Stalin’s Children, published in June 2008, has emerged as one of most critically praised recent books about Russia, gathering favorable reviews in The Economist and Times Literary Supplement among other publications. The book is actually two works: one exceptionally good and the other so manifestly awful that it is hard to believe they come from the same author. The story of his parents and his mother’s Russian family is well written, judicious, and compassionate. In a strange lapse of critical judgment, however, the author, a foreign correspondent for Newsweek, mars what should have been a remarkable first book by continuing the family history with his own adventures in the seamy world of Moscow nightlife that are every bit as banal as his family’s story is extraordinary.
As tedious as Matthews is when writing about himself, he is gripping in telling the story of his mother’s childhood during the Stalin terror and World War II. Matthews here reveals himself to be a gifted journalist with the ability to choose telling details and anecdotes which suggest larger insights into the marks left on Russian society by the Revolution and Stalin years. Even seasoned readers of gulag literature will find the story of Matthews’s grandmother, Martha, harrowing–the wife of a fast-rising party boss in Ukraine, she was arrested with her husband in 1937 (her children were taken first to a prison for juveniles and later to an orphanage). Ten years later, she emerged from the labor camps, driven mad and filled with rage, behaving to her reunited daughters (her husband had been executed within three months of his arrest) “as though she believed that by meting out hatred and extinguishing love and hope in those around her she could revenge herself on the world which had treated her so cruelly.”
Ultimately, Stalin’s Children (an allusion to a Stalin-era slogan, “Thank you, Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood.”) is the story of the author’s parents. His father, Mervyn, a Russian specialist and lecturer at Oxford fell in love with his mother while in an exchange program with Moscow State University in 1963. His mother Lyudmila, a survivor from age four of prison, tuberculosis, orphanages, and war-time starvation, was iron-willed, intellectual, and romantic. When they tried to marry in Moscow, Mervyn was declared persona non grata and expelled from the Soviet Union. What followed was a five year campaign against both Soviet and British bureaucracies to bring Lyudmila to Britain. During this time the, the couple wrote to each other almost every day letters that ache with the pain of separation: “Your letters bring me little pieces of you, of your life, your breath, and your beating heart.” “Every line is the blood of my heart, and there is no limit to how much I can pour out.” When the elder Matthews’ campaign finally succeeded in achieving his fiancé’s emigration, it is perhaps not surprising that married life could not possibly provide the transfiguring power of love felt through imposed separation. Commenting on his parents’ letters, Matthews writes poignantly, “but by the time my parents met again they found there was barely enough love left over. It had all been turned to ink and written over a thousand sheets of paper…” If marriage failed to bring the anticipated bliss, Lyudmila did accept the counsel of her sister’s husband to “love Mervyn; have children.” The marriage survives to this day.
Stalin’s Children is a unique story of a family in Russia from 1917 to 1969, the year of Lyudmila’s emigration. Matthews spent five years researching and writing this relatively short book, and it still could have been improved with more thorough editing and re-writing. Despite its shortcomings, the author has produced a deeply human book by placing his parent’s struggle in the context of the defining events in the history of the Soviet Union.