Review time! with ‘Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution’

In my attempts to stay current this year (I still have a giant stack of collected editions and graphic novels from last year that I haven’t read), I’m going to review a graphic novel! Yay! Will I be able to keep up? We shall see, my friends, we shall see!

Soviet Daughter is both a memoir and an autobiographical comic, which means I should hate it. I always try to give autobiographical comics a chance, though, especially when they are done like this, which is a story of the author’s great-grandmother, who was born in 1910 and lived through the major events of Russian history during her early years. The author, Julia Alekseyeva, wrote the book after her great-grandmother, Lola, died in 2010. Julia was closer to Lola than to anyone else in her family, so she wrote about Lola’s life and uses brief interludes in between chapters to show how Lola’s ideals parallel her own (not that Julia’s life is harder than Lola’s, just that they have the same values). This comic is published by Microcosm, by the way, costs $14.95, and is 191 pages.

Lola is a Ukrainian Jew, which leads to compounded trouble in the Soviet Union, which looked askance at non-Russians (despite all of them being Slavs) and, of course, carried out periodic pogroms against Jews (although, as Lola points out, Ukrainian nationalists were all too happy to persecute Jews as well). Lola’s life is difficult, as Alekseyeva shows in the book – she endures flooding, anti-Semitism, World War I, and the Revolution all before she turns 10. A good amount of the book is taken up with Lola’s attempts to carve out a life in a world where things could change in an instant. She leaves school after 4th grade to help her family, but she reads voraciously and learns that way. She marries a man when she’s 20 (marriage and divorce in the Soviet Union was apparently amazingly easy), has a daughter, but blithely divorces him a few years later when things go sour. She finally meets another man, one she truly loves, and marries him … right before World War II begins. The sections of the book that deal with the Second World War are the most harrowing in the book, not because Lola’s life was so cheery before it, but because the war came right to her doorstep and affected her and her family so profoundly (the family tree Alekseyeva draws, with so many names crossed off, is tragic). After the war, Alekseyeva brings the narrative quickly to a close – Lola’s immigration to the States is handled quickly, and her relationship with Julia is handled in the interludes, which, as I noted, are brief. What Alekseyeva really wants to do is give us a portrait of Russian life from right before the Revolution to the end of World War II, which she does quite well.

The problem with the book is that it’s too clinical, however. Alekseyeva doesn’t delve too much into Lola’s state of mind – she’s using Lola’s own memoir to create this book, so she can only use what Lola gives her, and Lola is generally stoic about her lot. She describes the problems she has – lack of food, lack of water, poor wages, anti-Semitism, people disappearing in the night – and the joys life brings her with the same flatness, and only when her family wants to emigrate in the 1980s does she show any emotion about her homeland and wanting to improve it (Chernobyl finally makes up her mind to emigrate). So we don’t know how she feels about the Soviet Union or its policies, even though she worked as a secretary at the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB. Even though her “job interview” is tense (she doesn’t know why she’s been summoned to the NKVD offices) and her friends tell her she better not refuse to take the job, we still don’t get much sense of if she lives in fear or not. Only when the external threat of the war arrives does she show a lot of emotion in her writing, and that’s because the war is destroying part of her life (World War I, which didn’t encroach on Russian territory as much, is much less of a threat, although Lola was so young, too, that it’s expected that it wouldn’t have as much of an impact on her). So while we get the major horrific events of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, it’s a bit too sterile – anyone with access to the internet or a decent history text can know what happened in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, but Lola lived through it. It’s refreshing to get a portrait of that time that’s not all doom and gloom, but her memoir lacks resonance, which is too bad.

The portions of the book that take place in the present are a bit better, even though they’re short. Alekseyeva gives us a quick autobiography, and she links the awkwardness she felt at ant-Semitic statements made to her with those made to her great-grandmother. She gets cancer early in life (due to being born near Chernobyl shortly after the meltdown), but she gets through it partly because of the encouragement of Lola. She hits a bit of a snag when she begins to compare her political leanings to Lola – Alekseyeva is a typical liberal, while her mother is conservative, so she feels closer to her great-grandmother. Alekseyeva simply tells us these things, however, and in Lola’s memoir, there’s not really much political talk, so we don’t know that about Lola except for the fact that Alekseyeva tells us it’s so. Still, it’s a nice relationship, and Alekseyeva does a good job with Lola’s death, because the situation parallels some events in Lola’s life and shows us, subtly, that we’re always alone when death comes for us, no matter who’s around us. There are some nice subtle touches throughout the book like this, but they’re too few and far between.

