Josef Stalin’s only daughter, the former Svetlana Alliluyeva, who died of colon cancer in the United States last week, created international headlines when she defected from the Soviet Union in 1967 and inflicted much embarrassment upon the Russian Communist Party.
However, what some may not know is that she actually first defected in India.
While in Russia, Svetlana had fallen in love with Brajesh Singh, an Indian Communist in Moscow. She eventually became his common-law wife in 1964 (although the two never officially married).
Prior to that Svetlana had bad luck with husbands. Against her father’s wishes, at the age of 18 she married a Jewish man named Grigory Morozov, a fellow student at Moscow University. They had a child, but the marriage was dissolved.
Svetlana later married Yuri Zhdanov, the son of Andrei, a close friend and ally of Stalin. (Reportedly this marriage was arranged by Stalin himself). The couple divorced in 1952.
In 1967, shortly after Singh died, she has his body cremated according to Hindu tradition and then travelled to India to spread Singh’s ashes in the sacred Ganges River. Reportedly, Soviet officials, including Prime Minister Alexi Kosygin, pressured her against going to India.
According to BBC, Svetlana obtained a travel visa to journey to India because Singh’s nephew Dinesh Singh was close to Indian leader Indira Gandhi, as well as being a government minister himself.
After scattering her husband’s ashes and attending funeral rituals in Uttar Pradesh, Svetlana went to the capital Delhi which was in the midst of a raucous political election and much upheaval.
It was there that she announced she was defecting to the United States.
The U.S. Ambassador to India at the time Chester Bowles helped her fly to Rome, Italy, from where she journeyed to Geneva, Switzerland. Later that year she was able to move to the United States, where she would spend the majority of her remaining life.
It is unclear exactly what role the Indian government played in Svetlana’s defection. Clearly, Delhi did not want to antagonize Moscow, so they likely (and quietly) refused to allow Svetlana to stay in India. On the other hand, they didn’t forcibly return her to Russia either.
It is also unclear if Svetlana initially approached Bowles seeking asylum in the U.S., or if Bowles himself offered her asylum to score a huge ‘Cold War’ point against the Soviet Union.
Svetlana, who later changed her name to ‘Lana Peters,’ apparently settled into a quiet, tranquil life in Wisconsin, marrying an American man. It is not known if she ever returned to India or not after her dramatic defection, but obviously India played a major role in her extraordinary life.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.