A play in words
23 January 2012Svetlana Alliluyeva, better known as the only daughter of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, grabbed world headlines when she fetched up at the American embassy in New Delhi one March day in 1967 seeking asylum. Warren Unna recounts the drama of those Cold War days when Svetlana, who died last November, rode a series of coincidences to flee the Soviet Union.
Svetlana, the cruel Soviet tyrant Stalin’s surprisingly beloved daughter, died recently. But she should have been the lead in a Broadway play which has yet to be written.
Opening scene is an unusual love affair: Svetlana’s infatuation with a minor Indian princeling who was indulging his communist sympathies in Moscow. He dies and Svetlana is determined to carry his ashes back to his family burial ground in central India. Her pleas to Stalin’s heirs, now running the country, are rebuffed. Finally, an overzealous Indian Ambassador persuades his Soviet friends to relent. He also manages to help Svetlana bundle off with the manuscript of her memoirs.
Interlude: Svetlana decides to settle down in her late husband’s home in central India and join his family. Back in Moscow, the Kremlin has a fit and angrily keeps demanding her return home. Finally, sick with the KGB personnel harassing her, Svetlana relents.
Now for drama. Svetlana, enroute to Palam, becomes a temporary guest of the Soviet Ambassador to India in the diplomatic enclave. He is a very high-ranking Soviet official who earlier was minister of agriculture. At the same time (as I recall), the Ambassador is playing host to the visiting Soviet armed forces chief. At a grand lunch honouring both guests, the Soviet Ambassador notices Svetlana not eating his elegant meat course. He demands an explanation. Svetlana replies that she has adopted the vegetarian diet of her Indian family. The Soviet Ambassador loudly accuses her of disgracing her father’s memory. And then (the facts are a bit wobbly), he throws her passport at her to hasten her departure. But, more importantly, she now has the essential passport in her hand.
Next scene: Svetlana retreats to her room; phones for a taxi; waits on the sidewalk outside the Embassy compound; and motors to the US Embassy, down the block in the diplomatic enclave. It is around 7 p.m. The Soviet ambassador is busy entertaining his more important guest. The US Embassy is closed for the evening. But a savvy Marine guard, hearing the desire of a Soviet woman with a Soviet passport in her hand to seek political asylum, is prudent enough to lock her in an adjacent room and report to superiors. US Ambassador Chester Bowles, home with the flu, never had heard of a Stalin daughter. (He later told me a US Peace Corps volunteer did once report a Soviet woman living in the princeling’s Larkhana area). But, Bowles decides ~ if true ~ there will be a diplomatic free-for-all involving India, the Soviet Union and, of course, the USA. He orders her immediate departure. Quick response. The weekly Australian Quantas flight, whose itinerary involves few stops enroute to America, is due that night. US Embassy officials hurriedly bundle her off to Palam airport. (Indian officials later told me they knew this couldn’t have been a CIA caper ~ because the Embassy officials lacked ready cash and had to draw on their surplus Indian rupee account to buy the air ticket for Svetlana and a US escort).
Indian diplomats also told me the Soviets later were in an uproar ~ not at the USA, but at them for allowing Svetlana to get away. At the time, I was The Washington Post (correspondent in South Asia based in New Delhi (this was the mid-sixties) and sought confirmation from my Friends Colony neighbour, the local CIA chief. I knew, he knew, I knew of his real identity ~ but we never had articulated it. Our relations always had been most formal. I interviewed him in his garden, feeling that would be discreetly free of eavesdropping and more confiding. Nonetheless, he never gave me the time of day, preferring to look grim and admire his flowers (and, years later, that frustratingly discreet man became head of CIA dirty tricks).
But, back to the Broadway drama which has yet to be written. The coincidences are a wonder: Svetlana manages to flee Moscow with her memoirs; pressured, and then relenting, to return home; having passport in hand for an official get-away while the Soviet Ambassador is preoccupied with hosting his more important house guest from the Soviet military; the reactive precautions of both Marine guard and US Ambassador Bowles; the surplus Indian rupee account to allow a quick getaway on this, once-weekly arriving Quantas flight. Surely Broadway must have some producer intrigued with portraying such a drama.
The writer, a distinguished journalist, was for many years The Statesman’s Washington correspondent