The telephone call came in August. I recognized the voice immediately. There was the accent, of course, and the fact that we'd spoken half a dozen times in the past year and a half.
"I want to talk about events of 44 years ago," she said. "They were important events that I've never talked about."
"OK, Lana," I said.
"The other thing is, I don't want it published until my death."
Lana Peters, the only daughter and last surviving child of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, died of colon cancer Nov. 22 in Richland County. Peters was 85 and had lived in Richland Center for the past several years.
Richland Center is where we met, 19 months ago. She had invited me to her one-bedroom apartment to do an interview.
We spoke for more than two hours — about her father, her life in Wisconsin and more — and after my column ran, she would call once in a while, just to talk. I remember one call came on Father's Day.
The last time we spoke was Nov. 13, a Sunday night. Lana sounded confused. She had called my number but was looking to reach someone else, a name I didn't recognize. She ended the call quickly.
Three months earlier, Lana had phoned and requested we do another interview, which she said would be her last. Her health was failing, she said. There were things she wanted to say.
Naturally, I said yes. It turned out she mostly wanted to talk about money. People still thought her father had left her millions, she said, and that was ridiculous.
"He would never leave money for anyone, including his children," Peters said. "He believed money was evil."
In our earlier interview, she had put it this way: "My father was a very old-fashioned man. He believed that children should have no money. He never gave, even allowance, to me or my brothers. He lived completely at state expense. He never acquired private wealth."
That earlier interview — in April 2010 — happened because Peters was unhappy with a story that appeared in the State Journal about a documentary film, "Svetlana About Svetlana," playing at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
In the film — Lana had given the filmmaker a rare interview in Spring Green in 2007 — Peters said in retrospect she might have been better off living in a neutral country, like Switzerland, rather than the United States.
When we spoke in her apartment, Lana said she was glad to be here. "I am quite well and happy," she said. "Richland Center has a hospital and good services for seniors."
She continued, "I have an American-born daughter. The only unhappiness of my life is that I would like to live closer to her." Her daughter Olga Peters — now known as Chrese Evans — lives in Portland, Ore.
Certainly controversy had followed Lana — born Svetlana Stalina in 1926 — ever since her defection from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1967. By then her father was dead, and Svetlana had taken her mother's last name, Alliluyeva. While she was welcomed in the United States — her arrival generated enormous publicity — some officials feared it would damage Soviet-American relations.
She first came to Wisconsin in 1970, and though she lived elsewhere in the years since, sometimes for extended periods, she always returned.
Her first Wisconsin visit, she told me in April 2010, came because Frank Lloyd Wright's widow, Olgivanna Wright, had written her several "very sweet letters" of invitation.
At Taliesin, she met and in short order married William Wesley Peters, an apprentice of Wright's. The marriage was brief, but she continued to speak fondly of Wes Peters, the father of her daughter now in Portland.
She had shown me his photo when I visited her home in 2010. The small apartment had no television. Lana liked to sew and listen to public radio, she said, and read nonfiction. There were many family photos in the apartment but none of Josef Stalin.
I asked her, "Do you think your father loved you?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "I looked like his mother. I had this red hair, which I still have. It's not colored. It's my own hair. I have freckles all over, like her."
She continued, "He was a very simple man. Very rude. Very cruel. There was nothing in him that was complicated."
I asked, "Do you think of him often?"
"No," she said. "He broke my life. I want to explain to you. He broke my life twice."
She explained that her dictator father had sent her first love — a writer and filmmaker — away to a labor camp and later refused to let her study the arts in school.
That day in Richland Center, she had first refused to be photographed for my story. After we had spoken for a while, she relented. We got in my car and drove out a bit in the country to meet the photographer. Getting out of the car she laughed and ran a hand through her hair. Driving back to Madison, after I had dropped her off, I remember thinking that she must be lonely.
In August, when she requested a last interview, she spoke with some urgency, and kept returning to money.
"I am a poor, old senior who lives on $700 a month from SSI," she said.
People thought she had money, Lana said, because in 1967, her flight from India to the United States had been detoured to Switzerland at U.S. insistence while American officials weighed the ramifications of her defection. People thought her father had left her vast wealth in Swiss banks. She chuckled without humor. "He had a very low opinion of Switzerland."
I told her I would convey her statements about money.
She said suddenly, "I am a sick old person of 85. My future is not too bright. Tomorrow I go to the hospital to talk to the surgeon."
I was silent.
"My daughter is coming," Lana said. "She is a very generous, kind person."
Then she said something I'll always remember, after saying she wished she'd studied at an American university and wished she had written more.
"I could have had quite a different life here," she said.
I remember thinking, well, maybe, but the truth might be closer to something Lana told me when we first met in her apartment.
"Wherever I go," she had said, "here, or Switzerland, or India, or wherever. Australia. Some island. I always will be a political prisoner of my father's name."
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or firstname.lastname@example.org.