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Summary and book reviews of Stalin's Children by Owen Matthews

Stalin's Children

Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival

by Owen Matthews

Stalin's Children
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2009, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Book Summary

An indelible portrait of Russia over seven decades and an unforgettable memoir about how we struggle to define ourselves in opposition to our ancestry only to find ourselves aligning with it.

On a midsummer day in 1937, a black car pulled up to a house in Chernigov, in the heart of the Ukraine. Boris Bibikov - Owen Matthews's grandfather - kissed his wife and two young daughters good-bye and disappeared inside the car. His family never saw him again. His wife would soon vanish as well, leaving Lyudmila and Lenina alone to drift across the vast Russian landscape during World War II . Separated as the Germans advanced in 1941, they were miraculously reunited against all odds at the war's end.

Some twenty-five years later, in the early 1960s, Mervyn Matthews - Owen's father - followed a lifelong passion for Russia and moved to Moscow to work for the British embassy. He fell in and out with the KGB, and despite having fallen in love with Lyudmila, he was summarily deported. For the next six years, Mervyn worked day and night to get Lyudmila out of Russia, and when he finally succeeded, they married.

Decades on from these events, Owen Matthews - then a young journalist himself in Russia - came upon his grandfather's KGB file recording his "progress from life to death at the hands of Stalin's secret police." Excited by its revelations, he has pieced together the tangled and dramatic threads of his family's past and present, making sense of the magnetic pull that has drawn him back to his mother's homeland. Stalin's Children is an indelible portrait of Russia over seven decades and an unforgettable memoir about how we struggle to define ourselves in opposition to our ancestry only to find ourselves aligning with it.

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...

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 they reunited?

Mila lived through the darkest period in Russian history. Her father ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

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 non-fiction.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review Members Only (549 words).

Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

Matthews...relates this dramatic tale in understated but lovely prose.

Kirkus Reviews

Lacks the soul-fire of a Doctor Zhivago, but this is a memorable depiction of what Pasternak called Russia's "damned capacity for suffering.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Matthews is a consummate storyteller; that this family history is true makes it all the more enthralling.

The Guardian

Some of Matthews's most vivid pages evoke the children's inconceivably brutal experience during the war, though he is brilliant, too, on what it was like to be one of Stalin's children.

The Times

[A] superb chronicle of the 20th-century Soviet Union, seen through the eyes of his parents and grandparents: a Russian Wild Swans.

The Spectator

Reconstruction of one’s parents’ love story is a rare enough undertaking; success to this extent puts Owen Matthews’s family biography into a special category ..... a remarkable book.

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Beyond the Book

The History of Russia & The Soviet Union during the first half of the 20th Century

The history of Russia and the Soviet Union during the first half of the 20th century is complex to say the least, characterized by near-constant turmoil. The autocratic reign of the Tsars came to an end in 1917, sparked by economic hardship instigated by Russia's involvement in World War I, rapid urban growth, and the rise of the middle class. Various political parties emerged to vie for leadership in the ensuing vacuum, with the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin ultimately prevailing. Lenin's death in 1924 led to a power struggle which left party leadership in the hands of Joseph Stalin.

Stalin's policy of aggressive ...

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