3.01.2011

Review: Owen Matthews' Stalin's Children

The frustration with Molotov's Magic Lantern has been salved by Matthews' family memoir Stalin's Children. Matthews begins with his grandfather, a henchman of Stalin's until he is put to death during the purges, and proceeds down the family tree to his own experiences living in Russia. Matthews' mother, Ludmilla, was orphaned when her father was arrested, and her survival - through starvation, orphanages, illness - is nothing short of a miracle. Ludmilla encourages Matthews to remember "the good people," the ones who helped others when it was mortally dangerous to do so. This direction lends the memoir a multi-dimensional cast that sheds light on the "real" Russians.

It has been my experience, though I admit I haven't read as much about Russian history as I plan to, that the general historical narrative post-1917 falls into two clumps: party members and non-party members. Both groups act in predictable ways until it seems that there was vengeance in the name of communism on the one hand and concerted ignoring on the other. One wonders where the characters were? Who told the jokes? Did anyone ever let their hair down? Presumably, these things did happen, and though everyone was mindful of the ever-present censor and potential march to a work camp, life happened. The notion of "life happening" in Russia during these horrible years has always been something I've wanted to know more about. Matthews' exploration of his family's tribulations during these turbulent times includes stories of people making dinner, writing letters, taking vacations, answering the telephone. It also includes the amazing stories of people waiting six years to get a beloved from behind the Iron Curtain, orphans set on a floating barge by a desperate orphanage director to keep them safe from the Germans, two sisters meeting after years of separation. In total, it is a portrait of a terrifying world where people lived everyday in the face of great evil, but also great love.

This is not an easy read, and certain moments even brought tears to my eyes, but it is an engrossing portrait of triumph, love, persistence, and good humor. For book clubs, it would provide a fascinating nonfiction counterpart to Russian Winter and Sashenka.
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