I have read many sagas of Russian families, but Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love and War by Owen Matthews has facets that make it poignant. It is both tragedy and love story by a distinguished chronicler of the East. Matthews has covered Moscow for Newsweek since 1997 and has witnessed the Chechen, Bosnian and latest Iraqi wars. He knows something about the drama and tragedy of turbulent times. He also had his own story, his own Russian life. Half-Russian himself, he listened to his family and searched the archives to uncover what happened to his forebears. Stalin’s Children is not one story, but several.
At its heart is the rise and fall of a single Bolshevik, Boris Bibikov, Matthews’ grandfather. He rose in the Bolshevik Party under Stalin, one of the heroic and tough generation who achieved collectivisation and industrialization at a terrible cost. Bibikov was a senior industrialist manager. Stalin’s old friend and industry chief, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, arrived at Bibikov’s factory to inspect it and urge ever greater efforts. Bibikov lived a high energy existence “spending nights at the office for days on end, but also balancing mistresses with his wife.”
Then in 1937, the atmosphere started to change: Bibikov’s boss, Sergo, opposed the rising arrests in his industrial commissariat and confronted Stalin at a Central Committee plenum. The conflict ended with Sergo’s suicide and the start of mass arrests of top officials. Bibikov was the classic and typical victim of the Great Terror, a senior official and loyal Bolshevik, who had experienced the revolution and known leaders other than Stalin. Soon he was arrested and disappeared. The family were told he had been sentenced for a long term but was alive. His daughters, Ludmilla and Lenina, although there was no Stalina, were truly Stalin’s children. They were taken into orphanages, and their story is at the heart of the book.
This is also the story of how Ludmilla fell in love with Matthews’ intellectual father, Mervyn, who found himself drawn into a KGB trap to “turn” him into a spy. He barely escaped. Here also is the story of how Ludmilla and Mervyn struggled to be together.
The last facet of this three generational story is Matthews’ own life as a journalist in the decadent and wild Moscow of the Nineties and how he uncovered his grandfather’s terrible fate. He writes engagingly about the wild frontier town excesses of Moscow Babylon, such as the notorious Hungry Duck night club. Simultaneously, he tells how he found the truth about Bibikov. The family had believed that he had somehow survived for a long time after 1937. They sent him letters and packages for years. Matthews finds his execution warrant, which showed he had been shot soon after his arrest.
Reviewed by Simon Sebag Montefiore is author of a two-part biography of Stalin and a new novel about three generations of a Russian family, Sashenka. Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love and War by Owen Matthews is published by Bloomsbury and costs Â£17.99.