one and only meeting in the 1930s, her paternal grandmother had baptised her informally.
At the 1962 ceremony, she was given an icon of the Virgin Mary, which she kept with her ever after. “The mysterious line on the back about ‘And Word became flesh’ still needed a lot of explanation,” she recalls in 1990, in another autobiographical essay sent to the priest, entitled, “An Icon of Annunciation”, and inspired by reading about a conference on icons at Ampleforth Abbey.
At the time of her adult baptism, Peters was working as a translator and writer, bringing up her two children. She remained a well-known, well-connected figure in the USSR. Her third marriage, though banned by the Soviet authorities, was in 1963, with an Indian Communist, Brajesh Singh. He interested her in Hinduism. When he died in 1966, she was allowed to take his ashes back to his family in India. It was at that point that she made her celebrated defection to the West, abandoning her children.
She sought asylum in the US embassy in India, but the American authorities were initially reluctant to allow her to fly to their country, fearing she was a Soviet spy. So she spent a month in transit in Switzerland, where she was hidden from public view at the Carmelite Monastère de la Visitation in Fribourg. “This first impression of the wellestablished Catholic world of the French part of Switzerland, the feeling of warm hospitality,
care and concern about me, was never forgotten,” she writes in her essay on icons.
This was the starting point, she says time and again in her letters, for her reception into the Catholic Church. She was to hanker many times subsequently to return to live at Fribourg, or at another convent. Finally admitted to the US in the spring of 1967, she was feted as a cause célèbre, and two best-selling volumes of autobiography soon followed, denouncing her father as a “monster” and attacking the whole Soviet system.
These were always presented as her own work, but in her letters she confesses that a ghostwriter was involved. “It is exactly for me these days to say finally no,” she writes on 8 January, 1989, about her decision to refuse a CIA pension, “to all these people who continuously – since I came to the West – were pushing me into some propaganda business of their own interests. Because I depend on these people financially … I had to agree to their terms. But I cannot do that any more.”
In 1970, she married William Peters, an architect and member of the Taliesin community in Arizona, set up in memory of Frank Lloyd Wright and led by his widow, Olgivanna, a self-proclaimed mystic. Though she was 46, Peters had a daughter, Olga, with her new husband, but in 1972 left the community, taking the girl with her.
“It was too difficult for me to get adjusted to the ways of the Taliesin Fellowship,” she writes on 1 February, 1983, “so I left. This fills me with guilt towards them both [her exhusband and her daughter].” Moving to Princeton, New Jersey, she settled her daughter in a Catholic school, but found her local Episcopalian (Anglican) Church of All Saints “hospitable”, she recalls in her 1990 essay. “I finally could enjoy the year of the Church … it was there that I learned the fellowship of prayer.” When she tried to attend Orthodox worship in the US, she recalls, in the same document, she encountered a hostile reaction from many Russian émigrés. “In a Russian church in Washington, a parishioner yelled at the priest, ‘you Communist!’ and demanded that I would be led out. The priest ordered that man out, but I still remember the awful feeling.”
The publicity she had received since defecting had made her wealthy and a well-known face, but many still suspected her motives. Being “Stalin’s daughter” became an increasingly intolerable burden. Her unhappiness drove her to move to Britain. At first, after her reception into the Church, she experienced exhilaration. On 17 December 1982, she writes: “Josef [her son] calls me in Cambridge from Moscow.” It was their first contact since 1969. “It was very hard for me all those years not to hear from them, or about them. What happened now, why suddenly a change, I do not know, but God always knows all the answers.”
(Continued on page 12.)
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7 January 2012 | THE TABLET | 11