The quote featured on the jacket regarding Matthews' inspiration for
Stalin's Children is extremely appropriate and neatly summarizes the
book's intent. Matthews succeeds admirably in his goal of describing his
family's journey from Russia to England and back again, in the process
crafting a fascinating history that reads more like a novel than a work of
The book chronicles the lives of Matthews' Russian grandparents, aunt, mother, and Welsh father (as well as delving briefly into his own) who were all directly effected by one or more of the multiple political upheavals that characterized much of Russia's 20th century history. Victims of Stalin's Purge and later Communist crackdowns, most of the family somehow managed to survive. Matthews, a one-time war correspondent for Newsweek, relates his family's experiences with a reporter's eye for description and detail, completely drawing his readers into his family's saga.
The narrative comes across as surprisingly objective, particularly when Matthews discusses his male relatives. He says of his grandfather's execution during the Great Purge:
Bibikov himself would have perfectly understood, with his rational mind, as he stood in a cellar or faced a prison wall in his last moments, the logic of his executioners. And perhaps why not? he might, if he had met different people in his early days in the Party, found different patrons, have become an executioner himself. Did he not explain away the famine which his Party had brought to the Ukraine as a necessary purging of enemy elements? Did he not consider himself one of the Revolution's chosen, ruled by a higher morality? Bibikov was no innocent, caught by an evil and alien force beyond his comprehension. On the contrary, he was a propagandist, a fanatic of the new morality the morality which now demanded his life, however pointlessly, for the greater good.
Additionally, Matthews provides a dispassionate account of his
emotionally distant relationship with his father Mervyn, blaming neither his
father nor himself for the rift. Few authors are able to achieve this sense
of balanced reporting while still making a book interesting, particularly
when discussing so intimate a subject. Matthews, however, manages to do just
The information in Stalin's Children comes from numerous conversations with Matthews' surviving Russian relatives, an enormous amount of research, and the letters written between his mother and father during their six-year separation. Much of the work, too, is based on Matthews' own observations made during his visits to the country, as well as personal knowledge gleaned during the years he lived in Moscow. He attempts to show parallels between his life and that of his father's, bouncing back and forth between the two eras. This is perhaps the only weak part of the book. Readers may find themselves so wrapped up in the father's tale that the switch to the son's is an interruption. Matthews relates more of his own life later in the book, including a particularly harrowing account of reporting from the war in Chechnya. Unfortunately, while it's apparent from his press clippings that Matthews has lived a fairly adventurous life, most of his experiences aren't recorded in Stalin's Children.
Overall, Stalin's Children is a well-written biography about resilient people living in a tense, and dangerous, political climate. Non-fiction readers will want to put this one high on their list.
Photos - Top: Joseph Stalin c.1942. Bottom: The author. Right: Nikolai Yezhov
This review was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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