An Inescapable Shadow: Stalin’s Daughter and Her “Purely Personal Search for Truth”

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By Alex Friedlen


This post is part of the WLA blog’s 2022 series written by guest writers. These writers are graduate students in the Public History program at Loyola University Chicago. Each visited the archives during Fall 2021, delved into the collections, and wrote about a topic not yet explored here. We are excited to share their research and perspectives! 


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Svetlana Alliluyeva at her first American press conference at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1967 [2].

On April 26, 1967, Svetlana Alliluyeva captivated the world with her eloquent and charming performance during her first American press conference at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Svetlana had arrived at JFK airport five days earlier to a crowd reportedly larger than the one waiting for the Beatles in 1964 [3]. Perceived as a moral blow and international embarrassment for the Soviet Union, the American arrival of Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter, was one of the Cold War’s most public and symbolic defections. Svetlana rode in on a wave of flashing lights, interviews, and book deals. She handled herself so well on the public stage that the head of her PR team told reporters, “She is an intellectual exhibitionist. She needs an audience,” [4]. But the audience would soon lose interest. Over the next couple of decades, Svetlana would navigate a series of setbacks on her circuitous journey for self-realization and spiritual fulfillment, a journey that would take her through the halls of Mundelein College.  

Twenty years after Svetlana arrived in America, Joan Frances Crowley, BVM read in a New York Times article that Svetlana, now going by Lana Peters, lived in nearby Spring Green, Wisconsin [5]. Crowley had joined Mundelein College’s history department in 1962 to teach French and Russian history, eventually organizing two student trips to Russia and co-publishing a book with fellow Mundelein historian Dan Vaillancourt titled Lenin to Gorbachev – Three Generations of Soviet Communists (1989) [6]. Somewhat serendipitously, an eager student named Julie Bleifuss approached Crowley for advice on a paper topic just a day after Crowley read about Svetlana’s whereabouts, so Crowley urged her to pay Svetlana a visit. Crowley armed Julie with the additional covert task to probe Svetlana’s willingness to guest lecture in Crowley’s and Vaillancourt’s “Marxism/Communism” course. Julie delighted Svetlana and piqued her interest in the lecture [7]. Crowley and Svetlana’s friendship developed over the summer and fall of 1987 as they worked out the details of Svetlana’s trip to Mundelein. 

Svetlana’s correspondence with Crowley reveals a profoundly contradictory woman. Svetlana was at once deeply suspicious and highly vulnerable, constantly vacillating between her greatest anxieties and her genuine excitement about giving a lecture at Mundelein.  For example, in an early letter from Svetlana to Crowley she wrote, “I’ve never given talks in any College in USA (since 1967! 20 years) but I feel that if I ever decide to do so, I’ll do it in a R-C College… I am not promising anything, I’m just sharing with you my thoughts. (I dread publicity and newsmen in the audience!)…Please, do write to me whenever you wish, and please – do share with me your thoughts on the above matter,” [8]. At other points in their correspondence, Svetlana continues to stress her expectations of privacy and her insecurities about public speaking [9].  

So much had changed since she enchanted a global audience in the 60s. She had married and divorced her fourth husband, lost her fortune, and had been unable to secure publishers for her new or old books [10]. Svetlana had simply been burned too many times. Considering Svetlana’s seemingly endless search for security, comfort, and happiness, it is a credit to her resiliency that she always remained hopeful her circumstances would improve.  

Having become disillusioned with multiple previous ideologies (communism, capitalism/the western world, eastern orthodoxy, marriage), her greatest source of spiritual comfort at this point in her life came from her Roman Catholicism, which she converted to in 1982 [11]. Svetlana leaned on this shared connection with Crowley to establish their relationship, evident from Svetlana’s glowing remarks about “RC” colleges and people [12]. Svetlana even sent Crowley a recorded recitation of a Cardinal Newman poem in 1987 that Crowley had shared with Svetlana:  

Svetlana reading poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman. The recording was digitized from an audiocassette in the Joan Frances Crowley, BVM Papers at the WLA. (13)

The poem must have made quite an impression on Svetlana for her to record a recitation. It is possible that for Svetlana, like many devout religious adherents, Roman Catholicism helped her make sense of her tumultuous and often difficult life.  

