The Red Daughter: A Novel

Written by John Burnham Schwartz
Review by Janice Ottersberg

In 1967, Svetlana Alliluyeva defected from the Soviet Union to the United States.  This created a diplomatic storm because of who she was: the daughter of Joseph Stalin.  John Burnham Schwartz fictionalizes her fascinating life after her escape, with glimpses of her life prior to this event.

Leading up to her defection, Svetlana’s Indian lover died.  The Party would never allow them to marry, but they gave her permission to travel to India to spread his ashes on the Ganges River.  Svetlana leaves behind her two children, 16-year-old Katya and 21-year-old Josef, intending to return to Moscow.  While in India she makes a sudden decision to present herself to the American embassy.  She is secreted to Switzerland and eventually escorted to the United States.  In her possession was her unpublished memoir.  Peter Horvath is the fictional escort who plays an important role throughout the book as her friend, confidant, and lawyer.  Svetlana is a naïve, troubled woman who makes one bad decision after another, then tries to undo a poor decision with another.  Her defection instantly cut off all contact with her children, and she suffered with emptiness and regret forever.

Schwartz’s writing is sophisticated and polished.  He structures the novel as Svetlana’s fictional diary interspersed with Peter Horvath’s comments as editor.  We are shown a tortured Svetlana who grew up under one of the world’s most ruthless dictators watching many of her family and friends disappear, imprisoned or executed.  She then floundered in a free, capitalist world.  I was deeply moved by Svetlana’s story and immediately sought out the memoir that she secreted out of the U.S.S.R.  Twenty Letters to a Friend was published in the U.S. in 1967 and is still in print.  Don’t miss The Red Daughter; it will inspire you to read the non-fiction accounts of her life, which is what the best historical fiction does.