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book review

A new biography explores the life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, whose father was Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.The Associated Press

It is the early 1970s. A couple is strolling through a residential neighbourhood in Princeton, N.J., when the husband notices a determined, attractive redhead fiercely pushing a mower across the lawn of 50 Wilson Rd. The man wonders who this strange woman might be. His wife lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "That's Stalin's daughter." While nothing quite this cinematic occurs in Rosemary Sullivan's exhaustive new biography, Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, the scene is easily enough imagined from details the author does provide. Not only did this famous expat cut her own grass, but she also got down on her hands and knees to scrub the kitchen floor. Even so, if Princeton residents generally understood that the daughter of one of history's most notoriously brutal tyrants had unaccountably become their neighbour, they chose not to dwell on it.

Suburban, single mom was just one of the many identities adopted by Svetlana during a long, eventful life that began in 1926, when the Russian Revolution was still less than a decade old, and ended in 2011, a full 20 years after the collapse of the system her father had murderously forged as the Soviet Union's pivotal and longest-serving dictator. Born Svetlana Stalina, she eventually took her mother's maiden name, Alliluyeva, to distance herself from her father's legacy, and later used the Americanized Lana Peters (after her third husband). None of these transformations altered the fundamental fact that she was first, foremost and always Joseph Stalin's daughter – if not in her mind, in everyone else's.

So what kind of dad was the man his subjects called the "Vozhd" (Russian for Fuhrer)? Not as bad as you might think. Leaving aside the emotional detachment, mocking tone and frequent angry outbursts, Stalin's nurturing instincts were a cut above such Czarist predecessors as Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, each of whom beat a son to death.

Being a child of Stalin inevitably came with certain advantages, but the appearance of nepotism was scrupulously avoided. Stalin insisted his offspring not receive any preferential treatment as students or as Komsomolets (the Soviet version of the boy/girl scouts). During the Second World War, Stalin even turned down an exchange that would have seen his eldest son, Svetlana's half-brother Yakov, freed from the German prisoner of war camp where he ultimately perished. Understandably, that didn't prevent Svetlana's classmates and teachers from cautiously viewing her as a Bolshevik princess.

Despite being her father's favourite, Svetlana's young life was not easy. Her mother, Nadya, committed suicide after a public feud with her husband during a party to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the revolution. Several of Svetlana's maternal aunts and uncles were imprisoned and/or executed during the sweeping purges ordered by the deeply paranoid Stalin.

In 1967, 14 years after her father's death, Svetlana provoked an international sensation when she defected to the United States. The Cold War, despite intermittent thaws, was still frosty enough to make Svetlana's rejection of communism a potentially effective propaganda tool for Uncle Sam and a source of deep embarrassment to the apparatchiks in the Kremlin.

Sullivan, a poet and University of Toronto professor whose previous books include critically lauded biographies of Elizabeth Smart, Gwendolyn MacEwen and the young Margaret Atwood, displays palpable sympathy for her subject. Svetlana, a mercurial figure capable of tyrannical outbursts of her own, is not always the easiest person to like or comprehend. Romantically susceptible, she wandered through a series of mostly unsuccessful relationships, including three marriages (the longest of which lasted four years) that produced three children.

Svetlana was also surprisingly soft-headed for someone whose life experiences offered ample cause for wariness and apprehension. In 1970, she married architect William Peters, a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple caught in the

cultish thrall of Wright's controlling widow, Olgivanna. The marriage, in addition to producing Svetlana's third child, Olga, resulted in the depletion of her considerable fortune, including the jaw-dropping $1.5-million advance earned on Twenty Letters to a Friend, the first in a series of published memoirs.

Even Sullivan is at a loss to explain Svetlana's decision to forsake her U.S. citizenship to return to the Soviet Union in 1984, a repatriation that lasted less than two years before she pulled enough strings to facilitate a return to the United States. In 1990, the eternally restless Svetlana moved to Britain, where she lived in a state of relative poverty, before once again returning to the United States in 2009.

While Sullivan has written Stalin's Daughter for a general audience, it's questionable whether anyone other than the most avid Russophiles will be able to sustain interest through more than 600 pages, particularly during the generally mundane, winding-down portion of the subject's life. By contrast, the nine-page prologue detailing the tricky manoeuvring behind Svetlana's 1967 defection during a visit to India is as taut and urgently told as a skillful spy thriller, making the rest of the book seem overstuffed by comparison.

Still, the exploration of the book's central motif – that of a woman trapped by a familial association she cannot escape – is often illuminating. In the end, Svetlana's life was better proof than most of poet Philip Larkin's lyrical conviction: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad."

Vit Wagner is a Toronto writer and teacher.