Our kin, our relatives and those closest to us, profoundly influence the person we become. It takes a concerted, ongoing effort to determine our own destiny. As much as we celebrate in America the idea of the “self-made man,” the Ayn Rand ideal of the man who is architect of all he surveys, the reality is often quite different, even for those of us used to enormous liberties, and it it this indeed that makes Svetlana Alliluyeva’s story even more poignant.

As the daughter of Joseph Stalin, a man who renamed a city after himself, Svetlana became the Cold War’s most famous defector, choosing the freedom America offered over the privileges of the Communist Party elite in the Soviet Union. She took her mother’s last name rather than associate herself with her father, but her story is riddled with tragedy, not the least of which was the suicide of her mother. Apparently, Svetlana’s mother had once drawn a tattoo of a black square over her heart, and, as the March 31st issue of the New Yorker tells, her mother told her, “This is where the soul is,” and it was in that spot she shot herself. Nothing like making a determined effort to kill your own soul, to completely obliterate yourself.

Svetlana left behind her children in her effort to entirely remake herself, and though she became famous at first, it was a fleeting fame formed by two books she wrote shortly after defecting. After that, she faded into relative obscurity, and ended up living rather anonymously in a nursing home in Wisconsin. She gave up a lot for the freedoms of the west, but it cost her greatly also. As she herself said to the journalist who interviewed her for the New Yorker, “You are not alone–everyone who talked to me here in USA–looked at me ONLY through this prism: my father’s life.” It begs the question as to when we truly start living for ourselves.

We take for granted that we are responsible for our actions and that our actions determine who we become, yet in Svetlana’s case so much of her world was colored by the actions of her father.

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