When the Americans whisked Stalin’s daughter away from India
Richard Celeste | 05 Mar, 2021
Svetlana Alliluyeva in Washington DC, September 1969 (Photo: Getty Images)
BY MARCH 1967 Dagmar and I were getting ready—at least emotionally—to leave India. We were starting to say our goodbyes and had invited a group of friends over to the house—one of the rare times when we hosted a dinner party rather than attending one. Our guests had just arrived when the phone rang. It was Dave Blee, the CIA Station Chief, asking me to come to the Embassy.
I told him about dinner. “I can’t leave,” I said. “Dagmar will kill me.”
“Dick,” he said, “you’ve got to come to the Embassy right now.”
“Dave,” I said, “listen, please, I can’t just leave.”
“Dick,” he repeated sternly, “come to the Embassy.”
I explained to Dagmar and the rest that I had to excuse myself. Our house was about two blocks from the Embassy, so I walked. When I arrived a few minutes later I was surprised to find the door locked. This was very unusual. Normally you’d enter the front door and show your credentials to a Marine Guard at a desk in the center of the foyer after you entered the embassy. But not that night.
I rang the bell and shortly a guard opened up.
“What’s going on?” I said.
He looked past me, over my shoulder at the empty street behind me and said, in a low voice, “A woman came here claiming to be Stalin’s daughter.”
“Stalin’s daughter?” I said.
The Marine nodded. “They’re upstairs,” he told me.
I went up to the office of the Deputy Chief of Mission. Inside Roger Kirk, a young Political Officer whose father had been the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, had joined Blee. They were sitting at a small conference table and quickly confirmed what the Marine had said: about a quarter of an hour earlier a woman had arrived at the Embassy with a pair of suitcases asking for asylum. She had presented a Russian passport and claimed to be Joseph Stalin’s daughter.
“Where is she now?” I said.
“She’s down in the Consular office,” said Blee, “being interviewed.”
“Is she really Stain’s daughter?” I said.
“She could be,” said Blee. “We don’t know. She could also be a provocation.”
It didn’t take much imagination to suspect the Russians were up to something. A few weeks earlier the Soviets had sent a new number two to their Embassy in New Delhi who, according to the Agency, specialized in black propaganda. As Doug Bennet knew, there were regular efforts to recruit young American officers by Soviet intelligence. The Stalin daughter ploy might be another effort to embarrass us.
Her story was hard to believe. Not only did this woman say she was Stalin’s daughter, she claimed to be the common-law wife of an older Indian gentleman who worked at the Foreign Language Press in Moscow. This fellow was the uncle of Dinesh Singh, the Deputy Foreign Minister of India rumored to be Indira Gandhi’s paramour. Her husband had died the previous November. She had promised to bring his ashes from Moscow to immerse them in the Ganges. Six months had passed. She—her name was Svetlana—had stayed in India after scattering the ashes. She now wanted asylum.
She was still downstairs, waiting. We did not want to expose more than one Embassy officer to her. We worried that at any moment she might cry rape or that the Soviet Embassy would allege we had kidnapped her. We would be ordered to produce her and she would confirm whatever wild accusations had been made by the Soviets.
The truth is we didn’t know. Maybe she was a provocation and maybe she wasn’t. There was no obvious course of action open to us.
Frankly, the idea that Svetlana Stalin could have arrived in India in November and stayed until March—living in the home of Dinesh Singh the whole time—unknown to everyone, including India’s aggressive mainstream press as well as the CIA, was highly implausible. Her story was that the Soviet Ambassador in Delhi was on her case because Brezhnev was demanding that she return to Moscow. Finally, she told us, the Ambassador travelled to see her and deliver an ultimatum, saying it was an embarrassment to the Russian people. “Brezhnev did you a favor,” the Ambassador told her, “letting you bring those ashes back to India. That was a privilege and what you’re doing now by lingering in India is wrong.”
She told us she had come back to Delhi that weekend—March 5th was a Monday—and taken an apartment at the Russian Embassy compound. The Russians expected her to take the Aeroflot flight to Moscow very early Thursday morning. The last straw, she alleged, occurred when the Soviet Ambassador invited her to lunch that afternoon and served Polish ham. She ate the vegetables on her plate but didn’t touch the ham.
