Hot love in the cold war
From The Economist print edition
TERROR, stagnation, exile, hope and disillusion are the fabric of Russian history in the last century. These are also the backdrop for Owen Matthews’s poignant history of his family’s battle with Soviet bureaucracy at its most callous and Western officialdom at its most complacent.
His father Mervyn was one of the earliest British graduates allowed to study in Russia in the 1950s. This changed his life. First, he fell in love with Lyudmila, the frail, brainy daughter of a senior communist purged in the 1930s. Second, he flirted with the KGB. They insisted that he work for them. When he refused, he was expelled, permanently, from the Soviet Union. Lyudmila’s repeated applications for an exit visa were denied.
That could have been the end, among millions of other commonplace tragedies in the decades that the Kremlin devoted to creating paradise on earth. But it wasn’t. Showing great reserves of determination, Mervyn Matthews spent the next five years running a threadbare but relentless campaign to get Lyudmila to Britain. He buttonholed any public figure who could help, harassed the press and infuriated Foreign Office mandarins who regarded the whole affair as an irrelevant nuisance. He travelled round Europe to try to lobby visiting Soviet bigwigs, and even managed twice to slip into the Soviet Union on visa-free day trips from Finland to see her.
In between he wrote daily to Lyudmila in spare but affectionate prose. He carefully kept copies of his own letters and of her replies, which are steeped with frustrated uxoriousness (love mixed with fussing about his diet and clothes). Through these extracts the reader can almost smell the longing and the willpower. They also show how the couple’s unhappy families—Mervyn’s father is absent because he disliked his relations, Lyudmila’s because he died in the Gulag—made them seem to match each other so neatly.
The campaign for Lyudmila cost Mervyn his academic career. He did not publish his work on Soviet sociology for fear of offending the Kremlin. After lobbying a visitor to his Oxford college too brusquely, he was eased out and took a job at another university which he despised. In Moscow, Lyudmila was hounded for her love affair with someone from the enemy camp.
Astonishingly, the sacrifices were vindicated. In 1969 the Matthews case and that of two other couples were bundled up with an East-West spy swap. Lyudmila came to Britain. The marriage proved less than blissful, although it was saved by dogged loyalty on both sides. Lyudmila adapted poorly to English life; her shy, spartan husband’s grit in adversity proved greater than his husbandly capabilities.
But the marriage did produce the author, a legendary hellraiser in Moscow in the 1990s, and now a respectable foreign correspondent. The crisp and admirably self-deprecating vignettes of his own life, both emotional and professional, give his parents’ story a fitting perspective. Few books say so much about Russia then and now, and its effect on those it touches.Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love and War.
By Owen Matthews.
Bloomsbury; 308 pages; £17.99. To be published in America by Walker Books in September.