Crowley hosted Svetlana at Mundelein College in May of 1987 to help alleviate her apprehensions about presenting a guest lecture. With her “forebodings having vanished” because of her pleasant experience, they made plans to have Svetlana give a lecture the following fall semester [14]. Although Crowley had appropriately followed Svetlana’s requests for privacy, Svetlana had a very negative initial reaction to her lecturing experience. In a furiously bitter follow-up letter, Svetlana refers to her “false hopes dashed,” and goes on to say, “In my naivete I believed that I should lecture ONLY for the R-C colleges, since they deserve my fondest gratitude…Well- but THEY do not give a damn about me!” [15]. The source of her anger may have been student fixation on her relationship to Stalin, a category of inquiry that particularly bothered Svetlana, who preferred to share her insights about Cold War current events [16]. Svetlana and Crowley’s relationship took some time to heal, but they picked up regular correspondence again in 1991 before another perceived betrayal irrevocably ended their relationship in 1996.  Crowley divulged Svetlana’s new English address to a reporter, and the resulting publication of her whereabouts was an affront to her privacy that Svetlana could not forgive.  Crowley regretted her mistake but was unable to salvage their friendship [17].  Perhaps bravely, Crowley opted to donate her and Svetlana’s correspondence to the Women and Leadership Archives so future generations could come to their own conclusions about their unique relationship. 

From left to right: Dan Vaillancourt, Svetlana Alliluyeva (Lana Peters), Joan Frances Crowley, BVM, and student Julie Bleifuss. Photo taken during Svetlana’s 1987 visit to Mundelein College [18].

Svetlana Alliluyeva was a complicated person. Her brief episode at Mundelein college elicits questions about the meaning of legacy and self-determination. Svetlana’s story could be about the daughter of a dictator trying to get out from under her father’s shadow, or it could be about a proud and intelligent immigrant and single-mother persevering through hardship for the sake of herself and her daughter. How do we balance the great legacies we never chose to inherit with our humble attempts at finding and providing a better life? Quick to anger and quick to forgive, Svetlana was someone who expected much better from the people and institutions around her, perhaps even perfection, and was thus often disappointed. Though her faith, in all things, was constantly challenged, she never lost her conviction that she might one day achieve peace.  


Alex is a Public History MA student at Loyola University Chicago and has a BA in history and environmental studies from UW Madison-Wisconsin.  He enjoys medieval and ancient history, chess, and biking. 


Bibliography 

[1] Loyola University Chicago. Women and Leadership Archives. Joan Frances Crowley, BVM Papers. Svetlana Alliluyeva. Why I Have Become a Roman Catholic: A Letter to Three Sisters (1993), 17. Box 1, Folder 1. 

[2] “Svetlana Alliluyeva at press conference in 1967.” ABC, accessed November 13 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-11-29/b26w-photo—svetlana-alliluyeva2c-joseph-stalin27s-daughter/3701206?nw=0

[3] Rosemary Sullivan. Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), 315. 

[4] Sullivan. Stalin’s Daughter, 320. 

[5] Crowley Papers. Undated Letter to Janet, Box 1, Folder 1. 

[6] “Joan Frances Crowley, BVM Papers.” Loyola University Chicago. Women and Leadership Archives. https://www.luc.edu/media/lucedu/wla/pdfs/Crowley,%20Joan%20Frances.pdf

[7] Crowley Papers. Undated Letter to Janet, Box 1, Folder 1. 

[8] Crowley Papers. 16 February 1987, Box 1, Folder 1. 

[9] Crowley Papers. 10 May 1987, Box 1, Folder 1. 

[10] Sullivan. Stalin’s Daughter, 567-568. 

[11] “Over Me My Father’s Shadow Hovers.” StandPoint, 19 December 2011. https://standpointmag.co.uk/over-me-my-father-s-shadow-hovers/; Sullivan. Stalin’s Daughter, 423-427; Crowley Papers. Why I Have Become a Roman Catholic, a-b.  

[12] Crowley Papers. 16 February 1987, 11 March 1987, and 25 March 1987, Box 1, Folder 1. 

[13] Crowley Papers. Cassette Tape, July 1987, Box 1, Folder 6; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjf6HcrUlWc  

[14] Crowley Papers. 10 May 1987, Box 1, Folder 1. 

[15] Crowley Papers. 24 November 1987, Box 1, Folder 1. 

[16] Sullivan. Stalin’s Daughter, 569. 

[17] Crowley Papers. Undated Letter to Janet, Box 1, Folder 1. 

[18] Crowley Papers. Box 1, Folder 4. 


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About Women and Leadership Archives

Established in 1994, the Women and Leadership Archives (WLA) collects, preserves, and makes available permanently valuable records of women and women’s organizations, which document women’s lives, roles, and contributions. The WLA grew out of the need to care for the records of Mundelein College and expanded to collect papers of women leaders and women’s organizations. Collection strengths include the subject areas of activism and women’s issues; authors; education; environmental issues; public service; social justice; women religious; and the fine, performance, and visual arts. The WLA is part of the Gannon Center and Loyola University Libraries and serves a wide variety of users, ranging from students and scholars to the general public. The WLA makes records available at the Archives in Loyola’s Piper Hall, offers remote reference services, presents programs, and provides online resources. Staff include a Director, Assistant Archivist, and graduate assistants from Loyola’s Public History Program.

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