The Ambassador was offended. “What kind of a Soviet woman are you?” he asked, “this is the best ham in the world made by our comrades in Poland.”
She wouldn’t touch it.
“What’s happened to you,” he said. “You’ve become a vegetarian? A Hindu?” and he launched into a tirade about how she had become an embarrassment to herself, to her family, and especially to the Soviet people.
That lecture confirmed her decision to seek asylum in the United States.
Her story was hard to believe. Not only did this woman say she was Stalin’s daughter, she claimed to be the common-law wife of an older Indian gentleman who worked at the foreign language press in Moscow. This fellow was the uncle of Dinesh Singh, the deputy foreign minister of India
She waited until that evening when the Soviet Ambassador was hosting a party at the Embassy for a senior military delegation visiting from Moscow. With the party in full swing she simply called a cab and carried her suitcases to the gate. There was nobody around to stop her or even notice, she said, because they were all at the party. A few minutes later she walked into the American Embassy just two blocks away.
We need to lay out options, said Blee, eager to confer with the Ambassador. [Chester] Bowles, who was in bed with bronchitis, was living in the same modest bungalow their family had loved when he was Ambassador in the ’50s, a comfortable home on Ratendon Road that backed onto Lodhi gardens. That’s where we would find him. The clock was ticking and we knew it.
Arriving at Ratendon Road, we went directly to Chet’s bedroom to brief him on the situation.
“Dave,” Bowles asked Blee, “you do think this is Stalin’s daughter or not?”
“We honestly don’t know. She has given us an incredible story. If she has actually been here for the past five months we should know. Blitz”—the communist newspaper—“would have run a story on her, something.”
“What are our choices?” said Bowles.
We outlined the three options we had agreed on earlier at the Embassy. Diplomatic protocol dictated that we inform the Government of India that we had a Soviet citizen claiming to be Stalin’s daughter requesting asylum. Once they had been informed, we would make a formal request for their help in facilitating her departure.
This was the first option.
“This is problematic,” said Blee, “because just a few months ago, a Russian sailor jumped ship in Calcutta and came to our Consulate. When we informed the Indian government, it took three months before they permitted us to get that guy moved. That was someone with no political significance. What would happen if this is Stalin’s daughter?”
Roger Kirk had been sequestered in his office reading a manuscript the woman had brought with her when she presented herself. She had written a book, she claimed, about life with her father growing up in the Kremlin. Roger had been trying to figure out if it was authentic and thus if she was who she claimed to be
We laid out the second option: turn her away. “If we really believe that she’s a provocation,” Blee said, “the right thing to do is to say, sorry we can’t help you.”
“Third option,” offered Blee, “we could give her a visa to the United States but buy her a ticket only half way. There’s a Quantas flight to Rome that leaves at one in the morning. We could put her in a safe house there until we sort this out.”
“If we turn her away, whoever she is,” Bowles told us, “that’s not American. We respect people’s requests for asylum. If we call the government of India, we’re going to create a debilitating three way tug of war between Moscow, New Delhi and Washington. Give her the visa, let her know she has got to get on the plane on her own. We can drive her there, but she has to board the plane alone.”
It seemed like the best of the options.
“Cable Washington,” said Bowles, “and let them know what we propose to do.”
We drove quickly back to the Embassy and at 8:30 pm I sent a flash message to Washington: “Eyes only, Secretary of State, highest classification”—which of course guaranteed that at least twenty people would read it immediately—“Individual claiming to be Stalin’s daughter arrived at Embassy 1910 hours seeking asylum. Unable to confirm identity.
Concerned that individual may be a provocation. Propose to issue US visa but send her to Rome on Quantas ETD 0100 hours. Seek your guidance.”
I—we—figured we would get a quick response telling us whether they approved our proposed course of action.
Half hour later we received a brief acknowledgment:
“Message received. Will respond ASAP.”
That was it.
