Stalin’s Children by Owen Matthews
When I picked up this volume from a library shelf, I never expected the term “children” to refer to the generations of Russian children that had grown up under the repressive regime of Stalin, whom they had referred to as ‘Uncle Stalin’.
The book is the story of the love affair between Owen Matthews’ parents: Mervyn, a failed British academic, and Lyudmila, a Russian lady who had survived 11 years of internment, and had been crippled by TB, in one of Stalin’s many prison camps. They met in the 1960s, during the cold war, when Mervyn was posted as a diplomat in Moscow, but found himself forever in the firing line of the KGB, who ultimately tried to recruit him as a spy. They failed to pierce his British membrane of loyalty, so had him expelled for ‘economic speculation’ (he tried to sell an old suit).
For six years thereafter, Mervyn and Lyudmila kept their relationship alive through love letters, while Mervyn exploited every diplomatic (and non-diplomatic) avenue fighting for Lyudmila’s right of passage out of Russia. Only when an exchange of prisoners, totally unconnected to their case, came about, Lyudmila was added to the deal as an afterthought. Sadly the marriage turned out to be unhappy. The epistolary happiness during the 6 years of separation could never be matched by the real thing.
Matthews, who followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a Russianist himself, travelling extensively in Russia as a journalist, and marrying a Russian lady, already had the imaginative background to pursue his research to discover some of the details of his parents’ tortured lives, during a period of Russian history when it was a miracle for both of them to survive.