My Secret Summer With Stalin’s Daughter

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In 1967, I was in the middle of one of the world’s buzziest stories.

29 April 2018 |GRACE KENNAN WARNECKE | Politico

My father, the diplomat George F. Kennan, disliked the telephone. So when he called me in March 1967, I knew it was something important.

At the time, I was 36 years old and living in California—recently divorced, newly employed as a book critic for San Francisco magazine, looking after my three children and dating architect Jack Warnecke, who would later become my second husband.

But soon, I’d find myself in the middle of one of the buzziest stories of that year—now a mostly forgotten footnote of Cold War history. It started with that call: My father wanted to tell me that the State Department had asked him to go to Switzerland on a secret mission to establish the bona fides of a woman who had defected from the Soviet Union and claimed to be the daughter of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Although long retired at this point, my father had been chosen for this mission because he knew the Stalin family history and the right questions to ask. I could tell that he was pleased and liked being back in the fray.

The next day he flew off to Geneva on a special plane. When he returned, he told me about his trip. It was clear that Svetlana Stalin had unexpectedly touched him. Forty-one years old, she was Stalin’s only daughter.

My father, although not a churchgoer at the time, had been impressed both by her energy and her claim to newfound spirituality. Always gallant to those in need, he also succumbed to Svetlana’s helpless-and-alone-in-the world facade.

When they met in Switzerland, Svetlana expressed her desire to defect to the United States in the coming weeks.

My father offered to provide her with peace and quiet at the family farm in East Berlin, Pennsylvania, but Svetlana turned him down. She had already made plans to live with her translator, Priscilla Johnson, on Long Island, while Johnson translated Svetlana’s manuscript Twenty Letters to a Friend, a memoir of her life inside Stalin’s circle that later became a publishing sensation in the United States. I was certain that Svetlana would have expired of boredom at the farm after a week but kept those feelings to myself.

Svetlana’s defection to the United States was world news. I flew from California to be with my parents and sister Joanie at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York for her arrival on April 21, which was kept secret until the last minute. 

Our parents were whisked off to be part of the official welcoming committee standing on the tarmac, while Joanie and I were seated on the high balcony of a building, with a more distant view of the scene. I was astounded by the tight security and especially by the sharpshooters on top of neighboring buildings.

I tingled with excitement at the dramatic sight of this red-haired, young-looking woman coming down the airplane stairs, escorted by a man I later found out was her lawyer, Alan U. Schwartz. She went up to the waiting microphone. “Hello, I’m happy to be here,” she said with a big smile.

The press could not get enough of Svetlana. Her dramatic defection, newly found religion, abandonment of her two teenage children and her condemnation of the Soviet Union were all grist for the mill.

After an initial press conference at the Plaza hotel in Manhattan, she refused all interviews and was guarded on Long Island by a police car parked outside the Johnson home and by two private security men. Her inaccessibility made her even more like catnip to the media.

A few months later, Svetlana’s friendship with Priscilla Johnson came to an abrupt end, an event that foreshadowed the pattern of most of her relationships. My father renewed his invitation for Svetlana to stay at the farm for the summer.

However, since he and Mother would be making their annual summer trip to Norway, he asked Joanie, who was living in nearby Princeton, to be her hostess. Joanie, a natural caregiver, agreed with enthusiasm to this assignment.

She and her husband, Larry Griggs, with their two boys, Brandon and Barklie, lived with Svetlana for six weeks. Joanie and Larry took her on expeditions, and Larry barbecued on the warm summer nights. Joanie cooked and cleaned; she bought Svetlana clothes.

Svetlana thrived on all this love and attention, and she and Joanie became good friends. During the daytime, Svetlana worked on her voluminous mail and her new book.

But after a while, Joanie and Larry, who had received an assignment with the Peace Corps, had to go into training, so my father recruited me to take care of Svetlana for the remainder of her stay. Joanie called to request an additional favor. “Would you mind also taking care of Brandon and Barklie?” The boys were then aged six and eight. “They won’t be any trouble; they’re used to the farm and will play outside all day.”

At the time of these requests, I was knee-deep in children’s problems, volunteer work and the challenges of dating Jack Warnecke, all of which required me to stay put in San Francisco.