Meanwhile Roger Kirk had been sequestered in his office reading a manuscript the woman had brought with her when she presented herself. She had written a book, she claimed, about life with her father growing up in the Kremlin. Roger had been trying to figure out if it was authentic and thus if she was who she claimed to be. Kirk said he couldn’t be sure. “I’ve scanned it,” he said, “and it could be the real thing. But I have no way of confirming it without spending several days fact-checking it.”
In the absence of certainty we were guided by our internal traffic signals. Option three flashed green. She would have to get onto the Quantas flight on her own two feet. Toward midnight Blee drove her to the airport. I remember watching them leave. A nondescript woman—I didn’t see her face—came out and got in the car. Blee closed the door behind her.
A Russian-speaking CIA agent had boarded the plane in advance but did not identify himself until after the plane had taken off. He didn’t want to be accused of being a kidnapper.
It turned out the Quantas flight was delayed forty-five minutes. The woman claiming to be Svetlana sat patiently on her own in the lounge through the delay. Finally she boarded the plane.
The next morning we got several messages.
One was from Washington: “What happened?” They had never sent us instructions of any sort.
Blee had rung every bell in Langley asking if they could find some scrap of intelligence about Stalin’s daughter. They had discovered a low-level source reporting that Stalin’s daughter was living with an older Indian. It had been filed in D.C. and never forwarded to Delhi. Between this intelligence and the fact that she hadn’t blown the whistle at the airport we were convinced the woman was indeed Svetlana Stalin
The second was a brief Agency response. After the woman’s appearance Blee had rung every bell he could in Langley asking if they could find some scrap of intelligence about Stalin’s daughter. Contrary to their original response—nothing—they had discovered, tucked away in an obscure file, a low-level source reporting eight years earlier a rumor that Stalin’s daughter was living with an older Indian employee at Foreign Language Press. It had been filed in D.C. and never forwarded to Delhi. Between this piece of intelligence and the fact that she hadn’t blown the whistle at the airport we were convinced the woman was indeed Svetlana Stalin.
Then we got confirmation.
Around 2 am Thursday—the departure time of the Aeroflot flight that was supposed to take Svetlana to Russia—Blee was awakened at home by a call from his KGB counterpart in New Delhi.
“What the fuck did you do with Stalin’s daughter?” demanded the KGB Chief (or something along those lines).
“Stalin’s daughter?” said Blee.
“You kidnapped her,” he said.
“We didn’t kidnap anyone,” Blee said. “And I’m not sure I know exactly what woman you’re talking about. But if this is the woman I’m thinking of, she came to the Embassy claiming to be Stalin’s daughter. She had a valid passport and said she wanted to seek asylum in the United States.”
“This woman!” sputtered the KGB Station Chief. “She’s in the States now?”
“We didn’t take her there,” Blee said, “because we didn’t want to embarrass you and we wanted to give her a chance to change her mind. But the truth is we thought that she was a provocation.”
“A provocation?” he said. “Why did you think she’s a provocation?”
Blee reminded him of his newly appointed Deputy, the expert in black propaganda.
An already delicate situation became more delicate the next day when, at every post around the world, meetings between Soviet and American diplomats were called off. One of the reasons behind the Soviet Ambassador’s eagerness to persuade Svetlana to return home was that he himself was headed back to Moscow for reassignment. Even his farewell call on Bowles was cancelled.
It so happened that upcoming Friday I had a dinner—long scheduled—with Valerie Ostepenko, my counterpart in the Soviet Embassy. We had been getting together, with Bowles’ encouragement, every three or four months to talk about matters of mutual interest such as Vietnam and the International Control Commission. Gradually we’d got to know each other and had become friends of sorts.
‘If we turn her away, whoever she is,’ Bowles told us, ‘that’s not American. We respect people’s requests for asylum. If we call the government of India, we’re going to create a debilitating three way tug of war between Moscow, New Delhi and Washington. Give her the visa, let her know she has got to get on the plane on her own’
Our visits were reciprocal. He and his wife would come to our place for dinner; Dagmar and I would go to theirs. I called him Friday morning, saying I assumed our dinner was off.
“But why would you assume this?” he wanted to know.
“Because everywhere they’re cancelling things,” I said.
He knew what I was talking about. “No,” he said, “our dinner is on.”
