Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival by Owen Matthews

Somehow I expected something more. This book is more 'literature' than 'history.' The metaphors and similes are nauseating more often than not and the ideas put into people's minds, including the authors thoughts of what they must have been 'feeling,' 'thinking,' in the midst of 'understanding,' etc seem like a waste of time and space since we'll never know what they truly were thinking and/or feeling. The author is obviously new to Soviet history, his rapid and general descriptions of what was going on there in the late 1920s and early 1930s speak volumes, including his thoughts on the famine of the early 30s, which occurred throughout the Soviet Union. For example, the author explains that in December of 1932 internal passports were introduced "in an effort to stem the exodus of the starving into the cities" (pg. 40) What isn't discuss is the fact that starving peasants streaming into the cities would only make the food shortages in cities THAT much worse. While it is true that collectivization policies were brutal, as was the dekulakization campaign, the author forgets all the resistance that the Soviets encountered from the peasants in the countryside. This was not a smooth process or transition on the part of the Soviets, but a bloody affair for all sides. I wasn't surprised to find a bibliography in the book, but I was surprised that no footnotes were used. Quite a bit of the information offered is interesting in and of itself in regards to the history of the Soviet Union, but where did it come from?

The author getting to see his grandfather's (Bibikov's) NKVD file was an enlightening story. It was interested to see who implicated whom, and as I expected, his grandfather, after days of what we can only presume were filled with torture, finally implicates his co-workers and they in turn, when interrogated, implicate him. This becomes a common theme throughout the purges as those being interrogated, if they cannot endure it, implicate everyone they can think of, and they in turn do the same. This is one of the reasons for why the purges become so widespread. Even more interesting was that within the same file was contained information about the men who had tortured and interrogated Bibikov, they were all dead within a year. Something few like to remember, or know, about the Soviet Union is that it routinely eliminated those doing the interrogations and torture. This mainly occurs when the heads of the NKVD are changed and they 'cleanse' those put in charge by those they are replacing. There are quite a few touching, at times heart rendering, scenes throughout the Second World War period which the authors describes; the chaos of the times, the wounded Red Army men, retreat, Stalingrad, women digging anti-tank ditches, orphanages, etc. After the war is over the author's grandmother, who was imprisoned for 11 years in a GULag camp in Kazakhstan, comes to live with one of her daughters, the author's aunt, in Moscow. What follows can only be described as a tragedy. Her treatment of her children is simply inhumane at times, she lashes out at them, throws household objects at them, and her daughter and husband endure it all. Few held onto their sanity and human decency while enduring GULag life. It is hard to blame a woman who has lived through more than ten years of such an existence for her actions, some can only endure and wait for it to end, in one way or another.

The above covers a little less than half the book. The rest deals with the author's parents, largely, through their letters to each other. The reader is also told how his father arrived in Moscow (and why) as well as his travels throughout the Soviet Union, how a KGB agent tried to recruit him, how his parents met, who their friends were, etc. And, again, more stories of visits and living in Russia by the author himself. All interesting in their own way, especially in regards to how foreigners viewed Russia and vice versa. Overall an good book which moves along quickly enough but at times offers too much 'literary flare' (and takes artistic license) for my liking.

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