Twenty Letters to a Friend
By Svetlana Alliluyeva
By Richard E. Noble
"The last hours were nothing but a slow strangulation. The death agony was horrible. He literally choked to death as we watched. At what seemed like the very last moment he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry and full of fear of death and the unfamiliar faces of the doctors bent over him. The glance swept over everyone in a second. Then something incomprehensible and awesome happened that to this day I can't forget and don't understand. He suddenly lifted his left hand as though he was pointing to something above and bringing down a curse on us all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace, and no one could say to whom or at what it might be directed. The next moment after a final effort, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh."
This exact scene was played out in the movie with Robert De Nero portraying Stalin. And I must say he captured the drama and intensity just as it was written.
In my humble opinion, this is a Great Russian Tragic Novel provided for us by the soft spoken daughter of a giant of infamy.
Her father was one of the most powerful and nefarious men in all history. Her mother:
"It was not the thing at that time for a woman, especially a woman Party member, to spend much time with her children ... I cannot recall her kissing or caressing me ever ... My nurse saw that it was so, that my mother was really tired of being alive. But it never occurred to her or to anybody else that she was capable of taking her own life within a matter of days."
Svetlana was clearly a sensitive but lonely child. She was lost in this world but yet it was her world. She loved her mother dearly. Her mother killed herself at age 31. She could no longer follow blindly behind the man she had chosen to love. As it seems with Papa Joe, it was his way or a bullet to the brain - administered by yourself or an "assistant."
Her brother tried to shoot himself but failed - which made Papa Joe laugh - a boy too inept to even complete a successful suicide. Papa Joe's little boy eventually died of alcoholism.
Her mother's sister and her husband were sent to prison. Her daddy had no mercy even for those in his own family. Papa Joe was austere with himself and his own.
"Once he had cast out of his heart someone he had known a long time, once he had mentally relegated that someone to the ranks of his enemies, it was impossible to talk to him about that person any more."
Before killing herself, her mother wrote a letter of "resignation" to big Joe, the author explains. Joe went to take one last look at his bride in her coffin. He stared, then pushed the coffin away from him. He didn't attend her funeral - she had become the enemy, even dead.
This is quite an outstanding historical portrait. The author writes beautifully - clearly she has the hand and the heart of a poet.
The book is one harsh, unbelievable tale after another told with sensitivity, clarity and compassion. The author brings us into the book as friends. She wrote these letters to her friends and then left it as such for us all when the book was picked up by the world. This was extremely appealing.
Many historical Russian characters are talked about - the hated Mr. Beria among the foremost. She closes her book courageously, in the spirit of the eternal optimist:
"This is how I would like to end my letters to you my dear friend ... Let the judging be done by those who come later ... let it be left to new people to whom these years in Russia will be as remote and inexplicable, as terrible and strange, as the reign of Ivan the Terrible. But I do not think they'll call our era a `progressive one' or that they will say it was all for the 'good of Russia'. Hardly ...
"But I hope they won't forget that what is Good never dies - That it lived on in the hearts of men even in the darkest times and was hidden where no one thought to look for it, that it never died out or disappeared completely.
"Everything on our tormented earth that is alive and breathes, that blossoms and bears fruit, lives only by virtue of and in the name of Truth and Good."
Richard Noble - The Hobo Philosopher - Author of:
"A Summer with Charlie" Salisbury Beach, Lawrence YMCA