“Is it really?” I said.
“See you at seven,” he told me.
After I hung up I began to worry. I didn’t want to get snatched and held. I asked Bowles whether I should go and what I should say about Svetlana’s departure. Bowles response was that I should keep the dinner and if I was asked I should describe exactly what happened.
“Tell him the whole story just as she had told it to us, exactly as you experienced it,” said Bowles. “And make sure you leave a message with the Marine Guard here,” he added, a moment later, “so that if you’re not back by a certain time we can, well, make inquiries.”
Inquiries. The word did not reassure me.
Dagmar and I arrived for dinner at the Soviet compound around seven on Friday and his wife offered us the usual vodka and caviar. I declined, wanting to be careful about what I ate and drank, still worried that we might find ourselves hostages. Time passed and there was no sign of Valerie. My nervousness increased. Finally he arrived at eight, very apologetic. “I’m really sorry,” he said, “there are so many things going on. But this you know.”
We sat down to a delicious dinner. Eventually over dessert he said: “Dick, let me ask you, why did you kidnap Svetlana Stalin?”
“Valerie, we didn’t kidnap anyone,” I said. “I’m going to tell you exactly what happened.”
And I did.
“She’s in Europe,” I said, though I didn’t say where. “We want to make sure she considers everything carefully before she comes to the United States.”
I realized it was almost midnight and knew I had to get back to the Embassy. I didn’t want the Marine Guard raising an alarm with the Indian government, so I told Valerie I was expecting a cable I needed to see and respond to. I asked him if I could go briefly to my Embassy and then come back to finish dessert.
He drove over to the Embassy with me. I went in and assured the Marine Guard that everything was fine. Then we returned for dessert.
Later we found out that the Soviets had decided that Svetlana’s departure was an Indian, not an American, problem. The Indians had simply not taken proper care of this very important visitor. The Soviets went very hard at the Indira Gandhi government. After a couple of weeks LK Jha, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister at the time, was sent by Indira Gandhi to meet Svetlana in Switzerland, where she’d moved.
Jha tried to talk her into returning to Moscow saying that her defection was harming relations between two countries she loved and because her children wanted her back in Russia. One of her children was a doctor and the other was an academic, and she talked to them on the phone with Jha observing. The children urged her to return, but she refused, saying that she simply would not return to Moscow under any circumstances. “I’ve made up my mind,” she said, “I’m going to the United States.”
Later we found out that the Soviets had decided that Svetlana’s departure was an Indian, not an American, problem. The Indians had simply not taken proper care of this very important visitor. The Soviets went very hard at the Indira Gandhi government. LK Jha was sent to meet Svetlana in Switzerland
From Switzerland Jha traveled to Moscow, where he met with the Deputy Foreign Minister, and apologized for what had happened, admitting it was an embarrassment for the Russians and for the Indians. He explained that he had met with Svetlana and done his best to persuade her to go home, but she had refused.
“How did you let this happen?” was the question the Soviet asked.
“What do you mean,” said Jha, “let this happen?”
“Well,” the Deputy Foreign Minister said, “according to Dick Celeste…”
“According to Dick Celeste?” said Jha, “What’s that supposed to mean? Who is this Dick Celeste?
“Celeste,” said the Deputy Minister, “the assistant to the U.S. Ambassador in New Delhi.”
“I don’t know this Celeste,” said Jha.
“Well,” said the Minister, “he’s obviously a senior person there, who spoke with one of our officers in Delhi.” He then described, in detail, what I had told Valerie Ostepenko after dinner.
The first thing Jha did when he got back to New Delhi, was pick up the phone. “Get to my office right now,” he said to Bowles. “Who in the world is Dick Celeste?”
I suspect Jha like others may have assumed that I was CIA. Bowles had to go through a long explanation with Jha as to who I was and how I came to be in New Delhi.
Eventually Svetlana Stalin left Switzerland and came to the United States. The brouhaha in Delhi subsided.
(This is an edited excerpt from Life in American Politics & Diplomatic Years in India: An Unvarnished Account by Richard Celeste | Har-Anand Publications | 400 pages | Rs 995)