Svetlana Alliluyeva (Lana Peters), Stalin’s Daughter – a brief biography

22 November 2011 saw the death of Lana Peters in Wisconsin. To those who came into contact with her, she was simply a lonesome frail 85-year-old with a rather strange accent.  But she was, in fact, once known by the name of Svetlana Stalin and she was the daughter of Joseph Stalin.

Peters’ arrival in the US in 1967 gave the West a huge propaganda coup – the defection of Stalin’s own daughter was the ultimate proof of how terrible life was behind the Iron Curtain. She had even been prepared to leave behind her two adult children, aged 22 and 17, in the Soviet Union.

‘I have come here to seek self-expression’

In her first US press conference, in 1967, she acknowledged the father’s monstrous rule but insisted that the blame for the murder of millions of Soviet citizens could not be laid purely on one man – it was the regime and its ideology. ‘I have come here to seek the self-expression that has been denied me for so long in Russia,’ she said. Shortly afterwards, she wrote Twenty Letters To A Friend, which went on to become a bestseller. A follow-up autobiography, Only One Year, sold equally well. With time she became more critical of her past – she publicly burnt her Soviet passport and accused her father of being ‘a moral and spiritual monster’.

In 1970, she married Wes Peters. Peters’ first wife had died in a car crash. She was also called Svetlana and her mother, the widow of the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, saw in Alliluyeva a divine substitution for her deceased daughter. Under her urging, her new Svetlana and Peters married. They had one child, Olga, and although fond of each other, Svetlana Peters felt too suffocated by her husband’s former mother-in-law’s domineering presence and the marriage ended within three years.

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Claretta Petacci – a brief biography

Claretta Petacci, born 28 February 1912, was perhaps the biggest love in Benito Mussolini’s life, a man 28 years her senior. Brought up in a wealthy family, Clara’s father was the pope’s personal physician.

Having been devoted to the Duce since childhood, she first met him, quite by accident, in 1932, when he drove pass 20-year-old Petacci in his car. Over the coming weeks, she pursued him relentlessly until, eventually, she secured an audience with him. Mussolini, never one to resist a woman’s advances, soon took her to bed.

Benito and Rachele MussoliniAlthough Mussolini was married and had five children, he and Petacci were to remain lovers until their deaths in 1945. (Pictured: Mussolini with his wife, Rachele, and their first three children, c1923).

Clara’s diaries

Petacci kept a detailed diary of their time together which, in 1949, was seized by the Italian authorities. The diary, under Italian law, was kept locked away for seventy years and only published in 2009. The detailed entries provide intimate details of her relationship with Mussolini, and a record of his inner thoughts. Mussolini, often bored, would ring her several times a day. As a lover, he is portrayed as a boastful and needy man, often fishing for compliments, and in need of constant reassurance about his looks, his virility and the love of both Clara and the Italian people.

It was Petacci who recorded how Mussolini boasted of having, in his younger days, up to fourteen lovers at a time, and able to satisfy four women a night. This, from the man who, in his speeches, liked to emphasise the importance of family. Sex with Rachele, his wife, was dull and, worse still, she failed to appreciate just how great a man he was. Clara, on the other hand, never failed to stroke his ego – comparing him favourably to Napoleon and constantly reminding him of his genius. Continue reading

Fanny Kaplan – the woman who tried to kill Lenin

Late in the evening of the 30 August 1918, Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, emerged from a meeting at the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow when he was approached by an unknown woman who called out his name. Detained momentarily by a colleague, who was remonstrating about bread shortages, Lenin was about to get into his car, his foot on the running board, when the woman produced a revolver and fired three shots. One shot missed him, ripping through his coat and hitting his colleague in her elbow, but the other two struck him down – one bullet went through his neck, the other into his left shoulder.  Lenin survived – just. It had been the second attempt on Lenin’s life in just seven months.

Vladimir Lenin’s would-be assassin was 28-year-old Fanny Kaplan. Born Feiga Chaimovna Roytblat in the Ukraine on 10 February 1890, Kaplan, one of seven children, was drawn to revolutionary politics from a young age.

