Svetlana and The Stone Thrower

Back towards the end of 2015, when the world was in its annual “oh my god let’s all make some intense promises and resolutions for the coming year that will be impossible to maintain for longer than 4 days” state of mind, one of the things I actually DID resolve to do for 2016 is to read more nonfiction.

I am a fairly avid reader, clocking in at between 40 and 50 books per year. If you’re like a lot of people in my life, right now you’re all “Holy hell woman, that is TOO MANY BOOKS.” And, if you’re like other people in my life, right now you’re all “Whatevs, talk to me when you’ve passed 100 books.” And this is fine, to each their own, etc. In the past few years I have found the time, or made the time to read more, and I’m happy about it.

If I go back through my Goodreads library (are you on Goodreads, we should totally be friends!) I notice there is a lot of fiction, with sporadic hits of nonfiction. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but in order to become a more well-rounded reader and individual, (and to partake of some seriously excellent writing) I decided to make an effort to add more nonfiction to my repertoire.

Interestingly, to kick off my nonfiction pledge, I read two father-daughter relationship stories back to back. This was not intentional (as always, the order in which I read things depends entirely on the HPL holds gods) and the fathers, daughters, families, situations, and relationships in both books could NOT have been more different.

Although, is that entirely true? So many themes relating to family are universal. And while you might not think that the daughter of brutal dictator Joseph Stalin would have anything in common with the daughter of revered and legendary football star Chuck Ealey…well you might just be surprised to learn that there are indeed some similarities.

Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan was one of the most intense books I’ve ever read. Particularly the first part, which described her earliest years, and coming of age during her father’s purges, the gulags and prison camps to which even his own family were not strangers. Svetlana watched her large, extended family dwindle as her father became more and more paranoid, and more and more brutal.

For me, there were two things going on while I was reading: the first was the story of Svetlana herself, which was interesting and fascinating and rather sad, but the second was the underlying knowledge of Stalin’s atrocities that were slowly revealed as Svetlana grew and began to better understand her father and what he was capable of.

The story of Svetlana’s life and family going about their day to day lives while Stalin was shipping people – including many of his own family members – off to gulags, and having them shot, was surreal, and at times macabre, but there was also some real affection within her family, some lovely people, memories, and stories. Hers was an unusual family, no doubt, but it was still a family. Sullivan does a fantastic job of weaving the two stories as one, as a parallel, always with the “real Soviet Stalin” never too far away. That Stalin often takes centre stage in the life of his daughter and in her story, and indeed Svetlana’s story could not exist without her father and her ultimate realization that she needed to get away from his legacy as best she could.

The story of Svetlana’s defection to the west reads like something out of a spy novel, all cloak, dagger, and intrigue, and indeed it really was, to be quite honest. Most defections do have an air of drama, because they need to be so well orchestrated, one wrong word or look can ruin the entire enterprise.

But, if the story of her defection was espionage, the story of her struggles to adapt in the west was more screwball comedy or farce, and this era for Svetlana was, to me, an extremely sad one. It was difficult for her to fit in, to cast off the stain of her father’s atrocities and his history. Happiness – real, true happiness – was always just slightly out of her grasp.

Svetlana was a woman in search of belonging, in search of a story that was her own, and not her father’s. She grew resentful of her past and attempted to throw it off by renouncing her Soviet citizenship, only to reestablish herself in the Soviet Union in later life, still floundering, still searching for her identity.

Flash forward many years, to suburban southern Ontario and Jael Richardson’s story. Unlike Svetlana who knew EXACTLY who and what her father was all about, Jael’s story is so much about discovering her father’s past in order to understand her own place in the world that much better.

Chuck Ealey was a high school football star in his hometown of Portsmouth Ohio, then a star at the University of Toledo (his undefeated record still stands in the NCAA) and ultimately a star in the Canadian Football League.

Full disclosure from me: Ealey is a LEGEND in my family, and indeed in the city of Hamilton.. He led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the 1972 Grey Cup victory, at home in Hamilton, and he was probably one of my father’s favourite players of all time. Not just because of what he could do on the field, but also for who he was off the field, the kind of man he was.

Growing up in Mississauga, not really knowing much about her father’s past, except for the bits and pieces she could get out of him on occasion, Jael and family accompanied Chuck to his high school reunion, meeting his friends, former classmates and teammates, piecing together the life he had, the life he left behind, and the reasons for doing so. It was the trip to Portsmouth that helped her better understand her roots, learning about the experiences her parents had growing up in Ohio in the 1960s, in the climate of the civil rights movement, one of the most tumultuous eras in US history.

Richardson’s experiences in high school and university, of finding it difficult to identify with a particular culture, resonated. Many teenagers go through a period where they’re searching for identity, especially when that whole “so where are you from?” question is hard to answer.  She does an excellent job outlining her own lived experiences, juxtaposed with stories about her parents, their struggles and the choices they had to make.

While learning more about her father and mother, Richardson began to understand more about herself and her roots. It’s no surprise that when people discover where they’re from, what situations caused them to be the way they are, they embrace those things wholeheartedly in a sort of “yes, here I am, finally” kind of way.

Svetlana, on the other hand, rebelled against her dead father the best way she knew how, by defecting to the west. She wanted in absolutely no way to be associated with him, with his name, with his politics, his reign of terror. Even living in near poverty in the US and then the UK, she always refused to talk about him, she would never resort to granting an interview about what she knew, how she lived and experienced life under Stalin, even if it would have meant a more comfortable living for her and her daughter.

Two women, decades apart in age and experience, opposite sides of the world, Jael turning to her history and her roots as comfort and important, with a desire to know, in order to help her understand herself better – even when some of the story was difficult to hear, to digest. And Svetlana, running from her history, shaking off the experiences of her homeland, never completely sure of herself in the west, yet no longer a Soviet, in that whole “you can’t go home again” kind of vein, but far more complex, far more dangerous.

Am I reaching, to make these connections? Perhaps. And perhaps it was merely the back-to-back reading of the books that caused me to even try and draw any parallels in the first place. But the themes of belonging and happiness, of reconciliation and understanding, as well as that relentless search for our own place in the world…that’s what drew me into both books, because that is something we all share.These themes are universal, and in the hands of Sullivan and Richardson, they shine.

Whatever your history is, it’s impossible to ignore, and it shapes you. Whether you embrace it or run from it, it has to have an effect on your world, your make up as a human. Not everyone has a dramatic history with an actual dictator for a father, and not everyone has a football star father with a past he didn’t like to talk about, but we all have a story, and like it or not, it’s ours.

How we tell it is up to us.


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