02/22/2016 02:34 EST | Updated 02/22/2017 05:12 EST

Writing 'Stalin's Daughter' Was An Adventure Of A Lifetime


I visited the Soviet Union for the first time in 1979. In those years, my head was full of Russians, from Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, to Akhmatova and Mandelstam. While spending several months in London, I saw a billboard advertising Aeroflot trips to the Soviet Union and, on a whim, I flew alone to the USSR.

The atmosphere behind the Iron Curtain was dark and oppressive. I soon discovered it was dangerous to meet Russians -- dangerous for them. Everyone was watched. Through a friend at the BBC, I'd arranged to meet Kevin Rouain, the BBC correspondent in Moscow.

After a disconcerting taxi ride through the industrial-sized blocks of high-rise apartments lining Moscow's suburbs, we visited several dissidents, which eventually led to my organizing the international congress: The Writer and Human Rights in Aid of Amnesty International in Toronto in 1982.

Svetlana was the subject in the foreground of my book, but there was always that murderous backdrop. The challenge was to keep the two worlds in sync.

When HarperCollins, U.S., accepted my proposal to write a biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva, it was easy to recall that dramatic trip. I asked myself: what would it have been like to be Svetlana Alliluyeva, the princess in the Kremlin? No one could encounter her without knowing she was the daughter of the Vozhd (leader), which meant danger, risk.

In the course of researching Svetlana's life, I interviewed over 40 people. The geography I covered was as vast as the history. I traveled to Russia, Georgia, England and across the U.S., scouring archives and hunting down interview subjects.

Not unexpectedly, the most resonant part of my journey was my trip to Moscow, in the course of which I visited the Kremlin; Svetlana's Model School 25; Moscow University where she studied; the Gorky Institute where she worked; the House on the Embankment, where she lived with her two children (it was formerly nicknamed the House of Detention because so many of its elite were sent to camps or executed in the 1930s and 1940s); the Government archives where I read her poignant adolescent letters to her Papa; the Memorial Archives dedicated to victims of the Gulag, her friends among them.

I was time travelling into the past, examining a life that spanned the history of the 20th century. It was all there: the Gulag; Stalin's Terror of the late 1930s; World War II and the tragic cost to Russia; Stalin's anti-Semitic plots of the 1940s; the Cold War and its ruthless intrigues on both sides.

Svetlana was the subject in the foreground of my book, but there was always that murderous backdrop. The challenge was to keep the two worlds in sync.

In Moscow it is the members of Stalin's family who remain most dramatically present in my mind. What impact did my vaulting them into their painful pasts have on them? I met Svetlana's cousin, Leonid, the son of her mother Nadya's sister, Anna.

Stalin condemned Anna to seven years of solitary confinement in Lubyanka prison in 1947; her cousin Alexander, whose father, Pavel Alliluyev, shocked by the repressions, died of a heart attack in 1937 and whose mother Eugenia was also arrested in 1947; Sasha Burdonsky, the son of Svetlana's alcoholic brother, Vasili. Burdonsky hated both his grandfather and his father who had abandoned his mother and placed him in the hands of a deeply abusive stepmother.

Burdonsky told me: "I admired Svetlana as a woman and as a human being... She had her father's intelligence, his will, but not his evil." These were conversations I will never forget.

Improbably, the past assaulted me in Moscow in an unexpected way. The fourth night in the apartment I'd rented for myself and my two researchers, we received a call at midnight from the landlord. The police intended to bring the suspect involved in the murder that had occurred in our apartment three months previously in order to videotape her confession.

If we weren't home, they would kick the door in. "Murder!" I said. "Well, yes," he explained. An American businessman from Miami had picked up a woman in the trendy Arbat district. When they'd returned to the apartment, she'd spiked his drink. He was found dead the next morning.

At 2:30 a.m., the police pulled into the parking lot. The lead detective extended his hand, apologizing for the lateness of the hour. The cops behind him were laughing. One said: "In the old days we didn't need to apologize." When I recounted our brush with the police to Russians I met, they didn't seem surprised. It was just a Moscow thing.

Writing biography, there is always a subtext -- the many adventures involved in the search. In writing about Elizabeth Smart, I will always recall my amusing breakfast with Peter Ustinov who, as Elizabeth's sister Jane told me, had met "Betty" Smart at acting school in London.

When I told Ustinov that the Betty Smart he'd known wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (he'd never connected the two) he remarked: "She must have been a Charlotte Corday in the secret service of love."

In writing Gwendolyn MacEwen's biography, I was fascinated by the novel she'd written about the pharaoh Akhenaten.

I got to spend three weeks in Egypt on a private tour with Donald Redford, the world specialist on Akhenaten, along with six of his patrons. The day I booked my flight, the Egyptian terrorist group, Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, declared war on tourists.

I went by myself to visit the pyramids of Giza, the others having seen them too many times. Frightened tourists stayed away. I must be one of the few people since the 19th century to have visited Cheops' tomb alone; and to race across the desert on a camel, a single guide at my side.

If writing biography brings adventures, a biographer must also be a kind of metaphysical detective, asking -- what was this life, how was it lived? And it must be a life lived with enough intensity that it sustains one's obsession. Will I write anther biography? I will have to catch my breath.

You can never predict the life of a book. I could not be more thrilled with the reception Stalin's Daughter has received. To be shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize is a great honour. The prize is noted for the rigour of its juries, which is evident in this year's selection of the remarkable books by my four fellow finalists. I am deeply grateful.

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