What would it be like if your father were a mass murderer? Would you be able, as an adult, to accept that? Would you have the moral strength to see him for what he was, and would you be willing to denounce him before the world? To complicate things: what if he were the leader of your country?
Such questions lie at the heart of an oddly compelling new book by longtime National Review Senior Editor Jay Nordlinger, “Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators.” As surprising as the book’s subject is at first glance, as one begins reading it ones wonders why such a book was not written a long time ago. The twentieth century has churned up a lot of dictators, plenty of them genuine monsters. Most of them had children, many of whom are still alive. What’s that like?
Of course they all have one terrible thing in common—their fathers were dictators. Yet the fates of these people are as varied as you could imagine. Some of their fathers were worse than others, but most of the twentieth century’s dictators were mass murderers and tormenters of their people. To widely varying degrees, each of these dictators’ children either justifies their father or accepts that he was a moral monster. Almost all of them choose the former.
To denounce one’s father is a much harder thing to do, and only two manage to do it: Svetlana Stalin and Alina Fernandez, a daughter of Fidel Castro by one of his mistresses. Svetlana is perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most courageous, of these children of monsters. Unlike Alina, who never had much of a relationship with Castro, Stalin’s daughter grew up in her father’s house. He doted on and seemed to have real affection—perhaps even love—for her. He called her his “little fly” and “little sparrow,” and more or less treated her like a little princess (and of course, so did Stalin’s underlings). “You can imagine how Svetlana felt about her father,” Nordlinger writes. “He was not only her own adored father—and it’s natural for little girls to adore their fathers—he was king of the whole wide world. In a memoir, she says that she never heard her father’s name except with words such as ‘great’ and ‘wise’ attached to it. This was true at home, at school, and everywhere else.”
But this would not last. In 1943, when Svetlana turned 16, two things happened. First, she found out from a magazine article that her mother and Stalin’s wife, Nadya Alliluyeva, had committed suicide ten years earlier, when Svetlana was six. At the time, she was told her mother died of a burst appendix. It is likely that Nadya’s suicide was also a lie, and that Stalin had her killed. Still, the discovery of this deception shook Svetlana, who later wrote that the magazine article had mentioned the suicide “not as news but as a fact well known to everyone… Something in me was destroyed.” The second thing that happened is that she fell in love—with a 40-year-old married Jewish playboy, a screenwriter named Alexi Kapler. He was promptly arrested and sent to the Gulag for five years. After that, nothing was ever the same between Stalin and his daughter. For the last ten years of Stalin’s life, they rarely saw each other.
Svetlana would go on to have a strange and tumultuous life. A sad life, in many ways, as with most of these children of dictators. She was married three times, had children of her own, taught Soviet literature and the English language at Moscow University through the 1950s and early ‘60s, and in 1967 while on a trip to India she walked into the U.S. Embassy and defected to the West. For the next 44 years she would live in the United States and England, with the exception of a short return to the Soviet Union in 1984. She published several memoirs, which Nordlinger calls “true, brave, and beautiful,” so much so, he writes, that “Svetlana deserves to be remembered, not just as Stalin’s daughter, but as a writer, a memoirist.” She married an American and had a daughter, Olga, who today goes by the name Chrese Evans and runs a boutique clothing store in Portland, Oregon. Nordlinger describes her as a “Pacific Northwest hipster.” Some Googling reveals that on November 1 she’s scheduled to give an interview with Rosemary Evans, author of a new book about Svetlana, Stalin’s Daughter, at a literary festival in Toronto.
Live not by lies
Svetlana did what none of the other children of dictators, with the exception of Castro’s daughter Alina, managed to do: She admitted what her father was. “Many people today find it easier to think of [Stalin] as a coarse physical monster,” she wrote in her memoir, “Only One Year.” “Actually, he was a moral and spiritual monster. This is far more terrifying. But it’s the truth.” Nordlinger tells us that part of what set Svetlana apart was that she “could have stayed quiet in Switzerland, enjoying a lovely bucolic and Alpine life. But she went to a place where she told the truth.” To call Svetlana’s admission remarkable is a gross understatement. Her father was perhaps the worst dictator of the twentieth century, yet she managed for the most part to follow the maxim of Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “Live not by lies.” As the lives of so many of the other children of dictators attest, this takes a moral strength and rectitude few people possess. “This is why we might say—why I maintain,” writes Nordlinger, “that in Svetlana lay a greatness.”