But as a former Russian history and literature major, the opportunity to get to know Stalin’s daughter and to have an inside glimpse into historic Kremlin politics was priceless.

My father also weighed in strongly in favor of my coming to Pennsylvania. “It will be no problem,” he said. “All you have to do is include Svetlana in your meals and drive in to East Berlin for her mail, which is being sent to an assumed name at the post office.”

So my children and I joined the family project. Despite much grumbling on Jack’s part, I knew him well enough to know that he would get over his feelings of abandonment, since I would be associated with a world-famous woman who was on the cover of countless magazines. I promised that as long as he kept her stay a secret, he could come visit.

Youthful and blue-eyed, Svetlana had a girlish, ingénue-like quality that endeared her to many, especially to men. Shortly after I met her, she confided, “The State Department proposed to provide me with protection, but I turned the offer down. Finally I am free!” She literally twirled with joy.

Her independence worried me. My father, from his secure perch on a Norwegian fjord, had warned that there was real danger that the KGB might kidnap her and spirit her away.

He reminded me of Leon Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico after he fled the Soviet Union. I was taking care of a possible Trotsky, and her visit had to be top secret. Not only did this mean I couldn’t tell my friends; it also dictated that we couldn’t have any help in the house.

The people of East Berlin must not know that they had a mysterious visitor in their midst. Joanie had faced the same challenges, but she was a better housekeeper than I and had only two children to worry about, while I had five.

What I had foreseen as an intellectual exchange and a chance to practice my Russian had turned into a different kind of experience. We had no washer or dryer, so the laundry for seven people had to be carted to the East Berlin Laundromat, a steam oven in the summer heat.

The nearest big store was ten miles away in Hanover, and my new collective required lots of food. Endless trips were made, sometimes with two or three children in tow. Father’s idea that we would all eat together proved unrealistic, as the children got up long before Svetlana.

I would feed them and, after doing their dishes, then feed Svetlana a second breakfast. The “Kremlin Princess,” as some tabloid had named her, had done little housework and was not starting to learn on my watch.

Then there were the meals. When Svetlana had gone to scatter the ashes of her Indian lover in the Ganges, she lived for a while with his family before she defected; there she adopted their vegetarian diet.

She wouldn’t eat the hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken that the children liked. Instead, I had to whip up risottos and other filling vegetable dishes for Svetlana; I desperately worked my way through Joy of Cooking to stay ahead of the game.

All this food preparation turned me, a lifetime dieter, into a compulsive nibbler, tasting a little of this and a lot of that. To add to the housekeeping nightmare, Svetlana’s translator from England, Max Hayward, a noted Russian scholar, soon moved in with us to work with Svetlana.

A recovering alcoholic, Max craved sweets. I had to add cake baking and pie making to my culinary repertoire: more hours in the sweltering kitchen. We had no air-conditioning. Svetlana’s lawyer also appeared for a few days.

Sometimes we were nine for every meal. Realizing that the children were not getting enough attention, I enlisted the teenage daughter of some Washington friends to come and help. She, too, was pledged to secrecy but was another mouth to feed.

A confirmed bachelor, Max Hayward was not interested in women, an aspect of his character that Svetlana did not grasp. In fact, she took quite a shine to him. One summer evening, the three of us were outside sipping wine before a late dinner. Svetlana, in a white dress I had washed and ironed, stood up and flirtatiously flitted around the garden.

She looked like an actress in a Chekhov play, catching fireflies in a glass jar. She became distinctly cold to me during Max’s visit, as she saw me as competition.

Despite her girlish quality, she had strong feelings about people. Either they were faultless and wonderful, or they were all bad. She saw no shades of gray. She claimed great love for her mother, who died from a gunshot wound when Svetlana was only six.

It was supposedly a suicide or, according to some rumors, could have been murder at the behest of Stalin. Svetlana dedicated her book Twenty Letters to a Friend to her mother, but the parent she mostly talked about—and not entirely pejoratively—was her father.

Max was reading galley proofs of Journey into the Whirlwind, an autobiography of Evgenia Ginzburg’s life and time in the gulag, and he kindly shared them with me. As soon as we started discussing the book, Svetlana quickly curtailed all discussion and wanted to switch the conversation to her book.