Dora Kaplan / Fanny Kaplan

Fanny KaplanAt the age of sixteen, she joined an anarchist group based in Kiev, was given the name Fanny Kaplan, sometimes Dora Kaplan, and charged with assassinating the city’s governor. But the bomb she was preparing detonated in her room, almost blinding her. She was arrested and, had she not been so young (she was still under twenty-one), she would have faced the death penalty. Instead, she was sentenced to ‘eternal penal servitude’ in Siberia. During her time of forced labour, her eyesight deteriorated to the point of near blindness.

Following the February Revolution of 1917 and the overthrow of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, Kaplan was released as part of a post-revolutionary political amnesty. She suffered from severe headaches and bouts of blindness but, following an intensive course of treatment, she regained partial sight.

Socialist Revolutionary Continue reading

Eva Braun – a brief biography

Born 6 February 1912, Eva Braun first met her future husband, Adolf Hitler, while working as an assistant and model to Hitler’s official photographer, Heinrich Hoffman. It was 1929 and she was 17, Hitler 40.

Adolf Hitler und Eva Braun auf dem BerghofAt the time Hitler had taken upon himself the responsibility of looking after his 21-year-old niece, Geli Raubal. The exact relationship between uncle and niece has never been properly ascertained except that Hitler was overly-possessive and jealous of the company she kept. On 18 September 1931, Raubal committed suicide by shooting herself with Hitler’s pistol.

Hitler’s relationship with Eva Braun began soon after Raubal’s death and possibly before. Raubal’s jealousy of Braun has been mooted as a possible cause of her suicide.

The Invisible Woman

Germany, as a nation, never knew of Braun’s existence as Hitler went to great lengths to keep her hidden from view. He was, as he often remarked, primarily wedded to the German people and wanted to maintain his popularity amongst German women, whose adoration for Hitler sometimes contained a sexual dimension.

Thus the relationship proved difficult for Braun who was devoted to the Fuhrer. Twice she tried to commit suicide, once by shooting herself, the second time by poison. Neither occasion could be regarded as a serious attempt at ending her life but a desperate cry for attention. Concerned, Hitler amply provided for her so that materially at least Braun was very comfortable. But still she remained marginalised. She spent much of her time with Hitler in his mountain retreat, the Berchtesgaden, but was only reluctantly accepted by the wives of other senior Nazis. When visitors and dignities arrived Braun had to make herself scarce.

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Ekaterina Dzhugashvili – Stalin’s mother

Joseph Stalin’s mother, Ekaterina Dzhugashvili, born 5 February 1858, married at the age of fourteen. Her first two children, both boys, died within their first year. Her third child, Joseph Dzhugashvili, was born 18 December 1878, and although struck by a bout of smallpox, he survived. History would remember him better as Joseph Stalin.

‘A sensitive child’

Ekaterina Dzhugashvili

Ekaterina Dzhugashvili, known as Keke, dictated her  memories in 1935, two years before her death. The transcript was stored by the Georgian archive of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and was only released in 2007 on the specific request of British author, Simon Sebag Montefiore, who, at the time, was writing his second biography of Stalin, Young Stalin.

She called her son ‘Soso’, Georgian for ‘Little Joey’: “My Soso was a very sensitive child,” she wrote.

Seeing her son’s survival as a gift from God, Keke was determined to see Soso enter church school to train to become a priest, fighting off, often physically, her husband’s insistence that he become a cobbler. “Mummy,” said the young Soso, “what if, when we arrive in the city, father finds me and forces me to become a shoemaker? I want to study. I’d rather kill myself than become a cobbler.” “I kissed him,” wrote his mother, “and wiped away his tears. Nobody will stop you studying, nobody is going to take you away from me.”

Having freed herself from her violent husband, Ekaterina Dzhugashvili moved from one accommodation to another picking up work where she could.

Like a tsar

In later life, Stalin arranged for his mother to move into a large mansion in Tiflis, capital of Georgia (now Tbilisi), but a woman of humble needs, she felt uncomfortable with such luxury and confined herself to one small room.

