Of the three most prominent dictators of the 20th century, Hitler had no children and the fate of Chairman Mao’s children is not generally known. That leaves Stalin, whose daughter, Svetlana, not only had the courage to defect from Russia but also the ability to describe the experience of growing up in his monstrous shadow. Her book, “Twenty Letters to a Friend”, published soon after her defection in 1967, became a sensation, not simply because it provided a lucid, heartfelt account of the life of the “princess in the Kremlin” but because of whom her father was.

This was the legacy that Svetlana could never escape. It was bad enough to learn, only by chance aged 16, that her mother had committed suicide when she was six; or that her maternal uncle and his wife had been executed by her father in the purges of the late 1930s; to stand by helpless when her first romantic interest was summarily sent to the gulag for ten years; to learn that her half-brother was killed by the Nazis during the war; and to know that her older brother Vasili, traumatised by his mother’s death and his father’s emotional neglect of him,  was an alcoholic. Even if she could have found release from these appalling memories, she could never evade the shadow cast by her father’s name. Even as late as the 1980s, when she spent a period living in England, some people would refuse to speak to her because of their hatred for him. At other times she had to endure hurtful attacks in the press, alleging things that were untrue and defamatory to her character.

It is a tribute to Svetlana’s strength of character and powers of endurance that despite the disasters that dogged her life, she was never quite crushed by them. Like her father, she possessed an indomitable will that kept her going through all adversity. Her biographer provides a sympathetic and thoughtful portrait of a gifted yet deeply troubled woman, recognising her subject’s warmth, generosity, simplicity and candour while also honest about her failings: if Svetlana felt people had “betrayed” her or let her down in some way, she could fall into a rage (again, like her father) and write them vindictive letters; she would also act on impulse, only to realise later that she could not cope with the consequences. Her invariable response to an untenable situation was to run away from it; living in the US after her defection, she moved 30 times. But she also had an unquenchable zest for life – unlike her father – and a touching hope that the future would turn out better than the past.

Sullivan observes, “It is astonishing that she survived at all”. After reading this 600-page story of her life, one is forced to agree. A lesser personality could not have done so. Those who got to know Svetlana in the States and who managed to remain faithful friends, despite her capricious behaviour, all noted the loneliness at the heart of her life. A person of immense emotional neediness, she would constantly demand more of people than they were able to give. In romantic relationships she would rush to marry as the “solution” to her problems; she was married and divorced three times in Russia when still in her 20s. She made a final, disastrous, fourth marriage in the US, after knowing her suitor for a mere three weeks.

Perhaps Nikita Krushchev, who swiftly assumed power after Stalin’s death in 1953 and who had been a fellow student of Svetlana’s mother, made the most accurate remark of Stalin’s attitude to his daughter: he “loved her…but his was the tenderness of a cat for a mouse.” The book’s cover shows Stalin with his arm around Svetlana’s neck when she was a child, aged about 8 or 9. She is smiling at the camera while he is looking almost as if he is about to throttle her. He wrought havoc with her emotions: often absent for weeks at a time, sometimes affectionate, sometimes brutally cold; scornful and then demanding, always manipulative.

 Svetlana writes in her second book, “Only One Year”, that as a child her generation had been “trained to think that [Stalin] was the embodiment of all that was most beautiful in the ideals of Communism.” It was only “little by little” in early adult life she came to see that “he had sacrificed everything human in him to the pursuit of power.” As a child she could never understand why people she knew and loved sometimes “vanished” without explanation. Then she came to see the bitter almost incomprehensible truth: “Not only that my father had been a despot and had brought about a bloody terror, destroying millions of innocent people, but that the whole system which had made it possible was profoundly corrupt.”

As with writer Jung Chang, raised in China to worship Chairman Mao, who tells her story in her best-selling book “Wild Swans”, the truth was exceptionally painful to Svetlana, the more so because Stalin was not merely a distant figure to be idolised, but her own father. “A man who aroused fear and hatred in millions of men – this was my father” she writes. As an American critic wrote after Svetlana’s defection to the US, “To be Stalin’s daughter and to remain human is itself admirable.”

There was a huge price to pay for her impulsive decision to seek refuge in the American embassy in New Delhi in 1967, while on a trip to India to bury the ashes of an Indian companion whom she had been forbidden to marry. She had to leave her son and daughter from her first two marriages behind in Moscow. They felt their mother had abandoned them – much as Svetlana felt her own parents had abandoned her – and she was never to regain their trust, even when, after 17 years in the US, followed by a period in England, she chose quixotically to return to Russia in a desperate attempt to make up for her absence, as well as to rediscover her roots.

The one consistently positive element in the book, otherwise filled with emotional or financial disasters, is the love of Svetlana for her third child, Olga, the daughter of Wesley Peters, an American architect at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Foundation, whom she had been tricked into marrying by Lloyd Wright’s scheming widow, Olgivanna, who wanted to get her hands on the money that Svetlana had made from her first book. Although Olga had endured a nomadic, somewhat unstable childhood in the US (after many house moves and several different schools, they came to England where she was put into a Quaker boarding school, before returning to Russia, followed by a brief sojourn in Georgia, then back to America) she emerges as strong-willed, cheerful and sane. Loyal and loving towards her exasperating mother, she conscientiously kept in touch when they were apart and made Svetlana’s last years in the States more comfortable and less lonely than they would otherwise have been.

Sullivan tells a story of compelling interest, answering the reader’s implicit question: how does one survive the upbringing that Svetlana had, with the constant presence of spies, informants, secret police, fear, instability and neglect that had marked her childhood? She is not sensational or judgmental, allowing Svetlana to speak for herself wherever possible. There are a few stylistic lapses, such as “Svetlana lit into her” or “Levine had given her an earful” but these are rare. In general, her conclusion that her subject was “at core an emotional orphan, with a tragic fragility…who did not know what love was” sounds sadly accurate.  The miracle is that by the time she died of cancer, aged 85, on 22 November 2011 (the month of her mother’s death and thus always a sorrowful month for her), Svetlana was at peace.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.