Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival

"Stalin's Children" was written as a memoir of a family but it is much more than that. It is an intimate look at life in mid-20th century Russia. The story of those years is told through the lives of three generations of the Bibikov family.

Scholarly histories can only give dry descriptions of the tumultuous years from Stalin's purges through Perestroika. The Bibikov's lived those events. Through them, we experience the despair of parents rounded up in a purge and sent to the Gulag, the helplessness of orphans caught up in the chaos of the mass evacuations as the German army invades Russia. We share the joy of two sisters, separated during the war, who are miraculously reunited. Then we settle down with the sisters in Moscow and endure the privations of the Cold War.

Owen Matthews, the author, is the son an Englishman, Mervyn Matthews, who studied Russian, worked in the British Embassy in Moscow and fell in love with both Russia and one of the sisters. It was the correspondence between Mervyn and Mila during the six years that they were separated while Mervyn worked to get his fiancée out of Russia that inspired this book.

Readers who came of age after the break-up of the Soviet empire may find the tactics Mervyn used in his six year campaign unbelievable, if not downright silly. Those of us who remember "duck & cover" drills, hiding under our desks in school in the vain hope that they would shield us from nuclear attack, will be less skeptical. We remember the extreme measures taken by those desperate to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

There is danger in writing a true story about dramatic events. The result could be maudlin or read like a fictional thriller. The author has avoided both of these extremes. He allows the family members to tell their stories through reminisces, letters and official documents, accurately capturing the fatalistic attitude of the Russian people.

I was a little disappointed at the end of the book. The constant foreshadowing of the dramatic love story between Mervyn and Mila builds expectations so high that the actual telling is a letdown. The final chapters are an attempt on the part of the author to draw parallels between his parent's lives and his own. His effort to make his story, told in a rambling oblique manner, as dramatic as his parents' doesn't end the book so much as let it just fade away.

Review copy courtesy of Walker & Company

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