Global Context (Russia): Stalin’s Children

Global Context (Russia): Stalin’s Children

By: Bruce Riley Ashford

It was my privilege to live in Russia from 1998-2000 and that is one reason that this book held me captive from the very first page. But that is not the only reason. Stalin’s Children is a masterful work of historical autobiography, telling the tale of three generations of love, war, and survival. It is told from the perspective of Owen Matthews, whose grandfather and father are the central characters of this story. Matthews, who is the Bureau Chief for Newsweek in Moscow, draws upon the voluminous correspondence of his parents, access to KGB files, and his own lived experience of Russia, giving us not only a tale of three generations of his family, but also an ironic, enlightening, and ultimately bleak portrayal of the last seven decades of life in Russia.

“This is a story about Russia and my family,” writes Matthews, “about a place which made us and inspired us and very nearly broke us. And it is ultimately a story about escape, about how we all escaped from Russia, even though all of us-even my father, a Welshman who has no Russian blood, even me, who grew up in England-still carry something of Russia inside ourselves, infecting our blood like a fever.

Stalin’s Children is a story in three acts. The first act tells the story of the author’s maternal grandfather, Boris Bibikov, a privileged Communist party leader in Ukraine, who was a real (albeit minor) enemy of Stalin and his vision for the USSR. As Matthews tells it, one morning Bibikov kissed his wife and two daughters goodbye, never to return again. Bibikov’s wife, Martha, soon disappeared also (imprisoned in the Gulag), leaving their two little girls, Lyudmila and Lenina, to fend for themselves. They became, in a phrase, “Stalin’s children.” The two little girls were separated during the Glorious Russian Patriotic War (Soviet nomenclature for World War II), but were reunited against all odds at the end of the war.

The author paints a bleak picture of this early chapter of Soviet history: “Communists-men like my grandfather-had tried to create a new kind of man, emptying people of their old beliefs and refilling them with civic duty patriotism and docility. But when Communist ideology was stripped away, so its quaint fifties morality also disappeared into the black hole of discarded mythologies. People put their faith in television healers, Japanese apocalyptic cults, even in the jealous old God of Orthodoxy. But more profound than any of Russia’s other, new-found faiths, was an absolute, bottomless nihilism. Suddenly there were no rules, no holds barred, and everything went for those bold and ruthless enough to go out and grab as much as they could.” Rather than creating a New Communist Man, and nourishing a new society devoid of societal ills, the Communist regime produced a police state and a Gulag with millions of victims, and fostered a chaotic and nihilistic society and culture.

The second act picks up some twenty five years after the disappearance of Bibikov and is, essentially, a love story. Matthews’ father, Mervyn, grew up in London dreaming of moving to Russia and soon fulfilled his dream by moving to Russia to become a British embassy staffer in Moscow. While in Moscow, he immerses himself in Russian culture, eventually being recruited by the KGB in the 1960s.

At the same time, little Lyudmila has grown up, become an excellent student, and is trying to make the most of her disadvantaged life. In 1963, Mervyn and Lyudmila meet and fall in love. Mervyn, however is thrown out of Russia for the atrocious crime of making a personal sale (although the author makes clear that Mervyn’s true crime is a refusal to be an informant for the KGB). For the next six years, Mervyn worked tirelessly to reunite with Lyudmilla and marry her. He waged an international campaign through the media, friends, and embassy staffers, to reunite with and marry her. Finally, she was allowed to leave the USSR in 1969, and they were married.

The third act picks up with the author Owen Matthews-at that time a young journalist in Russia-discovering Bibikov’s KGB File which recounts in detail the grandfather’s fate at the hands of the KGB. Matthews is able to put together the pieces of his family puzzle, making sense of the parts of the narrative that he already knew. Among other discoveries, he finds the record of his grandfather’s final act: his signature on a confession of treason. The third act is, on the whole, not as exciting as the first two, but nonetheless provides the author with an opportunity to paint a picture of life in Russia at the turn of the 21st century.

I found myself taken in by this story about three generations of the Bibikov/Matthews family. For one thing, it is a well-told story by a man with an eye for detail. Take, for example, his portrayal of Lt. Colonel Timofeyevna: “The investigator appointed to the case was Svetlana Timofeyevna, a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department. She was a confident and matronly woman who sized me up with a shameless, penetrating stare, well used to separating men into wimps and loudmouths. She was one of those portly, invincible, middle-aged Russian women, whose kind lurked like Dobermans in the front office of all Russia’s great men; they ruled ticket offices and lorded it over hotel reception desks.” Now that is hard to top.

But in addition to being a well-told story, it also has stirred up a bit of my own affection for Russia. As Matthews recounts Bibikov’s fate, I cannot help but remember my childhood, when my parents received The Prisoner Bulletin, an underground newsletter that told the fate of pastors and other believers who were sent to the Gulag. I think of the deep faith of these martyrs, many of them Russian Baptists, who believed that the Lord Jesus Christ is better than anything that life could give or that torture and death could take away.

Further, as I worked through the chapters of the book, face to face with a Russian family through the past seven decades of Russian history, I remembered my Russian friends and their families whose warmth and hospitality I will never forget. Matthews’ narrative really is an existential entry into the tragedy of atheistic communism and the nihilism it fostered. The majority of my Russian friends found it hard to believe there exists a just and loving God, and likewise could not imagine that their lives had any real purpose or meaning.