If Svetlana’s story is partly redemptive, the story of Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam is wholly tragic. “He was the one who tried to go straight: who tried to rise above dictatorship, embrace liberal values, and perhaps redeem the Qaddafi name.” Saif, like almost all dictators’ children, was educated in the West. But Saif showed a genuine interest in Western ideals, especially the notion that dictatorial rule is backwards and wrong, and that Libya and the Arab World desperately needed democracy. He earned a doctorate from the London School of Economics, excelled at business, became a somewhat accomplished architect and a painter, was profiled in the western press and went around “hobnobbing with Rothschilds and royalty in places such as Saint-Tropez and Corfu.” In 2008 he gave a speech denouncing dictatorship, declared that he was through with politics, and left Libya. None of it would last.
Loyalty too strong to overcome
When the Libyan civil war broke out in February 2011, Saif returned to defend his father’s regime. “He even changed his appearance,” writes Nordlinger. “No longer was he the smooth-skinned Renaissance man who held art exhibitions in London and clinked glasses with the prince of Monaco. He grew a beard, in the style of fundamentalist Muslims. He gave wild-eyed rants on television. He vowed, ‘We will fight until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet.’ Saif was now his father’s prime minister, in all but name.” He mocked the International Criminal Court, which had issued a warrant for Qaddafi because his men were firing on civilian protestors. He mocked NATO and railed against the West, which he believed had betrayed him and his father. In the end, Saif was the last of Qaddafi’s children in Libya, the others having fled or been killed. He was captured in November of 2011 attempting to flee the country to Niger. In July of this year he was sentenced to death by a court in Tripoli.
Nordlinger doesn’t believe that Saif’s Western leanings and declared love of democracy was all an act. He thinks Saif knew dictatorship was wrong and in fact was embarrassed by it. “It seems clear that he wanted to be something that, in the end, circumstances would not allow him to be. Or, to be slightly stricter about it: He could not find it within himself to surmount those circumstances, to be what he wished to be.” In the end, his loyalty to his father was too strong to overcome, and he became, like Bashar Assad or Saddam Hussein’s sons—just another “despot’s helper.” Nordlinger writes that among dictators’ children Saif “is more tragic than most.” If he is, it’s precisely because he was able to discern, in part, the great lie that was the Qaddafi regime, and because he came close to the moral clarity that Svetlana Stalin achieved, but in the end turned away from it and chose to live by lies.
The only light to be found
There are many themes in Nordlinger’s book, nature versus nurture being perhaps the most obvious. But there are not a lot of generalizations. That was a wise choice. Surveying Nordlinger’s subjects, it’s very difficult to make generalizations about them. Their fates are so varied, their reactions to a common circumstance so different, about the only thing one can say in general is what Nordlinger’s friend said to him when told about the book: “People are interesting.” And, as Nordlinger later says, people are strange. What accounts for the choices some of these siblings made? For example, how could the two sons of Nicolae Ceauşescu, the dictator of Rumania from 1965 until 1989, turn out so different? The elder son, Valentin, never wanted anything to do with politics and became a physicist. He has led a more or less quiet, private life, has worked at the same job his entire career and never, it seems, has harmed anyone. His younger brother Nicu, on the other hand, was a monster who murdered and raped his way through life, “a picture of almost comic-book evil,” who thirsted for power and drank himself to death not many years after the overthrow of his father’s regime. Nicu and Valentin “are about as different as two brothers can be,” writes Nordlinger. “Valentin had the same opportunities for monstrousness that Nicu had. The same license was available to him. You could say that he was wired differently, or you could say that he made different choices. We are in murky and contentious realms.”
Without declaring it, Nordlinger’s patient and measured chronicle of the lives of these men and women invites a reader to consider that individual choices, what you might call moral agency, is what separates, say, Joseph Stalin’s daughter from someone like Bashar Assad or Saif al-Islam. Every one of these children of dictators is sad, their lives more or less tragic, their paths more or less dark. The only light to be found is among those few who managed, against all odds and at great cost, to live not by lies.
For more information on Jay Nordlinger’s book “Children of Monsters,” author John Davidson recently interviewed Nordlinger at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. You can watch the interview here. John Davidson is the director of the Center for Health Care Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.