India

How Stalin's daughter defected in India

  • 6 March 2012
  • From the section India
Stalin with his daughter Svetlana in a undated photo
Svetlana was Josef Stalin's only daughter

The only daughter of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin has died in the US, aged 85. In 1967 she travelled to India to scatter the ashes of her Indian Communist lover in the river Ganges. During that visit she defected to the US causing a political sensation. Indian journalist Inder Malhotra recalls the scandal.

Svetlana Alliluyeva, also known as Lana Peters, had a strong connection with India.

She was what is known as the common law wife of Brajesh Singh, one of the many Indian Communists who made Moscow their home in the 1930s and thereafter.

In early 1967 Mr Singh died. Svetlana saw to it that he was cremated according to Hindu rites and then decided to bring his ashes to India to consign them to the Ganges river, held sacred by Hindus.

This took time because Soviet leaders tried hard to dissuade her from making that journey.

Political upheavals

Enough evidence emerged later to show that Alexi Kosygin, then prime minister, had personally told her that she was taking a grave risk as orthodox Hindus sometimes burned the widow along with her husband.

But she was determined to press ahead despite the protestations.

An Indian visa was no problem because, apart from other reasons, Brajesh's nephew, Dinesh Singh, was a confidant of then prime minister Indira Gandhi and a member of her council of ministers.

Brajesh Singh
Svetlana had an unlikely romance with Indian Communist Brajesh Singh

After completing the rituals in her late husband's ancestral village in Uttar Pradesh, she arrived in Delhi at a time when India was in the throes of a general election, the first without Jawaharlal Nehru - India's first prime minister after independence.

The political upheavals consumed India: the Congress party was returned to power, though with a considerably reduced majority and there was a tense leadership struggle between Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai, who would end up being her deputy prime minister.

It was because of the excitement over these developments that neither the media nor any of the political leaders took any interest in Svetlana's presence in Delhi.

And then the sensational news broke one morning, with nuclear force, that Stalin's daughter had defected to the United States on Indian soil.

The Soviet Union was incensed and said so but there was nothing India could do. Tension between Moscow and Delhi persisted for some time despite previously close relations.

American escape

The story of the great escape could not have been more dramatic.

Svetlana was staying at the Soviet embassy where Ambassador Nikolai Benediktov was advising her to return home.

Telling him that she was going out to finalise her travel arrangements, she called a taxi and drove straight to the American embassy, only a short distance away.

The embassy had shut for the day. She told the duty officer who she was and what she wanted.

In panic, the duty officer rang up Ambassador Chester Bowles and told him that he must come to his office immediately to deal with a matter that could not be discussed on the phone.

Mr Bowles arrived, talked to Svetlana and gave her a lined pad to write down why she wanted to go the US, not to her own country.

She duly did, and when published in her book a year later, it turned out to be a cogent and readable document.

While Svetlana was writing her piece, Ambassador Bowles sent an "Eyes Only" telegram to the Secretary of State Dean Rusk explaining the situation and asking for instructions.

He took care to conclude his cable with the words: "If I do not hear from the State Department by midnight (Indian time), I would, on my responsibility, give her the visa."

According to the ambassador's subsequent account of the incident, as he had expected, there was not a word from Washington by the deadline.

So he arranged to send Svetlana to the airport in the company of a CIA officer to catch a flight to Rome.

Only after she had reached there safely did the sensational news leak out.

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