Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
These discussion questions are designed to enhance your group's conversation
about Stalin's Children
, a riveting family history of romance, politics,
and extreme hardship in Russia, from Stalin's Soviet Union to today's Moscow.
About this book
Owen Matthews made a wonderful discovery in his parents' attic: a collection of
their love letters from the 1960s, during a six-year separation between this
reserved Englishman, Mervyn Matthews, and his lively Russian fiancée, Mila
Bibikova. Matthews barely recognized his parents in these passionate letters:
How did they meet, how did their love grow so strong, and how did it wither when
Mila lived through the darkest period in Russian history. Her father was
tortured and executed during Josef Stalin's purges. Her mother was sentenced to
hard labor, and Mila, three, and her elder sister Lenina, nine, were shuttled
between orphanages, nearly starving to death during World War II. Mila,
permanently disabled from her childhood neglect, was determined not just to
survive, but to thrive in her rapidly changing homeland.
Mervyn Matthews met Mila in Moscow, and he was just as infatuated with Mila as
he was with Russia itself. But after the KGB tried and failed to recruit Mervyn
as a double agent, he was expelled from the country. The couple spent the next
six years exchanging letters between Russia and England, pouring their love onto
the page. But once reunited, Mervyn and Mila's marriage could never match the
bittersweet ardor of their letters.
Owen Matthews, by discovering his parents' past, comes to terms with his own
complicated attachment to Russia. Stalin's Children
is a portrait of an
evolving country, through the eyes of one captivating family.
- Owen Matthews writes about his mother, "the idea that the individual
could overcome seemingly impossible obstacles shaped her life" (9). What are
some of the obstacles that Mila was able to overcome in her lifetime? What
challenges was she unable to surmount?
- Matthews never had the opportunity to meet his grandfather, Boris
Bibikov. How does he manage to trace his grandfather's history? What sense
does Matthews have of his grandfather's personality?
- When Boris returned from his army service, his two-year-old daughter,
Lenina, didn't recognize him: "Little Lenina said no, that's not Daddy, and
pointed to the tin box where Martha kept her husband's lettersthat's Daddy
in there" (25). Why did letters play such an important role for the Bibikov
women: Martha, Lenina, and Mila? How did absence turn two of their husbands,
Boris and Mervyn, into a "stack of paper that equaled one human life?" (48)
- According to Mila, "I understood the Party, Stalin, the People. But I
never knew what the word mother' meant" (107). Describe the relationship
between Mila and her mother, Martha. What were the lasting effects of this
relationship upon Mila's personality and family life?
- Matthews first describes his life in Russia with the story of his
assault in Moscow by three strangers, and his "horror and guilt" at their
hefty prison sentence (63). How does this story set the scene for Matthews's
other tales of Russian life? What are the parallels between this legal
experience and Mila and Mervyn's struggles with the law?
- Mila wrote to Mervyn in a 1964 letter, "everything was similar in our
lives, identical, even our illnesses" (130). What were some of the
similarities between Mila and Mervyn's childhoods? How did their youths
differ? Why does Mila emphasize their similar pasts?
- Compare Mervyn Matthews's first impressions of Moscow, when he arrived
in 1958 to work for the British embassy, to Owen Matthews's Moscow of 1995,
when he settled there for his job as a correspondent. How did the city
change over those thirty years? How did it remain the same? What did each
man, father and son, first seek in Moscow, and what did he find?
- As Mervyn ventured outside the social circle of the British embassy,
what were the first signs that he was entering a dangerous game with the
KGB? Why did Mervyn continue his relationship with Alexei, despite his
suspicions? When did Mervyn finally realize, "This was not a game at all?"
- Describe Mila and Mervyn's first impressions when they meet in 1963.
What attracted them to each other? How does this initial meeting compare to
Matthews's first impressions of his future wife, Xenia? Which love story has
a more romantic beginning: the parents' or the son's?
- Mervyn's campaign to get Mila out of Russia had its share of failures
and disappointments. Which attempt seemed the most promising? Which
near-success was the most heartbreaking, and why?
- Matthews writes, "If I have realized anything in writing this book, it
is that my father is a deeply honorable man" (198). What signs of Mervyn's
honor appear in the book? What does Matthews discover about his mother's
character by writing her story?
- Matthews writes that while reading his reading parents' love letters, "I
could not shake the terrible feeling that both my parents were dead and lost
to me" (212). Why is Matthews left with a sense of loss? What saddens him in
his parents' love letters?
- Describing her departure from Moscow at the end of 1969, Mila stated, "I
was like an old prisoner who's been set free . . . I didn't want to leave my
cell" (258). Discuss Mila's complicated feelings toward her country at this
moment of departure. Why did she hesitate to leave at the last moment? Did
she seem to regret her decision later? Why or why not?
- As a career journalist writing a personal history, how does Matthews
balance his skills as an investigative reporter with his emotional
attachment to his parents? At which moments does this book feel especially
- Review the photographs printed at the center of the book. Which photo is
most affecting, and why? What do these photographs reveal about the people
of Stalin's Children?
- The book ends with a Russian children's rhyme that Mila sang to her
grandson, Nikita. What is the mood during this final scene?
- Mervyn Matthews, Mila and Mervuysa and Mervyn's Lot;
- Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar;
- Martin Amis, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million;
- Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita;
- Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago;
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch
and The Gulag Archipelago;
- Eugenia Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind;
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon;
- David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire;
- Andrew Meier, Black Earth: A Journey through Russia after the Fall;
- Antony Beevor, Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 19421943.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Walker & Company.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.