Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I seldom read memoirs, and even less frequently family histories, but found journalist Owen Matthews’ Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival an enjoyable and instructive account of his parents’ family histories and heroic five-year struggle against Soviet intransigence to obtain the marriage they so desperately desired. It is a tale of a family from Ukraine, whose paterfamilias---a dedicated, well-liked Communist propaganda officer who backed the wrong horse in a political struggle---is secretly carted away and executed, with his wife soon to be thrown into and broken by the gulag, and whose two young daughters bravely survive life on the run or in orphanages. The hero of the story, Lyudmila, despite her hardships (including a crippled leg), is inspiring---you just fall in love with her (and maybe it is partly biased by her son's love, but it doesn't matter). Despite the terrible heart-rending stories, I am always heartened and amazed by the bravery of some people (such as the orphanage director who decides not to separate the sisters) in helping others for whom they owe nothing, but they do it anyway. It recounts the brutal famine, murders, and expulsions heaped upon Ukraine (the destruction of the kulaks during the collectivization of farms); the tough, desperate battle of the Soviets against the Germans; the totalitarian oppressiveness of the Soviet state. It recounts the love affair of the author’s English father with Russia, the attempt by the KGB to turn him, and then the difficult years of trying to obtain the release of his fiance from Russia. Just as interesting, possibly even more so, is the search by the author (a large part of which is facilitated by the letters between his parents during their separation) to uncover his family history (even uncovering a KGB file on the tirla and execution of his grandfather), and his descriptions of his work as a journalist (and his personal life) in Russia.
The book made me think of my mother. She was from Lviv & Kiev, Ukraine; she told me stories of the famine and occupations, and of the horrible execution of Jews from Kiev. She was a tough, independent, determined woman, who also became an exile and made a family in a new world. She didn't tell me all of her experiences, but there were always little signs. For instance, she often ate a entire apple, stem and seeds and all, as her disbelieving children looked on, and then she explained how they ate grass soup for months. She told me how a shell-hit horse was stripped clean in the streets as if the starving Ukrainians were piranha, of watching a house they had just run out of explode behind them. I could relate more, perhaps later, but I can say that I really miss my Mom. There was mention of cherry soup, which my mother made for me.
The book does not have a fairy tale ending, but it opens a window into life in Russia. I am sure some will quibble, but I found it interesting. Anyone interested in life under the Soviet regime will find it worthwhile.

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