Owen Matthews has an extraordinary story to tell, spanning three generations of his own family, all caught up with the cataclysmic events of Russia in the 20th century. He came to know Russia well while working as a journalist in Moscow in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet system, but his Russian roots go much deeper and further back. Indeed, his most famous ancestor helped Catherine the Great to suppress the Pugachev rebellion.
Matthews's maternal grandfather, Boris Bibikov, was a Party man, a true believer in the great Bolshevik experiment which would bring about a new person, homo sovieticus. As one of the leaders at the giant Kharkov Tractor Factory, he would organise "storm nights" of labour, accompanied by brass bands, in an effort to fulfil the near-impossible targets. He further demonstrated his commitment to the cause by naming his elder daughter "Lenina". But by the time his second daughter, Owen's mother, was born, he was starting to have doubts about the methods employed by Stalin, particularly when they resulted in the terrible famine of 1931-2. Those doubts led him to back the more moderate Sergei Kirov at the All-Union Party Congress in 1934. Three years later, Stalin took his revenge.
Bibikov's arrest and summary execution wrecked the lives of his family, as was always the case for the relatives of "enemies of the people". His wife Martha was sent to the camps, and his two young daughters became virtual orphans. That Lyudmila, Owen's mother, survived at all is something of a miracle, her will to live triumphing over everything from measles to near-starvation. "Simple Soviet people are everywhere performing miracles". As Matthews points out, this phrase from a Russian popular 1930s song, though usually sung with irony by his mother when faced with some bureaucratic stupidity, actually had a profound influence on her attitudes and behaviour.
Having endured life in Soviet orphanages, she finally made it to Moscow University – which is where she encountered Mervyn, Owen's father, at that time a postgraduate student from Oxford. Their ensuing love affair and six-year separation were documented in their letters, at least one a day. Lyudmila and Mervyn – or Mila and Mervusya, as they called each other – had set out to perform yet another miracle, that of overcoming Cold War intransigence to attain their goal of marriage and an exit visa.
There are many moments of almost unbearable poignancy in Stalin's Children, but perhaps one of the saddest aspects is the way Mila and Mervusya's great romance seemed to fizzle out once their struggles were finally over. The journey had become more important than the destination. As Matthews writes: "though the letters are full of pain, I think that they also describe the happiest period of my parents' lives". Married life in a rather dreary England was a far cry from outwitting the KGB "goons" in Moscow, and Matthews has clearly been quite surprised himself by what he has learned of his parental history.
Virginia Rounding's life of Catherine the Great is published by Arrow