Although Matthews does not communicate the point explicitly, the discerning reader will see that Soviet Communism provided a narrative that was intended to subvert and overthrow biblical religion. It provided a false god (the state) with a false savior, (Marx), false prophets (Lenin, Stalin), and a false church (the Communist Party, whose youth meetings were marked by, inter alia, atheistic hymns and sermons), all of which gave hope of a false eschatological salvation (a “New Heavens and Earth” which would appear when the Communist Man has overthrown class society and lives in Communist utopia).

The result of this fundamental misunderstanding of cosmic history has been nihilism, hedonism, and antinomianism. Matthews points out the ills of the past 70 years of Russian history, stretching from the brutality of Stalin’ purges to the chaos and nihilism of contemporary Russian culture. But perhaps the more significant lesson to be drawn for Western readers is that democratic capitalism, while it may fare better as a political and economic system, fares no better than neo-Marxism as a Savior of mankind, or as an interpretive key for cosmic history. At bottom of cosmic history are not economic, political, or military forces, but rather the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of history, and He alone holds history in his hand.

Book: Stalin’s Children (2008)

Author: Owen Matthews

Region: Europe-Russia

Genre: Historical Autobiography

Length: 308 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate

Global Context (Central Asia): The Great Game

This series of posts deals with the global context in its historical, social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, and religious dimensions in particular. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk, is the single most valuable book one can read in order to gain an understanding of Central Asia. Hopkirk, formerly a reporter for The Times of London, pieces together research ranging from public news stories to private journals and intelligence files in order to chronicle Russia and Britain’s battle for supremacy in Central Asia. (Note: Central Asia, as a regional designation, generally includes Russia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, and the other “stans.”)

The title of the book refers to the “game” played between Tsarist Russia and Victorian England for control of the region. The term was coined by Captain Arthur Connolly of East India Company, who was beheaded in Bukhara as a spy in 1842. In Hopkirk’s masterful retelling of the story, we see the great game played out over more than a century and at the cost of thousands of Central Asians, in spite of their innocence.

In the first nine chapters, “The Beginnings,” Hopkirk sets the stage by tracing the historical context from the 13th century onwards. Chapters Ten through Twenty-Two chronicle the “Middle Years” of the game. He tells the story of countless British and Russian soldiers making their way into Central Asia, often in disguise, to gain information and seeking to form alliances. In general, Russia has the upper hand, making its way slowly toward England’s crown jewel, India.

In Chapters Twenty Three through Thirty Seven, “The Climactic Years,” we learn of Russia’s full frontal advance into Central Asia. Early in the 19th century, the two empires were separated by 2,000 miles, but a century later, the gap had narrowed to only 20 miles. England was paranoid about losing its grip on India and Russia decided to play on those fears, advancing toward India for its own benefit. The irony, as Hopkirk tells it, is two-fold: (1) Russia never really cared about India, and (2) a Russian invasion of India was highly unlikely anyway. It was separated from Russia not only by deserts and mountains, but also by treacherous tribes and local politics.

Who lost the great game? The real losers were the hapless Central Asians caught between two imperial powers who cared not one whit for them. Although the Central Asians were not always peaceful themselves, even those who were peaceful often lost their lives. Their rulers were given a black-and-white choice between two empires, but those empires cared nothing for these “pawn” people groups.

Christians seeking to live and work in a Central Asian context will be wise to take note that Western “Christian” nations have been among the chief culprits in the bloodshed and exploitations of the past century. The phrase “Jesus is Lord” does not conjure up thoughts of a God of love and of life. Rather, for them, it evokes memories of strife and bloodshed. Among the Tatars, for example, who were conquered by Ivan the Terrible, to call a person “baptized” is to call them the one of the strongest curse words in their contemporary vocabulary. It is for this reason, therefore, that believers who wear the name “Christian” will need to work hard, through word and through deed, to fill that word with new meaning.

One should also note that, throughout the book, Hopkirk never mentions a Central Asian woman playing a role in The Great Game. Those Central Asian women who are mentioned are the ones being taken advantage of by Westerners to plunder their cities. The overall impression gained from the book (and confirmed by present experience in some cultures within Central Asia) is that a woman is inferior to a man in her very essence. In Afghanistan, it is not hard to find men who will brag that their wife or daughter has never left their house. That is correct: many women never leave the home; they are not allowed to shop, to drive, or to socialize outside of the home. It is for this reason that women in this region are the “unreached of the unreached.”

Finally, it is evident throughout the book that Westerners have viewed, and treated, Central Asians as inferior people. Although this is evident throughout the centuries, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the West had come up with a sophisticated “scientific” apparatus for explaining exactly why and how they were inferior. Darwin’s biological evolution found its counterpart in the idea of cultural evolution.

This is seen, for example, in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, where Russia and England failed to see the Central Asians as equal to themselves. It is also seen, for example, in Hopkirk’s account of a British officer’s words: “Ultimately the British name will be blessed with the proud distinction…of having civilized the Turcoman race, which has for centuries been the scourge of Central Asia.” The Brits of Connolly’s generation believed that they were to take the message of salvation and Western civility to these people; since British rule was founded in the Christian faith, it was the best way to help the barbarians to become more civilized.

Hopkirk accomplished what he set out to do. He is a Brit and as such does lean a bit in favor of the Brits, but he does not do a bad job of being objective and calling out the bad guys, whoever they were. I recommend this book for those who are interested in doing serious reading about Central Asia.

Book: The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (1994)
Author: Peter Hopkirk
Region: Central Asia
Length: 524 pp.
Difficulty: Intermediate Advanced