She turned down his requests to visit him in Moscow and Stalin, never fond of travelling, visited her only rarely. She once asked her son, ‘Joseph, what exactly are you now?’ He replied, ‘do you remember the Tsar? Well, I’m like a tsar.’ ‘You’d have done better to have been a priest,’ she said in response. When he asked her why she had beaten him so much as a child, she shrugged and said, ‘it’s why you’ve turned out so well.’

She wrote a short book about her ‘dear son’, still available today.

Ekaterina Dzhugashvili died 4 June 1937, aged 79. Stalin upset Georgian tradition and sensibilities by not attending her funeral, sending Laventry Beria, at the time Stalin’s man in Georgia, in his stead.

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Tanya Savicheva – a brief biography

Tanya Savicheva died near her hometown of Leningrad on 1 July 1944, aged only 14. Who was Tanya Savicheva? The name in Russia is what Anne Frank is to the West – a young innocent victim of World War Two, who left behind a small but lasting legacy.

Tanya SavichevaBut whereas Anne’s diary is a carefully kept journal over a period of two years, Tanya’s was little more than a few scribbled lines over six sheets of notepaper.

Leningrad Siege 

Leningrad (modern-day St Petersburg) was in the midst of a devastating 900-day blockade that lasted from September 1941 until January 1944. The German army had laid siege to the city, bombarded it and cut off all supplies in its attempt to ‘wipe it off the map’, as Hitler had ordered.

The Savicheva family had all answered the call to help bolster the city’s defences. Tanya, only 11 years old, helped dig anti-tank trenches. On 12 September 1941, the largest food warehouse, the Badayev, was destroyed, bombed with German incendiaries. Three thousand tonnes of flour burned, thousands of tons of grain went up in smoke, meat frazzled, butter melted, sugar turned molten and seeped into the cellars. ‘The streets that night ran with melted chocolate,’ said one witness, ‘and the air was rich and sticky with the smell of burning sugar.’ The situation, already severe, became critical.

Road of Life

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The Death of Prince Albert

The light is subdued in the Blue Room. He lies in his bed, plumped up with pillows. His breath is slow and laboured, his skin terribly white, his hair stuck down by sweat. Kneeling on the floor beside his bed, trembling, his wife – the queen. Holding his limp hand, she knows he is dying. Beside her, five of her children, their faces pinched with fear. Standing awkwardly, nearby, various ladies in waiting, equerries, doctors, and a minister or two. But she has eyes only for her darling prince. The time is almost eleven in the evening. As he slips away, she mutters, ‘Oh, this is death, I know it.’ On his passing, the queen lets rip a scream that tears down the walls of Windsor.

Prince AlbertOn the 14 December 1861, Albert, the Prince Consort, died. He was only 42. His unexpected death plunged Queen Victoria into grief so overwhelming that it endured for the rest of her life. Her pain was shared by the nation in an outpouring of angst that would not be seen again until the death, 136 years later, of Princess Diana. But after a while, public and politicians alike began to ask whether the Queen’s period of mourning would ever end?

Prince Albert and Princess Victoria meet

The 16-year-old Princess was immediately smitten – on meeting Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha for the first time, she confided in her diary that her German cousin was ‘extremely good looking’. It was 18 May 1836. They would not meet again for another 3½ years by which time, October 1839, Victoria had become queen. This time, her praise went even further – ‘It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert – who is beautiful’. Albert had the teenage queen’s heart ‘quite going’.

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Ekaterina Svanidze – Stalin’s first wife

Alexander Svanidze, an old school friend of Stalin’s and a fellow revolutionary, introduced the 28-year-old future dictator to his sister, Ekaterina Svanidze. Nicknamed Kato, Ekaterina was born in Georgia on 2 April 1885. The two fell for each other and decided to get married. Respecting her devoutness, Stalin put aside his atheism and the couple were married in an Orthodox church in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), capital of Georgia, in 1906.

