is took place today. My personal take is that this is an overreaction, but one that is typical of the French who want to preserve their position in the world. Of course this is best done by them holding the United States at arm’s length while fostering the strength of the European Union, of which they are a driving member. As unhelpful as this is, France and the United States are operating and have been operating in very similar ways; both want to be leaders, and both want their military to operate solely under their guidance.

I don’t know how to resolve this issue and there will always be jostling for predominance, but the world has also been becoming more closely knit over the past 50 years. Countries from around the world are less and less isolationist and certain parity is required in interactions. No country wants to give up their sovereignty and yet all must do so at some level if organizations such as the UN are to work.

The conclusion of the story is that Sarkozy survived the vote, winning approximately 60% of the vote. This fact suggests both that a slim majority believe that NATO is still the predominant western military alliance in the world and that France should have more input into the operations of it, and that a large minority believe that if France did not need NATO for the past 40 years and should never surrender military command into this outdated system. Both groups likely support the EU as the most important vehicle for French foreign policy, one simply believes that the wider military alliance has a place in the world for the foreseeable future–to the extent that France should rejoin fully.

Edit: I lied. This very well could be that most French do not want the reintegration, but that this one policy issue is not enough to drive the President from office.