When Joseph Stalin's daughter Svetlana defected from India!
Svetlana told the American officials she had come back to Delhi that weekend - March 5 was a Monday - and taken an apartment at the Russian Embassy compound.
Former American ambassador to India Richard Celeste has come out with his memoir in which he shares many interesting facts including the sensational defection of Joseph Stalin's daughter Svetlana from India on a US visa.
Celeste, who served as ambassador from 1997 to 2001 when Bill Clinton was president, first came to India in the 1960s as an assistant to the then envoy here Chester Bowles.
In "Life in American Politics & Diplomatic Years in India: An Unvarnished Account", Celeste shares "as honestly as I can the influences that led me to devote my life to public service - both in and beyond the political arena".
He says he has tried to "illuminate some of the dark corners of political life" in his book, published by Har-Anand Publications.
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On a March night in 1967, Celeste was suddenly called to the American embassy. On reaching there, he came to know that a woman Svetlana Alliluyeva was at the embassy with a pair of suitcases asking for asylum. She had presented a Russian passport and claimed to be Stalin's daughter.
"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, specialised in black propaganda," the author says.
"… There were regular efforts to recruit young American officers by Soviet intelligence. The Stalin daughter ploy might be another effort to embarrass us," he claims.
"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…
"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 had stayed in India after scattering the ashes. She now wanted asylum," Celeste writes.
According to him, all were worried that at "any moment that 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".
Svetlana told the American officials she had come back to Delhi that weekend - March 5 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, thus offending the ambassador.
"What's happened to you," he asked her, adding whether she has become a "vegetarian, a Hindu", the book says.
After talking to her at the consular office here, the Americans were left with three options - inform the Indian government and make a formal request for its help in facilitating her departure, turn her away or give a visa to the US but buy her a ticket only half way, Celeste recalls.
So it was decided to "give her the visa and let her know she has got to get on the plane on her own".
Soon a cable message was sent to Washington around 2030 hours: "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."
There was a Quantas flight to Rome that would leave at one in the morning.
Thus Svetlana reached Rome from where she travelled to Geneva later.
"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," the book says.
The KGB chief too was livid and demanded an answer from the CIA station chief in Delhi on why Svetlana was "kidnapped".
Celeste claims that later it was 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," he writes.
"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," the book says.
Eventually Svetlana left Switzerland and came to the US. "The brouhaha in Delhi subsided."