An independent film is bringing to light a well-kept secret: Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's only daughter has lived incognito for much of the past two decades in small towns in Wisconsin.
It is unclear whether the 84-year-old who fiercely guards her privacy still lives here today, but Svetlana Alliluyeva has lived at several addresses around Madison in the last 20 years.
And in the summer of 2007, a determined filmmaker tracked her down at an apartment at a retirement home in an undisclosed Wisconsin town for a rare interview that could be the last she gives.
A documentary based on the interview, "Svetlana About Svetlana," tells her fascinating and complex life story, which is probably most noted for her defection to the U.S. during the Cold War. On April 18, the film will be screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison.
First-time director Lana Parshina said she read Alliluyeva's 1967 memoir, "20 Letters to a Friend," when she was a girl growing up in Moscow and loved it.
When she later became a U.S. citizen and learned Alliluyeva was still alive in Wisconsin, she got the idea for the movie. But first, she had to find the recluse whose father brutally ruled the Soviet Union for 29 years until his death in 1953.
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Alliluyeva's first tie to Wisconsin came in the early 1970s when she married William Wesley Peters, a noted architect who was Frank Lloyd Wright's apprentice and lived in Spring Green, Wis., about 40 miles west of Madison. They had a daughter, Olga, before divorcing a few years later. Alliluyeva took on the name Lana Peters, which she still uses.
Wisconsin Film Festival Director Meg Hamel said she grew up with Olga, who now goes by Chrese Evans, in the Madison area, and they knew each other as kids.
Ironically, Evans has attacked the movie as an invasion of her mother's privacy. Hamel said she feels comfortable showing the film, whose rights were purchased by New York-based Icarus Films.
"This is a little piece of Wisconsin history, which I'm interested in sharing with our audience," she said.
After months of searching for Alliluyeva, Parshina put an ad on Craigslist seeking help, and paid $150 to a man who vowed to find her. Eventually, the man connected her with one of her neighbors, who passed along the interview request.
Alliluyeva called back to tell her to leave her alone. Parshina would not give up, saying she was influenced by her book and wanted to tell her story.
Alliluyeva wouldn't budge, warning in one phone message: "Don't try to come here. You'll meet a closed door. I told you - I don't want to see anybody."
Finally, Alliluyeva agreed to allow the 28-year-old Parshina to come because they shared the same name and "I love young people."
"She lived in Wisconsin for so long, I would consider her not only an American, but a Wisconsinite."
But she instructed her not to bring any camera equipment and to pretend like she was just a visitor so that her gossipy neighbors, unaware of her identity, wouldn't notice anything unusual.
After they spent one day together, Parshina convinced her to allow her to return with Madison freelance videographer William Q. Hartin to tape an interview.
Hartin said Alliluyeva was "very leery of us," would speak only English, and nearly ended the interview after a question upset her. "We were walking on egg shells the whole time," he recalls.
But after hours of talking, he said, he and Parshina gained her trust. On the second day, Parshina and Alliluyeva spoke in Russian for hours and she opened up. The result is a fascinating interview that includes reflections on her difficult childhood, her defection and her complex identity.
Alliluyeva said she was grateful to the CIA for helping her defect to the U.S. after she departed the Soviet Union for India in 1966, where she left the ashes of her late third husband.
Arriving in the U.S., she denounced communism and her father's policies. Her defection embarrassed the ruling communists and was a public relations victory for the U.S.
But Alliluyeva said she ultimately regretted coming to the U.S., saying she never learned anything from America in 40 years and should have stayed in a neutral country like Switzerland.
"People say, 'Stalin's daughter, Stalin's daughter', meaning I'm supposed to walk around with a rifle and shoot the Americans. Or they say, 'no, she came here. She is an American citizen," she says. "No, I'm neither one. I'm somewhere in between. That 'somewhere in between' they can't understand."
Parshina said she did not give away the location of her apartment in the film to protect Alliluyeva from being harassed by journalists and others. Hartin would say only that it was about a 45-minute drive from the city.
After the interview, Parshina says Alliluyeva disappeared again. She changed her phone number, and letters to her address were returned as undeliverable. A neighbor told her she had moved. Parshina said Alliluyeva switched retirement homes every few years to escape notice.
She believes she is still either living in rural Wisconsin, or in Portland, Ore., with her daughter. In e-mail messages, the 37-year-old Evans would not reveal her mother's whereabouts (or her own).
"She was definitely undercover. Nobody knows who she is," Hartin recalled. "She lived in Wisconsin for so long, I would consider her not only an American but a Wisconsinite."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)