What Independence Meant to a Woman Who Was Once a Blue-Eyed Little Girl

On this Independence Day, when the flags are unfurled and whipping in the summer breeze and the bunting is put out and the picnic tables are festooned with the arrangement of hamburgers and hot dogs, the pickles and the pretzels and potato chips, macaroni and potato salads (and don’t forget the cole slaw!), the soda and the lemonade, centered by that quintessential apple pie and vanilla ice cream that just oozes Americana, it would behoove everyone to take a few minutes to reflect about the meaning of this “Glorious Fourth”; to take time to think about the freedom it is that we celebrate and commemorate with friends, family and neighbors.

But as you do, meditate on this tale:

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There was once a little girl who lived on the other side of the world. If you didn’t know where she lived or who she was, you wouldn’t think twice about her: she was like any other child. She looked like any little girl: she had a great mass of reddish-brown hair and the bluest of blue eyes and to top it off, she had a winsome smile. It was a smile that would melt a glacier or even the hardest of hearts. She was loving and trusting; and for her, it was not only her strength, but also her weakness.

But she lived in a harsh and unforgiving world, though she didn’t know it at the time. Though she surrounded by her mother, her aunts and uncles, her grandparents, her friends and acquaintances—and a nanny which she loved dearly, to boot—the world outside her cocoon would prove to be her enemy: it sought to control her every move, her every thought, her every wish. In short, this “world”—and the adults within it—sought her very being, her essence, her soul. Though she was so young, she would not let go of that, for anyone, not even her own father, who wanted to control everything.

Her father, with the big bushy moustache and the ever present pipe, seemed like a benevolent figure. He called his little daughter by affectionate names, like “Princess” and “The Little Sparrow,” names that doting fathers would often give to preciously loved offspring, like little girls. He would play games with her and pretend that she was the “Boss.” He would have her perform little songs and dances for assembled company; she would comply, hoping to please her father and his friends.

And being an endlessly curious little girl, she loved to read and once day stole into his study, which was wall-to-wall with rows and rows of books. She read the beloved authors of her culture; one day she spied a book, a biography about someone from long ago named Jesus. She was perplexed by this; she never heard anyone talk about this “Jesus,” who he was and what he was about. The carpenter from Galilee was foreign to her and she wondered about him. Then, her father, coming into the study, spied her, took her into his lap and told her about “this good man.” And he could tell his daughter about “this good man,” given that he was once an altar boy and had actually entered the seminary for a time until the political unrest outside those seminary walls turned his mind and hardened his heart and made him lose his faith and decided to believe in something else, something more sinister and disturbing—revolution and anarchy. But his little girl didn’t know that, at least, not yet.

But things changed as she grew up and became more conscious and self-aware. Her father wasn’t what he pretended to be: he wasn’t the benevolent figure he presented himself as. He was mean to the woman who was his wife and the little girl’s mother. Emotional distance and abuse drove the little girl’s mother to the drastic and final act of suicide and the truth of that was kept from the little girl—she was told that she died of an “illness.”(She would not learn the awful truth until much later, when she herself was a young woman.) And from that time on, even the father turned on his little girl (as he would turn against everyone who once mattered in his life)—he had more important things to think about, like power and control. When he told her to get atop the table and dance, she refused. Angered, he grabbed her by the hair and thrust her atop that table and made her obey. From that time on, she was never the same and she grew to understand harsh truths more than any child ever should ever have to know: her father was a “monster.”

Her father wanted to control everything and everyone and he did not care one whit for whatever—or whomever—got in his way. To get his way, he did whatever he could to get it, even if it meant having people who didn’t agree with him killed—and that even included members of his own family. If he didn’t have them killed, he had them put in jail, sometimes for years (and for some, never to heard or seen from ever again). To the little girl who was growing up, she witnessed the unthinkable: one by one, those she loved with all her heart disappeared, as if into the ether. She could not abide her father or his acts; even after he died (raging with an aggravated fist against something he at lost couldn’t control—his own mortality), his malevolent spirit continued to rule the land of her birth and that was something she could never ever accept.

So she left it all behind.

She left it all behind: her land, her loves, even her own children, her very own son and her daughter, whom she loved beyond measure. In time, the society they lived in would have them turn against her in a spirit of vindictiveness—such was the power of an alien ideology upon a proud and ancient people. Despite this—and the pain it caused her as well as others—she had to do the unthinkable in order to live authentically. With only the clothes on her back and a few possessions in a suitcase, she escaped into freedom.

But for the little girl who turned into a young woman, this escape into freedom would prove costly. Though she treasured the fresh air of freedom, which she had never known, she treasured love even more. The search for love and for faith made her into a nomad, a wanderer, like those tales from literature which she loved so much. Traveling from north and south, from east to west, she spent years in the wilderness of the freedom she sought—and fought—so hard for.

In the interim, she also sought God and studied Him. She became a believer: she embraced Orthodox Christianity and in time, Catholicism. (But it would be incorrect to say that she became a “believer,” for she was always one, deep in the recesses of her heart, since she was a little girl. It took time for that to become a self-evident truth.) Because of that yearning for love, she made the mistake of returning to that place that she had left, hoping that the love that she had for the family she left behind would be renewed and returned to her; but it turned out not to be. So, with a heavy heart, she left again and returned to the land that gave her freedom, a marriage and a much-loved daughter whom she called Olga. She would write books about her search, which would be well-received: Twenty Letters to a Friend and Only One Year.

She would spend her last years close to those who were close to her and never forgot the kindness she encountered in her life. And despite the pain, the hardships and the emotional turmoil she endured along the way, she never gave up. In the end, she died at 85 from cancer. Her face and her body were the outward signs of the inner sufferings she felt and bore. But the spirit that emanated from those blue eyes never dimmed: freedom and love meant much to her and she believed in the essential goodness of human beings—it was a belief within her that never wavered, and neither did she.

And this was all the more remarkable, given that Svetlana Alliluyeva was…

Stalin’s daughter.

Rosemary Sullivan, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and the recipient of numerous fellowships, has written a moving and engrossing biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva (published by HarperCollins), whose tale I’ve just recounted: Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva. It is a tale for our times—and all time—and it is an instructive one.

Many of us will—fortunately—never have to go through life the way this woman did. We, who live in a free land, will never have to know the cost of that freedom, though many have, in order that we may have it. In a time when we are beset by many worries—even fears—we can take courage, even comfort, from knowing that are such people in the world like a Svetlana Alliluyeva, who though they may live in adverse circumstances, believe deep down in the goodness of man and the fatherhood of God. On this Independence Day—the 239th of the United States of America—let us be quietly grateful for that and pray that the freedom that Stalin’s daughter dared to find and have for herself may not only always be ours but more importantly, be the precious possession of everyone else.

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