On March 9th, 1967, Svetlana Alliluyeva — Joseph Stalin’s only daughter — walked into the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and requested political asylum. No one knew she was even in India. (She had traveled there in 1966 in order to place the ashes of her boyfriend, an Indian Communist she had met in Moscow, in the Ganges; she then stayed at his family’s home.) After several countries refused to allow her to stay permanently, she finally was allowed to come to the U.S. Upon her arrival in New York in April, she held a press conference in which she denounced her father’s regime and the USSR. She later lectured and wrote at Princeton before moving to Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona at the behest of Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow. She died in 2011. Ambassador Chester Bowles served as Governor of Connecticut and Ambassador to India under Truman and again under Kennedy. The following excerpts are from his interview by the LBJ Library (beginning in 1969), which is included in the ADST oral history collection.
Anywhere but Moscow
In the first place, we didn’t know she was in India. This idea of this great intelligence network of ours, this idea that we knew what was going on, was nonsense; we didn’t even know she was there. The only Americans who had any contact with her were two young Peace Corps volunteers who lived in the same village with her. They mentioned this “very attractive European lady” as they called her.
They had no idea who she was. The first thing I knew was — when I was in bed with a brief case of flu — my assistant called and said he and two or three of my associates wanted to come to see me about something. They came at seven o’clock p.m. and said that a person describing herself as Stalin’s daughter had just arrived at the embassy, with a Russian passport in good order, and “What should we do about it?” The first thing I said was, “I don’t think Stalin has a daughter.” And one who was a specialist on the USSR said, “Oh, yes he has.”
I then said, “Let’s take some time to think this through.” I suggested they put her in my office with a yellow pad on the desk and have her write down for us who she is, and what she wants to do, which would give us time to consider the alternatives. In the next hours she out together a very eloquent sixteen-to eighteen page statement in excellent English, a dramatic story of her life and who her father was and her mother, and why she wanted to leave Russia and come to America.
We then tried to figure out what to do. I put down three possibilities on a yellow pad: One, send her home; we’re trying to get along better with Russia: this is a delicate period; this will upset the Russians; tell her just to go away. I didn’t see how we could do that.
Two, give her asylum officially, which will mean she stays in the American embassy, which will be surrounded by police and reporters and television cameras with a great public uproar, while the case is taken to the Indian courts. The Indian courts are as basically independent as our courts. Regardless of what the Indian government wanted them to do, they would, I believe, insure her right to leave the country and go where she wished. But this would upset the Russians even more against us, because it would be so well publicized and we, or rather she, would win the case.
Third, get her out of the country as fast and quietly as possible and then figure out what to do later. I asked, “When does the next plane leave India?” My aides said, “For where?” And I said, “Tehran, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Paris, London, anywhere but Moscow.” And they said, “Well, there’s a Qantas plane at one a.m.” It was by then about nine p.m.
I said, “Get a couple of tickets on it,” so they did. I assigned a young officer, a Russian-speaking officer, to her, although she really didn’t need an interpreter because she spoke such good English. I then sent a cable to the State Department and the White House.
“Non-career Ambassadors can do unorthodox things”
Q: This was their first knowledge?
Yes. At about nine o’clock p.m. in India, eleven in the morning Washington time. I said, “I have a person here who states she’s Stalin’s daughter, and we believe she’s genuine; unless you instruct me to the contrary, I’m putting her on the one a.m. plane for Rome where we can stop and think the thing through. I’m not giving her any commitment that she can come to the States. I’m only enabling her to leave India, and we will see her to some part of the world — the U.S. or somewhere else — where she can settle in peace. If you disagree with this, let me know before midnight.”
No comment ever came from Washington. This is one advantage that non-career Ambassadors have; they can go ahead and do unorthodox things without anybody objecting, where a Foreign Service officer might not dare do it.
We talked to her and said, “Point number one — are you really sure that you want to leave home? You’ve got a daughter and a son there, and this is a big step to take. Have you really thought it through? You could go back to the Russian embassy right now (she was staying there in their dormitory) and simply go to sleep and forget it, and get up Wednesday morning and on to Moscow, as your schedule calls for.”
She immediately said, “If this is your decision, I shall go to the press tonight; and announce that (a) democratic India will not take me (they had turned her down prior to her coming) and (b), now democratic America refuses to take me.”
Q: That was pretty good blackmail.
Well, she didn’t need to do it; I was just trying it on for size to be sure she had thought it through. But she was very quick on this. In reply to the second possibility — asylum in our embassy — the publicity would have been great, the Russians would have blamed the Indians, and the Indians would have blamed us, and we’d have all been at swords’ points; I think the Russians would have been much more badly hurt.
So we gave her 1500 dollars so she’d have money, which by the way, she returned to me within three weeks.
She was eager. I told her, “I can’t imagine that you’re going to America; we can only guarantee that we will see you out of India to some place where you can live. It may be America, and if not, Denmark, Australia or Sweden or some other place where you will be welcome, we’ll see you to a safe place and see you established there.”…
Q: You never had any real problem in India then once you got her on the plane?
BOWLES: Yes, I did. The Indian government. Well, in the first place, the Russian government hit the Indian government very hard and said if we’d —
Q: They undoubtedly suspected collusion?
BOWLES: Oh, yes — because in their country you couldn’t possibly get out of the airport without the government knowing it. And they assumed that the Indian government must have been in cahoots with us or she never could have gotten through the airport. Actually, she sat in the airport for two hours; the plane was late starting. But the Soviets were completely convinced the Indians were in this with us. It was, of course, said to be a CIA gesture and effort.
The Indians wrote me a very sharp aide-memoire [diplomatic memorandum], using some pretty strong language, under pressure from the Russians.
And I said, “Please don’t hand me this because if you do, I will have to write a sharp reply saying that democratic India wouldn’t take her and wouldn’t give her freedom and opportunity and so we had no choice but to help her ourselves. I can write just as sharp an aide-memoir as you can, and I promise you I’ll do it. Why don’t you just withdraw this official statement which will help no one?” So after bickering about it for a day, they withdrew it….
Yes, she wanted to come to America. So when she got to Rome, the government blew up immediately, and said they didn’t want to have war with Russia over Svetlana Alliluyeva; and they wouldn’t let her stay. We had an awful time getting a delay for even three or four days. We tried to get her into Switzerland, but the Swiss at first refused for the same reason.
Finally, at the very last minute we decided she had to go on to Washington at once. There was no alternative. The Washington plane had actually been called for boarding when the word came through that the Swiss would take her temporarily. So my young man took her to France, chartered a plane and took her to Geneva and she stayed there three months.
And I suggested to [former Ambassador to the USSR] George Kennan by mail that he go over there and see her and talk with her. I knew she had this book she had written — she had showed it to us. And I said, “She must not be allowed to fall into bad hands among people who will take advantage of her; she’s a charming person.”
I don’t think he’d ever actually met her. And Kennan did this and introduced her to the peace and quiet of Princeton, New Jersey. I ate lunch with her there a week ago yesterday. She came up here about three weeks ago; I see her about three or four times a year. She’s a good friend of ours now.