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Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival By Owen Matthews

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Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival

By Owen Matthews
These discussion questions are designed to enhance your group’s conversation about Stalin’s Children, a riveting family history of romance, politics, and extreme hardship in Russia, from Stalin’s Soviet Union to today’s Moscow.
About this book

Owen Matthews made a wonderful discovery in his parents’ attic: a collection of their love letters from the 1960s, during a six-year separation between this reserved Englishman, Mervyn Matthews, and his lively Russian fiancée, Mila Bibikova. Matthews barely recognized his parents in these passionate letters: How did they meet, how did their love grow so strong, and how did it wither when they reunited?

Mila lived through the darkest period in Russian history. Her father was tortured and executed during Josef Stalin’s purges. Her mother was sentenced to hard labor, and Mila, three, and her elder sister Lenina, nine, were shuttled between orphanages, nearly starving to death during World War II. Mila, permanently disabled from her childhood neglect, was determined not just to survive, but to thrive in her rapidly changing homeland.
Mervyn Matthews met Mila in Moscow, and he was just as infatuated with Mila as he was with Russia itself. But after the KGB tried and failed to recruit Mervyn as a double agent, he was expelled from the country. The couple spent the next six years exchanging letters between Russia and England, pouring their love onto the page. But once reunited, Mervyn and Mila’s marriage could never match the bittersweet ardor of their letters.
Owen Matthews, by discovering his parents’ past, comes to terms with his own complicated attachment to Russia. Stalin’s Children is a portrait of an evolving country, through the eyes of one captivating family.
For discussion

  1. Owen Matthews writes about his mother, “the idea that the individual could overcome seemingly impossible obstacles shaped her life” (9). What are some of the obstacles that Mila was able to overcome in her lifetime? What challenges was she unable to surmount?

  1. Matthews never had the opportunity to meet his grandfather, Boris Bibikov. How does he manage to trace his grandfather’s history? What sense does Matthews have of his grandfather’s personality?

  1. When Boris returned from his army service, his two-year-old daughter, Lenina, didn’t recognize him: “Little Lenina said no, that’s not Daddy, and pointed to the tin box where Martha kept her husband’s letters—that’s Daddy in there” (25). Why did letters play such an important role for the Bibikov women: Martha, Lenina, and Mila? How did absence turn two of their husbands, Boris and Mervyn, into a “stack of paper that equaled one human life?” (48)

  1. According to Mila, “I understood the Party, Stalin, the People. But I never knew what the word ‘mother’ meant” (107). Describe the relationship between Mila and her mother, Martha. What were the lasting effects of this relationship upon Mila’s personality and family life?

  1. Matthews first describes his life in Russia with the story of his assault in Moscow by three strangers, and his “horror and guilt” at their hefty prison sentence (63). How does this story set the scene for Matthews’s other tales of Russian life? What are the parallels between this legal experience and Mila and Mervyn’s struggles with the law?

  1. Mila wrote to Mervyn in a 1964 letter, “everything was similar in our lives, identical, even our illnesses” (130). What were some of the similarities between Mila and Mervyn’s childhoods? How did their youths differ? Why does Mila emphasize their similar pasts?

  1. Compare Mervyn Matthews’s first impressions of Moscow, when he arrived in 1958 to work for the British embassy, to Owen Matthews’s Moscow of 1995, when he settled there for his job as a correspondent. How did the city change over those thirty years? How did it remain the same? What did each man, father and son, first seek in Moscow, and what did he find?

  1. As Mervyn ventured outside the social circle of the British embassy, what were the first signs that he was entering a dangerous game with the KGB? Why did Mervyn continue his relationship with Alexei, despite his suspicions? When did Mervyn finally realize, “This was not a game at all?” (169)

  1. Describe Mila and Mervyn’s first impressions when they meet in 1963. What attracted them to each other? How does this initial meeting compare to Matthews’s first impressions of his future wife, Xenia? Which love story has a more romantic beginning: the parents’ or the son’s?

  1. Mervyn’s campaign to get Mila out of Russia had its share of failures and disappointments. Which attempt seemed the most promising? Which near-success was the most heartbreaking, and why?

  1. Matthews writes, “If I have realized anything in writing this book, it is that my father is a deeply honorable man” (198). What signs of Mervyn’s honor appear in the book? What does Matthews discover about his mother’s character by writing her story?

  1. Matthews writes that while reading his reading parents’ love letters, “I could not shake the terrible feeling that both my parents were dead and lost to me” (212). Why is Matthews left with a sense of loss? What saddens him in his parents’ love letters?

  1. Describing her departure from Moscow at the end of 1969, Mila stated, “I was like an old prisoner who’s been set free . . . I didn’t want to leave my cell” (258). Discuss Mila’s complicated feelings toward her country at this moment of departure. Why did she hesitate to leave at the last moment? Did she seem to regret her decision later? Why or why not?

  1. As a career journalist writing a personal history, how does Matthews balance his skills as an investigative reporter with his emotional attachment to his parents? At which moments does this book feel especially personal?

  1. Review the photographs printed at the center of the book. Which photo is most affecting, and why? What do these photographs reveal about the people of Stalin’s Children?

  1. The book ends with a Russian children’s rhyme that Mila sang to her grandson, Nikita. What is the mood during this final scene?

Suggested reading

Mervyn Matthews, Mila and Mervuysa and Mervyn’s Lot; Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar; Martin Amis, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million; Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita; Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago; Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch and The Gulag Archipelago; Eugenia Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind; Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon; David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire; Andrew Meier, Black Earth: A Journey through Russia after the Fall; Antony Beevor, Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942–1943.

Owen Matthews was born in London and spent part of his childhood in the United States. He studied modern history at Oxford University before beginning his career as a journalist in Bosnia. In 1995 he accepted a job at the Moscow Times, a daily English-language newspaper, and soon thereafter discovered his grandfather’s file. In 1997 he became a correspondent at Newsweek magazine in Moscow, where he covered the second Chechen war. He was one of the first journalists to witness the start of U.S. bombing in the Panshir Valley in Afghanistan after 9/11, and covered the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He is currently Newsweek’s bureau chief in Moscow, and lives there and in Istanbul with his wife and two children.

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