On a mid-summer day in 1937, a car pulled up to the house of the Bibikov family in Chernigov in the heart of the Ukraine. Boris, the father, kissed his two daughters and wife goodbye and disappeared inside the car. His family never saw him again. His wife would later vanish, leaving the young Lyudmila and Lenina alone to drift across the vast Russian landscape as the Wehrmacht advanced in WWII. In the early 1960s Owen Matthews' father, Mervyn, moved to Moscow to work for the British embassy after a childhood in Wales dreaming of Russia. He fell in with the KGB, and in love with Lyudmila, and before he could disentangle himself from the former he was ordered to leave the country. For the next six years, Mervyn tried desperately to get Lyudmila out of Russia, and when he finally succeeded they married. Decades on from these events, their son, now Newsweek's bureau chief in Moscow, pieces together the tangled threads of his family's past and present-the extraordinary files that record the life and death of his grandfather at the hands of Stalin's secret police; his mother's and aunt's perilous journey to adulthood; his parents' Cold War love affair and the magnet that has drawn him back to the Russia-to present an indelible portrait of the country over the past seven decades and an unforgettable memoir about how we struggle to define ourselves in opposition to our ancestry only to find ourselves aligning with it.
For three generations of Matthews's family, Russia was a place that made us and freed us and inspired us and very nearly broke us. In this fascinating family memoir, Matthews, Newsweek's Moscow bureau chief, recounts that history. His maternal grandfather was executed in Stalin's purges in 1937. His mother, separated from her own mother for 11 years, grew up essentially as an orphan. But even more extraordinary is the tale of Matthews's parents' relationship. His father, Mervyn Matthews, was a British embassy staffer in Moscow turned graduate student who left Russia after the KGB tried to recruit him in 1960. Returning in 1963, he fell in love with a Soviet woman, but when he again refused to do business with the KGB, he was thrown out of the country. For the next several years, he lobbied to reunite with the woman who would become Matthews's mother, finally getting her out of the USSR in 1969. Drawing on KGB files and his parents' hundreds of letters from their years of separation in the 1960s, Matthews (now married to a Russian woman) relates this dramatic tale in understated but lovely prose. B&w illus.