Together they had a son, Yakov, born 18 March 1907, but with Stalin away so much, inciting unrest, his wife and son saw little of their wandering revolutionary. Certainly Stalin never did have that much time for his eldest son. (When Yakov was taken prisoner-of-war in 1941, Stalin refused a deal with the Germans that would have freed his son).

Meanwhile, Ekaterina Svanidze was struck by typhus and died, possibly in Stalin’s arms, on 5 December 1907. She was twenty-two.

‘My last warm feelings for humanity’

Her death greatly affected Stalin and he later claimed that, beside his mother, also called Ekaterina, Kato was the only women he had loved. At her funeral, which, again, Stalin allowed to take place in an Orthodox church, he reputedly said, ‘This creature softened my heart of stone. She’s died and with her have died my last warm feelings for humanity.’

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Edith Cavell – a brief biography

When the First World War broke out, Edith Cavell was working as a matron in a Brussels nursing school, a school she had co-founded in 1907 and where she’d helped pioneer the importance of follow-up care. But at the time, July 1914, she was on leave, holidaying with her family in Norfolk, England. On hearing the news of war, her parents begged her not to return to Belgium – but of course she did.

Following the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell refused the German offer of a safe conduct into neutral Netherlands. She continued her work and in the process hid refugee British, Belgian and French soldiers and provided over 200 of them the means to escape into the Netherlands from where most managed the journey back to England. With the Germans watching the work of the hospital, and its comings and goings, her arrest was inevitable. It duly came on 3 August 1915. Edith Cavell, arrested by the Germans, readily admitted her guilt.

‘Patriotism is not enough’

Cavell was remanded in isolation for ten weeks, not even being allowed to meet the lawyer appointed to defend her until the morning of her trial, a trial which lasted only two days. Cavell, along with 34 others, was found guilty. Her case became a cause célèbre but the British government, realising the Germans were acting within their own legality, was unable to intervene. However, the Americans, as neutrals, pointed to Cavell’s nursing credentials and her saving of the lives of German soldiers, as well as British, but to no avail. Along with her Belgian accomplice, Philippe Baucq, the nurse was found guilty and sentenced to be shot. Continue reading

Ida Dalser – Mussolini’s first wife

In Milan during 1914, the future fascist dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini, married Ida Dalser, a 34-year-old beautician. Dalser, born 20 August 1880, soon bore him a child, Benito Albino Mussolini, and sold her business to help her husband fund his new newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, ‘The People of Italy’.

The marriage did not last and before the birth of Benito Jr, on 17 December 1915, Mussolini had married Rachele Guidi, his long-term mistress and mother to his first child, Edda, who had been born in 1910.

Ida Dalser

Mussolini ordered the destruction of the marriage records between him and his first wife, and stopped paying her maintenance, as previously ordered by the courts.

Unsurprisingly, Ida, left penniless, was furious with the way Mussolini had treated her. Following the end of the First World War, she claimed she had proof that in early 1915 Mussolini had taken bribes from the French government to use his influence to commit neutral Italy to declare war against Austria-Hungary. (Italy did indeed declare war against the Central Powers in May 1915). Had this allegation come to light it would have ruined Mussolini’s fledging career.

Forced into drastic action, Mussolini had her abducted. Beaten and forced into a straitjacket, she was declared insane and interned against her will in an asylum. Benito Junior was placed in various boarding schools and, as he grew up, was told that his mother had died. He was ordered to stop referring to Mussolini as his father and had his surname changed to Bernardi.

Benito MussoliniIn 1935, Benito, like his mother, was forcibly incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. Both remained incarcerated until their deaths – Ida Dasler on 3 December 1937 of a ‘brain hemorrhage’, and Benito killed on 26 August 1942, aged 26, following a series of injections designed to induce coma.

Meanwhile, despite numerous affairs and dalliances, most notably to Claretta Petacci, Mussolini remained with his second wife, Rachele, throughout his life. They were to have five children.

The story of Mussolini and Dalser was dramatized in the 2009 Italian film Vincere.

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Mussolini: History In An Hour by Rupert Colley, published by HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats and downloadable audio.

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