Alekseyeva’s art is quite nice, as she uses watercolors and what looks like gouache to make the book look delicate in places and thickly grounded in others. She doesn’t often use traditional panel layouts, overlapping some panels to create more of a montage. She uses the watercolors ink washes to add shading to the characters, so their moods come across almost as much from the shading as from the facial expressions. Her depiction of Kiev and the other parts of Russia during the time period is well done – we get a good sense of the age of everything, but also the claustrophobic living conditions, which makes the few open places even more special. Obviously, the war years are going to be darker, but Alekseyeva also does an interesting thing – she often obscures the faces of the soldiers, dehumanizing them even more and making a good if depressing point about what war does to people. She uses double-page splashes well, usually to convey the enormity of the war and what the Russians had to deal with. Alekseyeva isn’t the most fluid artist, but she does a nice job conveying the joy that Lola often feels when she’s doing things with friends, even as the Soviet government becomes more threatening and the war overwhelms everyone.

I always like to read comics that tell me something new, and I was interested in this because of the circumstances of Lola’s life and how Alekseyeva would tell it. It’s not a great comic, however, because I already knew about many of the actual events that occur in this book, so I wasn’t interested in that, but I was interested in how Lola dealt with them. I guess that Alekseyeva did the best she could with Lola’s memoir, unless she excised a lot from the narrative. If Lola is reticent about her life, there’s not much Alekseyeva can do. As a story of simply what happened in Ukraine during the years 1910-1945, the book works perfectly well. As a story of how a certain person felt about life under a Communist regime, it’s less successful. It’s not a bad comic at all, but it doesn’t really connect us with Lola as much as Alekseyeva herself is connected to Lola. For me, when someone is writing an autobiography or memoir about someone they know and love, they need to make us understand why their lives are worth reading about and caring about. Alekseyeva doesn’t quite pull that off, despite a few moments here and there. It’s a charming book, but not as memorable as it feels like it should be.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

3 Comments

  1. Simon

    Preordered this, but of course my copy of this December 28 baby hasn’t shipped yet. (Because Diamond hate comics, non-premier publishers, and single-copy orders!)

    – “marriage and divorce in the Soviet Union was apparently amazingly easy”

    Secular social contract sans priests in the way.

    – “Lola is generally stoic about her lot”

    Not unlike Spiegelman’s father in MAUS. Maybe that type is more likely to survive and tell their story?

    – “she uses watercolors”

    Dunno, but aren’t they ink washes, like Ditko and Eisner used? (The panel montages have an Eisnerian feel, too.)

    – “not as memorable as it feels like it should be”

    Like MacArthur, I shall return! We’ll see then how you remember it?

  2. Greg Burgas

    Simon: Good point about the ink washes. I always forget about it – I default to watercolors – and given that the book is in black and white, it’s probably what she did. Dang! πŸ™‚

    I hope you get a copy soon!

  3. Simon

    I have returned. (Toot-toot!) Diamond having released my hostage copy:

    – “Soviet Daughter is both a memoir and an autobiographical comic”

    Like most graphic memoirs, from MAUS, PERSEPOLIS and ONWARD TOWARDS OUR NOBLE DEATHS to BAGGYWRINKLES, A SAILOR’S STORY, and POPPIES OF IRAQ.

    – “The problem with the book is that it’s too clinical […] we don’t know how she feels about the Soviet Union or its policies […] her memoir lacks resonance”

    Seems to me she used a strict “show, don’t tell” approach without dwelling on it like soapbox or melodrama comics.

    How she feels about the Soviet Union seems shown through reporting their circumstances (readers can judge for themselves), such as p. 109–110 about the purges or p. 123–124 about the NKVD, and underlined at the end: “I knew minor crimes […] but the worst – the worst I didn’t know until [Stalin’s] death. […] My faith collapsed.” (p. 184)

    As for “clinical”, I felt the book seasoned with understated scenes. P. 23–24, the author shows herself whining while not yet realizing how Lola actually came from “a land of monsters”. P. 26–31, we’re shown general and personal horrors of 1917–1920 that don’t need comments. P. 57–59, we’re shown how “hiking” was actually paramilitary training (not unlike the rising S.A. in Germany). A page like 132 seems hardly clinical; neither are p. 141, 143, or 163 (the whole WW2 chapters actually).

    Well, I guess it resonated more for me.

    P.S.: About watercolors vs. ink washes, I now feel you were probably right.

    For one thing, many areas show the darkened edge typical of watercolor, and I don’t remember ink washes having that effect. (A cursory look at some Eisner/Toth/Ditko washes shows none.)

    For another, the backcover illo looks like red watercolor and is grayscaled on p. 91, so one could assume all pages were made that way and printed in B&W for economical reasons. (While the original art would still fetch higher prices.)

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