Back in the late 1960s, India had ‘turned a blind eye’ as Joseph Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva fled to the US.
New Delhi: When India intercepted the escape of Dubai princess Sheikha Latifa, the daughter of the emirate’s ruler and Prime Minister of the UAE, and sent her back last March, it earned a spot of good faith with the nation (and reportedly the extradition of Christian James Michel, a suspected middleman in the Rs 3,600 crore AgustaWestland scam).
But there was a time when an earlier Indian administration had reportedly turned a blind eye to the defection of another ‘princess’ from an ally nation.
As India courts criticism for its role in foiling Latifa’s escape, ThePrint takes you back to the 1960s, when the daughter of a former dictator arrived in India to bid a final farewell to her Indian husband and flew away to a third land.
Love in the time of the Cold War
Svetlana Alliluyeva was the only daughter of Joseph Stalin, the leader of the erstwhile USSR who altogether had five children from two wives.
Lovingly called “my little sparrow” by Stalin, Svetlana often visited India during her lifetime — primarily because she was in a romantic relationship with a Soviet-based Communist of Indian origin named Brajesh Singh.
As reported in news portal Russia Beyond, Alliluyeva and Singh, who traced his roots to a royal family in Uttar Pradesh, lived together in Sochi after the Soviet authorities opposed their marriage. Later, Alliluyeva would cite the mistreatment of Singh, whom she referred to as her husband, as one of the pivotal reasons behind her decision to defect from the USSR.
When Singh died of illness in October 1966, Alliluyeva expressed a desire to visit India to immerse his ashes in the Ganga.
Arrival in ‘paradise’
Alexei Kosygin, the premier of the Soviet Union at the time, tried to dissuade Svetlana, telling her she might be forced to commit sati, the abolished Hindu practice of women immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres.
She came nevertheless, in December 1966, and reportedly fell in love with Singh’s village, which was located near Allahabad (now Prayagraj). Kalakankar, she later told The New York Times, was akin to “paradise”.
In India, she stayed as a guest with the Soviet ambassador. Alliluyeva approached Indian authorities with a request for political asylum, but got no response for three months. India and the USSR were strong allies at the time, and New Delhi was reportedly reluctant to upset Moscow.
“This was a time when India was tilting towards the USSR and it was impossible for us to grant her any kind of asylum,” a retired bureaucrat who worked in the Ministry of External Affairs told Russia Beyond, adding, “We couldn’t jeopardise our relationship with the Soviets.”
On realising that her request was likely to be rejected, Svetlana took the controversial step of approaching the United States embassy in New Delhi. The US and the USSR, then the two biggest world powers, were caught in the throes of the Cold War at the time.
The American ambassador to India at the time, Chester Bowles, was aware of the diplomatic ramifications of this request. He reportedly demanded her statement of intent in writing, and, in a historic move, the Americans granted Alliluyeva asylum.
As The New York Times wrote in an obituary after Svetlana’s death in November 2011: “The world watched in amazement as Stalin’s daughter, granted protection, became the most high-profile Soviet exile since the ballet virtuoso Rudolf Nureyev defected in 1961.”
A lasting love for India
Her escape was fitting for a James Bond film: Alliluyeva was whisked away by a CIA agent to Rome and then to Geneva in politically neutral Switzerland.
The year all this was happening was pivotal for India — 1967 saw the country hold its first election without Jawaharlal Nehru. The Congress won, but a significant dip in vote share put Indira Gandhi and the party on the backfoot for the first time.
Two successive wars (1962 against China and 1965 against Pakistan) had left the economy reeling, and it was a time Indira Gandhi needed allies and not altercations. However, the government still decided against deporting Svetlana to the USSR.
“We had to turn a blind eye towards her departure to minimise the damage in our relations with the Soviet Union,” the retired Indian bureaucrat told Russia Beyond. “We couldn’t deport her to the USSR either.”
After her defection was announced on radio, a brief period of expected Soviet backlash ensued. However, tensions eased when India declined to condemn the Soviet invasion of the erstwhile Czechoslovakia in 1968.
As for Alliluyeva — she became a US citizen, where she lived till her death. However, she visited India several times, and even started the Brajesh Singh Memorial Hospital in Kalakankar.
It ran till the late 1970s, but was turned into a private school after Alliluyeva began to struggle to send funds from abroad.