Friday, October 24, 2008

Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival by Owen Matthews - 320 pgs

Book CoverStalin's Children is the story of one family's unique experiences amid the changing social and political sphere of Russia. Encompassing Russia's history from the 1920s onwards, Matthews acquaints us with three generations of his family who experienced extreme persecution and overwhelming odds, each bearing witness to pre- and post-Stalinist Russia. The memoir begins with the story of Boris Bibikov, a prominent Russian party member in the 1920s. Bibikov and his small family lived in relative comfort and plenty, taking full advantage that his status afforded him, until, like so many others, he was accused of anti-Party sentiments. After his arrest and imprisonment, his wife and two young daughters were left to fend for themselves. Eventually the girls were taken to a state-run orphanage after their mother was also imprisoned. It is here that the girls, Lyudmilla and Lenina, became separated. Lenina eventually moved in with relatives, and Lyudmilla remained a ward of the state until her adulthood, in essence becoming one of Stalin's many children. After many heartrending circumstances, including the orphans' harrowing escape from the Germans invasion of the city in the early days of WWII, near starvation, and serious disease, the sisters were once again reunited by miracle and chance. Although their years of separation and abandonment left indelible marks upon them for all time, they remained optimistic.

The second section of the book tells of the love affair between Lyudmilla and Mervin, the author's parents. Mervyn, a British russophile, begins a scholarly career in Moscow, living his dream of immersing himself in Russia. When Lyudmilla and Mervyn meet, it is clear to both that they should be together. But after Mervyn rejects the courting of KGB officials in their attempts to recruit him into their organization, he becomes persona non grata to the Russian government and is deported. He must leave Lyudmilla behind in Russia with promises that he will return soon to marry her. What follows is the couple's anguished battle to attain Lyudmilla's right to marry a foreigner and leave the country. Peppered throughout this tale is the author's own story of returning to a Russia in the 1990s that has changed in so many ways, yet in some ways remains the same.

This book was very impressive. From the distinct and eloquent nature of the author's ability to express his family's story, to the staunch and ardent persistence of the players involved, I found myself completely captivated by this memoir. Not only were the stories of his family very moving, the author has a very encompassing and instructive way of conveying the politics of Russia from the early 1900s until today. The book was informative and dealt with a vast amount of history, but it was not sluggish or boring. Each era of political change in the country was illustrated not only in terms of what was going on in the government, but also in how these changes affected the people living amongst the tumult of their oppression. In addition, the shifts in the narrative melding the past and present were deftly handled, blending the stories of each of these generations into a panoramic view of life in Soviet Russia. Although at times the author's sentiments appear somewhat dark and maudlin, I would argue that his attitude fits perfectly with the story he tells. Although there are small triumphs and large victories, there is also a sense of grim strife throughout the story. In particular, I found the hardships that Lyudmilla endured as a ward of the state to be very tragic and distressing, but I truly marveled at her optimism and perseverance. She had a quintessentially hardy spirit that I found remarkable. In addition, the struggles that Lyudmilla and Mervin face in their efforts to be married were by turns bitter and poignant. I admired the strength and conviction of these two lovers, fighting with indomitable resoluteness for their relationship. I read with mixed emotions the joys and disappointments of the couple, and felt that the inclusion of pieces of actual love letters between the two was a a brilliant touch that gave Lyudmilla and Mervyn a real sense of humanity. I liked this book for so many reasons. From the soulfulness of the characters, to the conversational style of the history, I found much here to be impressed with. This is not only a story of history and politics, but a story of people. People with hopes and fears and dreams that were expertly captured by the author.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has a curiosity about Russia. It is easily the best and most concise history of the times and people that I have ever read. The bonus of reading this for the history is that you will also get the very wonderfully rendered story of the people inside this country, and the sacrifices and joys that shaped their lives. Filled with unforgettable characters and relateable history, this book was a great read. Highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your excellent review.

A Writer's Pen said...

Sounds like a very good read. I'll have to read it next month!

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