Editor’s Note: Rosemary Sullivan is a Canadian author. She has published 16 books, most recently “Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary ad Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva (2015)” and “The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation (2022).” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was back in the spotlight last week after appearing at two lavish military events in Pyongyang. In one photograph, he is seen with his generals reviewing a midnight parade of ballistic missiles. Beside him stands his roughly 9-year-old daughter.
Ironically, the photo exactly mirrors one taken almost 100 years ago of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin standing on a similar balcony in Moscow reviewing a military parade with a young girl standing beside him.
Both children look enraptured to have the dictator’s attention. And I think: The predicament of the dictator’s daughter! What will Kim Ju Ae’s future be?
In my biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva, “Stalin’s Daughter,” I quoted Svetlana’s comment on her fate in her own memoir, “Only One Year.” She writes: “You are Stalin’s daughter. Actually, you are already dead. Your life is already finished. You can’t live your own life. You can’t live any life. You exist only in reference to a name.”
On a lengthy visit to Moscow in 2013, I was able to interview Stalin’s grandson Alexander Burdonsky, who told me that life in the Soviet army felt like a liberation after life at home. Like his aunt Svetlana, he took his mother’s name to escape his lineage.
Of Svetlana, he said: “I admired her as a woman and as a human being. I cannot say that of all my relatives. I loved her very much.”
He explained that his father Vasily Stalin was “a product of the freeloaders and leaches who surrounded him.” But Svetlana was her father’s daughter. “She had his organized intelligence, his unbelievable will, but she did not have his evil.”
During her childhood, Svetlana was the “beloved daughter.” Stalin called her his little hostess, little fly, little sparrow. She was the only one who could stop his rages against her mother by wrapping her arms around his Cossack boots.
After her mother’s suicide, her letters to her father are poignant. At age seven, she wrote: “Hello my dear Paposhka, How are you living and how is your health. … I wait for you in Sochi.” In a game he invented for her, Stalin advised his daughter that she should never ask for things; she should give orders. He was her Secretary No. 1.
All this changed when Svetlana was 16 and had her first chaste love affair with a famous filmmaker Aleksei Kapler, who was 39 (the same age as Stalin when he married Svetlana’s mother.) Stalin exiled Kapler to the Gulag for 10 years for having the audacity to romance his daughter. This was when Svetlana began to understand who her father was. Her status as beloved was conditional.
Stalin died in 1953. And Svetlana eventually defected to the US in 1967, but discovered that she still carried her father’s shadow; she was expected to cooperate with the CIA. When she was seduced back to Russia in 1984 to see her son who was supposedly ill, the government there offered her luxury dachas, apartments, cars. She refused them. She slipped back into the US and ended her life in virtual poverty.
She summed up her life in her memoir: “Wherever I go, whether to Australia or some island, I will always be the political prisoner of my father’s name.”
Burdonsky told me that the children of dictators have either to totally reject their heritage or to follow in their father’s footsteps. He said Svetlana was caught in between. She did not defend her father’s murderousness, but she thought he had been turned into a sinkhole for all the evil of his regime.
“He knew what he was doing,” she said of her father in her memoir. “He was neither insane nor misled. With cold calculation he cemented his power, afraid of losing it more than anything else in the world.” But a dictator needs accomplices. He was the head of a homicidal system she had the courage to reject.
This makes me think of Russian President Vladimir Putin today. We know virtually nothing about Kim Jung Un’s daughter, but we know a little about Putin’s two daughters, Mariya and Katerina. As children of the “first person,” people are careful not to speak about them; to do so would be dangerous.
Shrouded in secrecy, they attended university under assumed names (classmates had no idea who they were); they had guards to go to the movies and security details at home. Told that Putin loves his children and spoils them, a journalist once asked if the girls had Putin wrapped around their little fingers. Their mother Lyudmila replied: “Nobody can wrap Papa around their little finger.”
It appears that Putin’s daughters have chosen their father’s side. It is reported that Katerina is head of a new AI institute at Moscow State University and is said to be worth several billion. Mariya leads a state funded genetics program that has received billions from the Kremlin, according to US officials. Supposedly neither have political ambitions, which is reportedly the way Putin wants it.
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But it would seem that Kim Jong Un might indeed be grooming his daughter to carry on his dynasty. North Korea just released a new postage stamp carrying photos of the dictator and his “beloved daughter” standing together watching the test-firing of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile.
Will she, like Svetlana, inherit her father’s will but reject his murderous legacy? Or will she prove a well-trained apprentice and possibly become more dangerous than her father? Given the closed universe of North Korea and the seduction of wealth and power, the latter is more likely.