A small saga of memory, loss and reconnection in a land where millions of people have disappeared for political purposes.
Boris Bibikov specialized in finding—and sometimes inventing, it would seem—the kind of heroic worker for whom socialism was invented and without whom socialism could never exist, such as a machinist who assembled an excavator in six days, “not two weeks as the manufacturer’s guide said.” Bibikov also took it upon himself to “raise the level of socialist consciousness” of the workers in the Ukrainian factory he helped oversee, spending afterwork hours teaching Marxist-Leninist theory to the rank and file. Regrettably for him, his experience of the famine of the winter of 1931–32 caused him to doubt the eternal wisdom of supreme leader Josef Stalin, whose agents must have sensed a change in Bibikov’s thinking and so came for him with a Black Maria in the middle of the night. Matthews, Bibikov’s grandson and the Moscow bureau chief for Newsweek, travels to his ancestral homeland to examine its soul in the wake of communism, an era in which “Russians had lost much of their culture, their religion, their God; and many of them also lost their minds,” in which an “absolute, bottomless nihilism” had now replaced totalitarianism. Matthews’s travels yield an affecting family memoir, centered on not just Bibikov but also his daughter, who married Matthews’s English father after considerable travail involving his expulsion from Stalinist Russia and years of efforts to extract Lyudmila from it, efforts that have an epic quality all their own. The memoir ranges from the child’s-eye view of a grown-up world that “smelled of French cigarettes and Darjeeling tea” to an aware, adult comprehension of lives marked and marred by privation, terror and uncertainty—and to a reckoning of what Russians paid for the deformed social experiments of their rulers.
Lacks the soul-fire of a Doctor Zhivago, but this is a memorable depiction of what Pasternak called Russia’s “damned capacity for suffering.”