There are several things which can make reading a biography a disappointing experience. The first is that despite the historic events surrounding the central character, he or she turns out to be rather dull. The second, is the opposite, where an author has profiled someone who might have been an unusual character but one who had the fortune to live through rather mundane times. The third hole into which many a biography has tripped, is simply of poor simplistic writing that merely lists events and never gets under the skin of the characters. Happily, Rosemary Sullivan's "Stalin's Daughter" is gloriously free from any of these three flaws. As such it makes terrific reading.
Svetlana Alliluyeva grew up in the Kremlin under the shadow of her all-powerful and toxically paranoid father, Joseph Stalin. Adored, manipulated, controlled, sometimes ignored and totally dominated by Stalin, Svetlana grew up in the strange world of the Purges, Show-trials, disappearances and insecurity of Stalin's Court. Enduring the suicide of her mother, and the personal crises of his henchmen as they rose and fell, the exile and executions from which her own household was not spared; as well as the national crises of WWII, each left their imprint on her young mind. Sullivan's book though estimates that it was the shadow of Stalin himself hanging over her which created the darkness which Svetlana never really outran. Despite chapter after chapter chronicling her tumultuous life, every episode seems to represent her trying some new scheme to reinvent herself; but still being seen by the world as 'Stalin's Daughter'. It is of course telling that the title of the biography is not "The extraordinary life of Svetlana Allilueyeva" (or even Lana Peters as she was subsequently known), but Stalin's Daughter.
Childhood, bereavement, marriages, motherhood, defection to the West, re-defection to the Soviet bloc, escape to the West, India, conversion to Russian Orthodox Christianity, friendships, writing, and her bizarre life at the Taliesin architects commune, under the dictatorship of Frank Lloyd-Wright's widow, Olgivanna; are all episodes in an extraordinary life.
So here is a biography which is an exceptionally well-crafted examination, of a character who turns out to be immeasurably complex and interesting; but who wasn't on the run just from some personal demons; but on a a quest to free herself from one of the central forces of the twentieth century. Just as the spectre of Stalin haunted her, defined her - and especially defined how virtually everyone ever related to her; so the great battle between Capitalism and Marxism framed her experience. It is almost as though the Cold War itself flowed through her veins, just as the DNA of Joseph Stalin did. Sullivan's book is not short, but it is compelling. She seems to have gained unusual access to Soviet era friends, family and archives as well as people who knew her during her latter years in the West; making this an authoritative and informative read, not just another sensationalist write-up, the likes of which Svetlana was repeatedly exposed to during her tempestuous life.
If you are looking for a biography which is well written, highly readable, and paints a picture of a wildly unique character, living in the centre of hugely significant history, then Sullivan has provided the book you are looking for.