Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Svetlana Alliluyeva (Stalina)
By John Janaro (’85)
Her father was a totalitarian dictator. Her mother died by suicide before her seventh birthday. As a child, she wondered why relatives and family friends suddenly became “enemies of the people” and “disappeared.” In adulthood she clashed with her father, experienced his cruelty firsthand, and recognized his violent, oppressive hold on political power. Growing up left her with enduring traumatic wounds.
It was hard being “Stalin’s daughter.”
Though Svetlana Alliluyeva renounced her infamous father’s last name, she never entirely escaped being defined by him. But she did find freedom where it mattered most. She overcame immense obstacles to become a person so much unlike her father in character and depth, rejecting communism, courageously defecting the United States in 1967, and writing several vivid, poignant, and honest memoirs of her unique experiences. Above all, however, Svetlana’s spiritual journey was remarkable in its witness to the work of God’s grace. This is not the story of the more sensational events of her life that made international headlines. But it is more profound and more surprising.
During Svetlana’s childhood, the Soviet Union was systematically suppressing its entire Christian heritage, imposing atheistic materialism, destroying churches, and imprisoning clergy. Still, grandmothers quietly kept their faith alive. Svetlana’s maternal grandmother spoke openly about God, and lived with an awareness of God and spirituality that left a lasting impression on her. Years later, when Svetlana’s son fell gravely ill, she prayed for the first time and was drawn by God to seek out a (semi-clandestine) Russian Orthodox Church. A courageous priest, Father Nicolas Goloubtzov, secretly baptized her in 1962, but she had little opportunity for ongoing catechesis and guidance. Though she would never forget “the joy of knowing Christ,” her religious search struggled to find further definition. Upon coming to America, she was confused by the conflicting claims of many Christian denominations.
What was crucially important, however, was that she met Catholic people for the first time, and they treated her with respect, love, and hospitality. Father Giovanni Garbolino, a Catholic priest who had lived in Russia, befriended Svetlana and sustained a correspondence with her. He introduced her to Our Lady of Fatima (who is so important for Russia). He also helped her in bearing her difficulties, listened to and answered her questions, and prayed for her. Svetlana traveled around America, and she was hurt by people who tried to take advantage of her. But she was also befriended by a Catholic couple, Michael and Rose Ginciracusa, with whom she lived for two years in California. She was introduced to the works of modern Catholic writers, and was especially moved by reading another Russian convert, Raïssa Maritain.
When Svetlana moved to Cambridge, England, in 1982, she made a retreat at a Catholic convent. There she saw an approach to life, what she called “the blessing of everyday existence,” and she knew that it corresponded to what she was seeking. The significance—in Christ—of all things, little things, ordinary actions, silence and suffering, renewed and sustained by frequent reception of His grace and mercy in the sacrament—this was the opposite of the all-controlling slavery that her earthly father, Josef Stalin, and his Communist dictatorship tried to impose on her and her native land. On December 13th, 1982, Svetlana—Stalin’s daughter—was received into the Catholic Church. There would be further drama in her worldly life and an ongoing learning process in her faith, but she remained a practicing Catholic until her death in 2011.