How Joseph Stalin's only daughter ended up in Wisconsin

Joseph Stalin and daughter Svetlan
Joseph Stalin holds his young daughter, Svetlana, in an undated photograph.
AFP/Getty Images

Svetlana Alliluyevea was born in Moscow in 1926, the only daughter of Joseph Stalin.

She died 85 years later in Spring Green, Wis., population 1,600.

Rosemary Sullivan's new book, "Stalin's Daughter," explores the unpredictable trajectory of her extraordinary life, from her privileged childhood as the dictator's daughter to her defection and quiet, solitary life in the United States.

'Stalin's Daughter' by Rosemary Sullivan
'Stalin's Daughter' by Rosemary Sullivan
Courtesy of Harper

Using records from the FBI and CIA, as well as the Russian State Archives, Sullivan pieced together the many tragedies of her life, which begin with her mother's suicide when she was 6. Though she was sheltered from her father's actions as a young child, many of her family members fell victim to Stalin's death orders. Her favorite aunt and uncle were executed when she was 11.

When she fell in love at 16, her father exiled the man to a work camp in the Arctic Circle. It was the first moment, according to Sullivan, that Svetlana realized "the fate of a man was held entirely in her father's hand."

At 17, as she uncovered more of the truth about her father, she began a string of tumultuous marriages. Two husbands and two children later, she wanted to marry Brajesh Singh, a politician from the Communist Party of India, but the Kremlin did not allow it — Stalin's daughter, they said, could not marry a foreigner. In defiance, the two lived together until his death in 1967.

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Shortly after Singh's death, struggling with the full weight of her father's brutal legacy, she made the decision to defect. The United States government arranged a new life for her, and she left her adult children behind — a wound that remained raw for the rest of her life.

In the U.S., dinner parties and book deals awaited her, but the fanfare did not last. In an odd moment of historical figures crossing paths, she was befriended by the widow of Frank Lloyd Wright, who convinced her to join the community at Taliesen, Wright's iconic estate in Spring Green.

There she married for the third time, to one of Wright's proteges. Svetlana gave birth to another daughter, but the marriage did not last.

This was a familiar pattern for all of her life: promising relationships quickly soured, romantic and otherwise. An overwhelming loneliness runs through her story. She could never escape being Stalin's daughter, even after defecting and changing her name. "I will always be the political prisoner of my father's name," she said.

Sullivan was drawn to Svetlana's story after reading Svetlana's obituary in 2011. She spent the next few years researching and interviewing those who had known her.

When Sullivan met her nephew on a trip to Russia, he said of Svetlana, "She had her father's will, she had her father's intelligence, she just didn't have his evil."

Sullivan joined MPR News' Tom Weber to discuss Svetlana's fascinating and troubled life, captured in "Stalin's Daughter."