When she did mention the purges, or other former horrors of the Soviet period, they were all the fault of Lavrentii Beria, a fellow Georgian and head of the KGB from 1938 to the year Stalin died, 1953. According to Svetlana, Beria had made Stalin into the cruel dictator that he was and was responsible for the horrors that went on. Her father, she implied, was more of a hapless bystander.

In time, Max and Alan departed, and Svetlana and I were the only adults at the farm. We resumed our budding friendship. One day, in her usual impulsive manner, she grabbed my arm and said, “Grace, I have to have my hair cut. This heat makes me itch where my hair touches my neck. Can you get me an appointment right away?”

I was nervous about taking her out in public but realized that this was not a request but an imperative. So I found a hair salon in a neighboring town where I wasn’t known, and off we went.

As soon as I walked in, I saw a Ladies’ Home Journal with Svetlana’s familiar face staring up at me. I grabbed the magazine and pressed Svetlana’s image to my breast as I gave instructions on the haircut. Luckily, none of the ladies there recognized her. They couldn’t conceive that someone on the cover of a national magazine would end up in Abbotstown, Pennsylvania.

By the time Jack arrived for his promised visit, I already knew that his stay would be a disaster. He and Svetlana both demanded center stage, and there wasn’t room for two.

They eyed each other warily, like circling dogs. The first night after dinner, Jack took me aside. “Look, darling, this is ridiculous. You are doing all the work. For God’s sake, you’re acting like her maid.” I explained the importance of her anonymity, and he snorted, “If it’s dangerous to have normal help here, call the State Department and let them help you out.”

When he left abruptly after two days, ostensibly for an urgent business meeting, I was secretly relieved. I badly needed support, and Jack provided nothing but criticism. A few days later, Svetlana came downstairs, breathing heavily. “Grace, you must help me. I am having a heart attack,” she gasped.

“Heart attack—oh, my God,” I gulped. “I’ll take you to the hospital!”

“Oh, no, I don’t need that,” Svetlana replied. “I just need some brandy—you know, the kind with a pear in the middle of the bottle. I had it in Switzerland, and it is very good for the heart.”

I have learned since that Russians label as “heart attacks” all sorts of breathing problems that would not be categorized as such in America, but I did not know this then.

After checking with the local Pennsylvania State Liquor Store and learning that they did not stock a brandy with a pear in it, I got on the phone and called everyone I knew in Washington, pleading, “Please, please this is a crisis—I absolutely must have a bottle of pear brandy.” What my friends thought, I can’t imagine. Finally I persuaded a busy lawyer to drop all he was doing and drive out to the farm with a 40-dollar bottle of the lifesaving liquid.

Svetlana drank some of it every night. I don’t know what the brandy did for her heart, but she started to talk about her childhood, her children, her two husbands. She told me about how Stalin slapped her so hard that she fainted when he learned about her Jewish lover, Aleksei Kapler, who was shortly afterward sentenced to the gulag.

Just as her stories would get really interesting, my eyes would start to close and I would have to go to sleep. I was exhausted after flying around at top speed from 7:00 a.m., cooking, shopping, cleaning the 18-room house and taking care of its seven inhabitants.

My new notebook, in which I had planned to write every night, remained largely empty. Afterward, I always felt that in some way I had failed. I had squandered this great opportunity to get to know the daughter of one of the world’s most cruel dictators and had ended up, instead, mostly in the kitchen.

Svetlana in time turned against everyone in the Kennan family, but I was the first. We were only six years apart, and she was by nature competitive. I was reluctant to assume the role of a handmaiden.

I knew that I played second fiddle to her favorite, Joanie, and I was distracted by the demands of five children and phone calls from an angry Jack. Still, I was shocked when I first read the book she had been working on while at the farm, Only One Year. Eager to learn her version of our time together, I picked it up and raced through the pages, only to discover that I wasn’t there. According to Svetlana, only Joanie and Larry had been at the farm. But my photographs of that trying summer reveal otherwise.

Excerpt from the chapter “Marriage: A Second Act,” from Daughter of the Cold War, by Grace Kennan Warnecke (c) 2018. All rights are controlled by The University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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