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"From that angle even Liz Taylor would look ugly": Svetlana Alliuyevna, née Stalin, in 1984 (Jane Bown)

No, I cannot be persuaded to talk about the Stalin subject. Perhaps you have noticed that during my 16 years abroad I never did so...The only time I gave in was with Malcolm Muggeridge on his BBC programme in 1981; I regret about that ever since and am not on talking terms with Mugg...I am sorry to be so blunt and bad-mannered but I react in the same way whenever I receive invitations like yours, based on total ignorance and the wrong assumptions." 

This was how Svetlana née Stalin first responded, in December 1983, to a letter asking whether she would agree to do an interview with me for the Observer. Svetlana, who died in November 2011 aged 85, had defected from the Soviet Union in 1967, denouncing her father and all his works. After spending 16 years in the United States, where she had been briefly married to an American, she was now living in Cambridge (England), with her young daughter from that marriage.

When I tried again, assuring her that we would not talk about Stalin, but rather about her life in the West and how it compared to her former existence in the Soviet Union, she replied with a much longer letter explaining that what preoccupied her at present was the danger of a nuclear war. She did not want to talk about the past but about the future — about how to prevent the wrong politicians on both sides, "who are still blinded by the obsolete propaganda of 40 years ago", from sliding into war. She passionately hoped that "energetic, moderate-minded politicians" would "mediate between two stubborn, pig-headed superpowers". She would agree to an interview if this could be our theme. "The worst we could produce would be a long story about Svetlana and how she lived and lives in Freedom — that sort of thing."

I agreed to this (hoping, when the time came, to slip in a few personal touches) and I also promised that I would show her the text before publication. "Tape recording is essential; I expect to be quoted verbatim," she rightly insisted. A week or so later, another letter arrived saying that she had changed her mind — "I know it might seem foolish" — but she felt that her views would be misunderstood. "Neither Tory, nor Laborist; both liberal and conservative at the same time; in total disagreement with too many established patterns of today; certainly NOT [her letters were full of capitals and underlinings] pro-feminist, nor in support of male chauvinists; for PEACE, but not in favour of CND; and so on without end...everyone will lash out on the present time we (my daughter and I) are still very shaky and uncertain in our stay in Great Britain; and frankly, I do not know your society at all. And I do not want to create a false impression that I really WANT publicity. I don't."

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