Originally posted on Goodreads.com.
“It was much easier to live by one’s myths and to continue to believe in the ultimate wisdom of the party than to speak out and risk disaster.”
A family memoir by previous Newsweek Moscow Bureau Chief, historian, and spy novelist Owen Matthews, Stalin’s Children follows the author’s family as they eventually unite in the marriage of his parents, despite coming from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. As he recounts the personalities and formative events of his family members, Matthews offers a unique, multifaceted view of Russia under the Soviets, constructed from both family members’ accounts and records from the previous USSR. Reaching from the beginning of the Russian Revolution to the present day, Stalin’s Children offers a nuanced understanding of the Cold War, with the focus being on the love story between his Welsh father and his Russian mother.
As in Matthews’s other works, a core theme of Stalin’s Children is how good people were able to live under and in spite of an oppressive regime. Contextualizing many of the book’s events through Solzenitsyn, Matthews mixes an honest contempt for the Soviet system and its failings with a sympathetic respect for those who lived under, and at times supported, it. Admitting, and at times lauding, the pragmatism of his grandparents, Matthews’s sympathetic perspective nuances the negatives of the Soviet structure by separating actual Russians from it and telling their stories. Matthews further maintains his multi-faceted honesty when describing his own time in post-Soviet Russia, which he does not present as automatically good because more nominally free. Throughout, Matthews recounts the major events and trends in twentieth-century Russia while keeping a Dostoevskian eye on the humanity of his characters, and he offers many insights into the Russian social culture and personality. As he writes, “To survive and be happy, Russians have so much to bury, to willfully ignore. Small wonder that the intensity of their pleasures and indulgences is so sharp: it has to match the quality of the suffering.”
Central in the book is Matthews’s mother, Lyudmilla. As a backdrop to his mother, Matthews describes the popular antihero of his parents’ generation, Kompromis Kompromisovich, who was a tribute to the men and women who successfully negotiated the disappointments of Soviet life by millions of small compromises. His mother Lyudmilla was not such an antihero: “where the most [Lyudmilla’s] contemporaries could aspire to is to get by, Milla believed that her will could conquer the world.” By the time she meets Matthews’s father, Oxford professor Mervyn Matthews, Lyudmilla has been established enough as a presence that one is unsurprised by her daring.
Hearing about Lyudmilla was especially enjoyable because, personally, I’ve always enjoyed the acerbic humor Matthews often includes in his characters, especially regarding the ironies of the Soviet system. Hearing about her and her capacity for such humor felt like a finding a much needed puzzle piece in understanding Matthews’s writing.
Matthews’s presentation of his father (whose description and background are just as well-rounded as are ‘Milla’s) is just as worth reading. Describing his father’s defiance of the KGB regarding Milla as noble & principled, Matthews finds it incomprehensible; “If I’d been forced to choose between being separated from the woman I loved and signing a paper saying I would work for the KGB, I would have unhesitatingly signed on the dotted line. Whatever my private feelings for the KGB, I would have considered the cause of my personal happiness supreme above all others.” In this and other moments, Stalin’s Children incorporates not only the genres of history and memoir, but also love story, with characters no less grand and romantic for being real. Indeed, with the hindsight the author uses in recounting the time period’s brutal circumstances, Matthews’s parents are shown to have been moreso.
As I’ve said, I approached Stalin’s Children so I could better understand Matthews’s other work, especially his fiction; it certainly helped with that. However, it also does much more, providing insight at many levels of focus and genre. Throughout, it gives a full perspective of the central figures’ choices, motives, and psychologies, never losing the sympathy, understanding, and honesty of a family member. If you’re looking for an account of what it was like to live in twentieth-century Russia, both before, during, and after the Soviet state, Stalin’s Children should be your next read.