My Secret Summer With Stalin’s DaughterRoundup
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. ...
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