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

By the time she was ten years old, Lyudmila Bibikov, Owen Matthews’s mother, had endured more suffering and heartache than most of us will see in a lifetime. In 1937, at the age of just three, she lost her father, Boris, a young Soviet official, to the bloodbath of the first Stalinist purge, a false confession beaten out of him over 19 agonizing days before he was shot and dumped who-knows-where in Kiev. In the terror and confusion after Boris’s arrest, Lyudmila’s mother, Martha, was torn from her side, tried for being an “accessory to anti-Soviet activity” and sent in a cattle truck to serve ten years’ hard labor in Kazakhstan. Lyudmila and her elder sister, Lenina — who at 12 had suddenly to act like a parent to her tiny sibling — were then separated in the chaos of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Stranded briefly near Stalingrad at the start of the battle for the city, Lyudmila became crippled by tuberculosis of the bone and ended up — alone, hobbled, painfully emaciated — in a giant, industrial-style orphanage in the freezing foothills of the Ural Mountains. When Lenina finally found her again, by the most astonishing piece of luck, in the summer of 1944, the ten-year-old Lyudmila was lame, toothless, and lice-ridden, with a belly so distended by hunger that it stuck out further than her nose. Her first words to her sister, whom she had spied coming through the gates, were “Yisti khoche! Yisti khoche!” — “I want food!”

Written by Newsweek‘s bureau chief in Moscow, this deeply affecting memoir of three generations of one Russian family is in part a tribute to Lyudmila’s indomitability. Faced with the tribulations described in the first half of the book, Matthews’s mother should, by rights, have disappeared into the meat grinder of Soviet history. But adversity taught her fortitude and forged in her tiny frame an iron determination that was to serve her well when, years later, she met Matthews’s father. Where others crumbled, Lyudmila strove and succeeded, excelling, for instance, at the Moscow orphanage to which she was sent after she had made it back from the Urals. Voted leader of the local Young Pioneers (a Soviet version of the Scouts or Guides), she became — crippled leg and all — skipping champion of her class, gained entry to the prestigious Moscow University, and then graduated with a gold medal as one of the ablest students of her year. “I want life to show me in practice the strength of my principles,” she wrote with almost pathological intensity. “I want it, I want it, I want it.”

But if Stalin’s Children is a tribute to Lyudmila’s grit, it is also an homage to the matching determination shown by her future husband, Matthews’s father. Mervyn Matthews may not have had a dramatic childhood — he came from a rather shabby and unhappy mining family in the Welsh valleys — but the manner in which he went about securing his marriage to Lyudmila, pitting himself against the entire Soviet system in the process, speaks volumes for the depth and durability of his courage.

Mervyn first met Lyudmila in Moscow in 1963. Obsessed with Russia since childhood, he had been in and out of the country since 1957 — first as a gawping student, then as a British embassy official, and finally as a university fellow on graduate exchanges. Several times during these visits he had come across the KGB, who persisted in trying to lure him into becoming an agent for them. Mervyn, naive though he may have been, persisted in refusing.

His meeting with the diminutive and limping Lyudmila proved to be the turning point in his life. Within days, she had invited him back to her tiny flat; within months, they were contemplating marriage. But less than a month after registering their proposed nuptials at the Central Palace of Weddings, Mervyn was arrested on trumped-up charges. Offered one last chance to defect, he refused, and was swiftly ejected from the country.

“For as long as I have known of it,” comments Matthews, “my father’s defiance of the KGB has struck me as a noble and principled act.” Mervyn could, he points out, very easily have signed the papers saying he would work for the KGB and then simply married the woman he loved. If it had been him, Matthews confesses, “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.” Mervyn, though, chose not to but instead spent six years trying everything he could — from writing to dignitaries such as Bertrand Russell to chasing Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev around Sweden, attempting to hand him a letter — to persuade the authorities to relent. Through all that time, he and Lyudmila wrote to each other every day, their correspondence burning with an intensity that almost makes one blush.

Matthews, it is clear, has been handed in his family history a story of quite remarkable drama and poignancy. Everywhere he turned during his research, tales of humbling endeavor or suffering leaped up at him. Exploring the story of his grandmother, Martha, he reveals how she was marked forever by the childhood trauma of having to leave her feverish younger sister on a train platform to die. Describing his aunt Lenina’s courtship, he explains how, just three days after her beau had proposed to her, he had to have his leg amputated at the knee with a wooden saw after his car hit an anti-tank mine. Lenina, rushing to his side, brought him back to Moscow to be married.

Stories such as these would make any work memorable, but it is what Matthews does with them that makes Stalin’s Children so noteworthy. Cool and calm in his delivery, reserved in his judgments, he rarely overdramatizes events or overindulges his feelings for his family. Instead, he allows the individuals themselves, caught up in the roaring turmoil of history, to step forward into the light and modestly declare their courage. Such admirable restraint allows his subjects to shine, his story to sing, and his inspiring book to take wing and fly.