On a shelf in a cellar in the former KGB headquarters in Chernigov, in the
black earth country in the heart of the Ukraine, lies a thick file with a
crumbling brown cardboard cover. It contains about three pounds of paper,
the sheets carefully numbered and bound. Its subject is my mother's father,
Boris Lvovich Bibikov, whose name is entered on the cover in curiously
elaborate, copperplate script. The file records my grandfather's progress
from life to death at the hands of Stalin's secret police as the summer of
1937 turned to autumn and the great Purge of the Communist Party swept away
a generation of old Bolsheviks.
I saw the file in a dingy office in the old secret police headquarters in Kiev fifty-eight years after his death. It sat heavily in my lap, eerily malignant, a swollen tumor of paper. Typed on flimsy forms or handwritten on scrap paper in archaic script, the file existed on that peculiarly Russian border between banal bureaucracy and painful poignancy. It was a compilation of the absurdly petty - a receipt for the confiscation of a Browning automatic and 23 rounds of ammunition, another for the confiscation of his daughter's Young Pioneer holiday trip voucher - and the starkly shocking. Long confessions, written in microscopic, crabbed writing, covered in blotches and apparently written under torture, my grandfather's confessions to being an 'enemy of the people'. The final document is a clumsily mimeographed slip, confirming that the sentence of death passed by a closed court in Kiev had been carried out on October 14th, 1937. The signature of his executioner is a casual squiggle. Since the careful bureaucrats who compiled the file neglected to say where he was buried, this stack of paper is the closest thing to Boris Bibikov's earthly remains.
In the attic of No. 7, Alderney Street, Pimlico, London, is a handsome steamer trunk, marked 'W.H.M Matthews, St. Antony's College, Oxford, ANGLIA' in neat black painted letters. It contains a love story. Or perhaps it contains a love. In the trunk are hundreds of my parents' love-letters, carefully arranged by date in stacks, starting in July 1964, ending in October 1969. Many are on thin airmail paper, others on multiple sheets of neat white writing paper. For the six years that my British father and Russian mother were separated by the fortunes of the Cold War, they wrote to each other every day, sometimes twice a day. They talk of tiny incidents from the few months they spent together in Moscow, they gossip about mutual friends and meals and films. At moments their epistolary conversation is so intimate that reading the letters feels like a violation. At others the pain of separation is so intense that the paper seems to tremble with it. But above all the letters are charged with loss, and loneliness, and with a love so great, as my mother wrote, "that it can move mountains and turn the world on its axis." And though the letters are full of pain, I think that they also describe the happiest period of their lives.
As I leaf through the letters now, sitting on the floor of the London attic which was my childhood room, where I slept for eighteen years not a yard from where the letters lay in their locked trunk in the box-room under the eaves of the house, and where I listened to the sound of my parents raised voices drifting up the stairs, it occurs to me that here is where my parents' love is. "Every letter is a piece of our soul, they mustn't get lost," my mother wrote during their first agonizing months. "Your letters bring me little pieces of you, of your life, your breath, your beating heart." And so they spilled their souls out onto paper reams of paper, impregnated with pain, desire and love, chains of paper, relays of it, rumbling through the night on mail trains across Europe almost without interruption for six years. "As our letters travel they take on a magical quality - in that lies their strength," she wrote. "Every line is the blood of my heart, and there is no limit to how much I can pour out." But by the time my parents were re-united, they found there was barely enough love left over. It had all been turned into ink, and written over a thousand sheets of paper, carefully folded in a trunk in the attic of a terraced house in London.
Excerpt from Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love and War by Owen Matthews, published by Walker & Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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