March 2024
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Review: Stalin’s Children, Owen Matthews

I love Russian history.  I can hear you saying: “What?  I thought you loved medieval history!”, which obviously I do, but Russian history is another one of those side interests of mine.  I don’t love it enough to make it my life, but I find it fascinating.  I did study Russian for 5 1/2 years, so a lot of my knowledge comes from reading stuff in Russian, and I think it’s the combination of the language and the history that makes it so enthralling to me.  I’ve forgotten most of my Russian now, but I still have the stray thought float by in Russian; as I was reading this book, all the landmarks were automatically recognizable to me.  Besides that, Russia is the only country that I’ve discovered so far where the history doesn’t get less interesting as time goes by.  Generally my interest drops off once guns are invented, but with Russia, things just get more interesting.

So, I was very pleased to receive a review copy of Stalin’s Children, a memoir which covers three generations of a partly Russian family’s history in the 20th century.  The author’s maternal family suffered greatly in the hands of Stalin’s purges; his grandfather, a loyal Party man, was shot and killed, his grandmother sent to a labor camp, and his mother and aunt separated and sent to orphanages, where they nearly starved.  Matthews’ father, Mervyn, was a Welsh student enthralled with Russia and willing to do everything he could to get there; it’s not surprising that he fell in love with a Russian girl.  The part that is surprising is their six year separation and the many love letters they sent to one another over the distance.

The beginning was particularly interesting.  Stalin’s purges are, I think, well known, but we don’t often get such an intimate picture of a family torn apart by them.  Many men who weren’t guilty of anything at all were sent to be killed or imprisoned permanently for no apparent reason other than extreme suspicion.  Reading about this from Lenina and Lyudmila’s points of view brings home the suffering that they and many other families endured.

I think my own experience hindered my enjoyment of the rest of the book.  You’d think that I would empathize and relate with Lyudmila and Mervyn, still in my own long-distance relationship with a foreigner.  And I do to some extent; I could certainly feel the pain of their separation because it echoes mine so closely.  I think the pain of being separated from someone you love above all others, not knowing when you’ll see them again, is universal.  Nevertheless, I was actually bored by Mervyn’s endless struggle to free Mila.  It seemed like pages and pages of him writing and trying to see various governmental officials went by, with excerpts from their copious love letters and woeful tales of how much Mila was suffering interspersed.  I understood that it was a long time and it was very painful, but I had a lot of trouble feeling it once the initial separation was over.  To be honest, it felt like a lot of complaining, and while they had to complain to get heard, I honestly just can’t take that much.  I know that their separation is a great deal more difficult than mine and they didn’t even know if they’d end up together, but I just can’t stand when people complain about their long distance relationships.  You’ll never catch me complaining about mine to anyone other than my fiance.

And then, this may be a spoiler here, she wasn’t happy when she got there.  She was homesick, instead.  We barely hear about how pleased Mervyn and Mila were that they finally got to be together after six years.  Between you and me, I think they placed each other on pedestals too high to climb after all those letters.  So I ended up very disappointed in the book’s outcome.

As for Owen’s own life story up until now, I think he did a fair job trying to bridge the Moscow of long ago with the Moscow of recent years.  His parts were more like a contemporary memoir, and interwoven with the history they successfully demonstrated both how much and how little Russia has changed in the past 75 years.

I’m not sure I’ll recommend this one.  I enjoyed the first half but was disappointed by the second half.  Your opinion may vary, and in fact if you have reviewed this book and offer a more favorable opinion, please leave me a comment – I’ll link to your review in this post. Buy this book on Amazon.


2 comments to Review: Stalin’s Children, Owen Matthews

  • Ooo…this sounds like something I would like. I’m adding it to my TBR pile. I too love Russian history and agree that even recent history is fascinating.

  • Thanks for the review…this one is on my list to be read and I’ll still give it a go, if only for the first part of the book, the purges in particular. Nicely written review!