What is one to make of a regime that banned the word "charity" for its alleged bourgeoise sentimentality, that excised it from the language? And what of the word's companion virtues of faith and hope? The Soviet state, we learn in this remarkable story, almost succeeded in quashing them, too.
You see, love cannot flourish where faith and hope do not abide, and this extraordinary book with the chillingly prosaic title is, essentially, a love story -- or, more precisely, a story of the perseverance of love in the face of impossible odds.
Owen Matthews' story began long before he went to Moscow as a freshly minted Oxford graduate more than a decade ago and landed a job at the Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper. In fact, this isn't really Matthews' story, per se, but rather the story of his father and mother and, before that, her father and mother.
The book unfolds as effortlessly in Matthews' talented hands as a tulip in spring -- and with equally stunning effect.
It was the early 1960s when Matthews' father, Mervyn, followed his love for Russian history and culture to Moscow and a midlevel position at the British Embassy. There he met and fell in love with Ludmila, known as Mila, "two lonely bookish people finding in each other what they had lacked all their dislocated lives."
Mila's maiden name was Bibikova. Her father, Boris Bibikov, was a servant of the party in the 1930s to a degree that would have made Pavlov blush. He accomplished extraordinary feats as a factory manager in Ukraine and was rewarded accordingly, until the day he let slip an indiscreet remark. It ended his career -- and his life -- with terrifying speed.
The regime's appetite for "enemies of the people" was insatiable, and Mila's mother, Martha, soon disappeared. Mila and her sister, Lenina (their father's delusion was boundless), were deposited in an orphanage for underage offenders, where they suffered horribly. The one saving grace was that they were together. They survived, but each paid a severe price.
Matthews gleaned the information for this book almost by osmosis, as his mother and his aunt haltingly shared their memories. It was parsimonious at best, and the seamless sweep of this story is a tribute not only to the author's narrative acumen but to his reporting skills.
To find out what happened to his grandfather, Matthews had to win access to Bibikov's secret police file, a daunting task even for the most skilled reporter in post-Soviet Russia. What he gathered from the dusty papers and fading ink was the frame of the portrait his mother and aunt completed.
"I came to Moscow to get away from my parents," Matthews tells us. "Instead, I found them there. ... This is a story about Russia and my family, about a place which made us and freed us and inspired us and very nearly broke us."
Michael J. Bonafield has been to Russia five times as a foreign correspondent.