Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love and Betrayal by Owen Matthews - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

From Russia with Love

Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love and Betrayal


Bloomsbury 285pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

This is one of the most fascinating family memoirs of recent times. Few people could write as Owen Matthews does about his parents’ tormented love life and his maternal grandparents’ horrific fate with such a blend of affection and critical but unobtrusive objectivity, especially when so many of the dramatis personae are still alive. The core of the story was published six years ago by the author’s father, the well-known specialist on Soviet society Mervyn Matthews, in two books, Mervyn’s Lot and Mila and Mervusya. Mervyn’s case attracted the willing attention of the tabloids and the annoyance of the authorities in the 1960s. It was an unusual story at the time – a British postgraduate student on his year at Moscow State University falls in love and attempts to marry and bring out a Soviet bride (or husband) – but it became increasingly common. There were half a dozen prominent cases where the Soviet authorities refused outright to allow either the marriage or the departure of the Soviet partner. Some people, like Mervyn Matthews or Camilla Gray (who married Prokofiev’s son), fought for years against the indifference of both British and Soviet ministers. Others, like Georges Nivat, who fell in love with the enchantress Irina Ivinskaya, daughter of Olga Ivinskaya (‘Lara’), Pasternak’s last love, were so terrified and discouraged that they gave up and sublimated the experience into expertise as Russianists. (Nivat and Ivinskaya were both given a potentially lethal skin infection by the KGB, which is further than the KGB were prepared to go to discourage Mervyn Matthews and Lyudmila Bibikova, the author’s parents.) 

Under his son’s critical eye, Mervyn Matthews actually emerges even more admirably than from his own autobiography. Naïvely entrapped by hospitality from KGB officials, Mervyn refuses to collaborate with them, though he is as good as told that his future with Lyudmila depends on it. Owen, in one of his

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