SOVIET DAUGHTER: A GRAPHIC REVOLUTION
by Julia Alekseyeva
Microcosm Publishing, 191 pp.
reviewed by Jenny Blair
Julia Alekseyeva’s Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution could hardly have come at a better time. A Soviet-born woman who emigrated with her multigenerational Jewish family to the U.S. in 1992, the author entwines her great-grandmother Lola’s life story with her own, translating Lola’s own written memoir into part of a double narrative. As we all struggle to make sense of the Trump era, Alekseyeva has written and drawn a story of autocracy, revolution, and the refugee experience–and of how history affects the private lives not just of its eyewitnesses, but of many subsequent generations.
Born in 1910, Lola was seven when the 1917 Russian Revolution began. What happened next was epic. Not long after leaving school as a child to do the family’s housework, she survived a typhus epidemic and a pogrom. And then her troubles began. She coped with unheated dwellings; bouts of near-starvation; and the loss of the love of her life, her parents, and several siblings in World War II. Even the better times seem incomprehensible: One job, with the KGB’s predecessor agency, had her typing 9 am to 5 pm, then 9 pm to 2 am. What with the wages, Lola said, “For once, we lived well.”
Likable, curious, and stoic, Lola tells her story with a steadiness that conceals tidal emotions, the kind that might kill someone with the leisure to face them. Alekseyeva’s sometimes startlingly expressive drawings hint at her great-grandmother’s burden. (One image of a childhood thousand-yard stare is especially chilling.) Lola survived a full century, quite possibly too busy to grieve along the way.
Yet amid the disasters, Lola savored her leisure. She recalled sprinting in the local stadium, attending operettas, and organizing dances for fellow workers–anecdotes that offer a glimpse of the richness as well as the deprivations of early Soviet life.
Generations later, as a four-year-old refugee, Alekseyeva experiences the US as a “land of monsters,” full of mocking peers and unintelligible language. She grows close to her great-grandmother as the intervening generations absent themselves at jobs and English classes.
Adventurous and progressive, Alekseyeva and Lola have much in common. By contrast, Alekseyeva’s obedient, conservative mother and grandmother don’t understand her in the least. “It is said that Lola’s generation–called the ‘G.I. Generation’–is closest to Generation Y (‘millennials’) in sentiment and personality. Nowhere was this more evident than in my four-generation family,” she writes. In fact, Alekseyeva’s mother treats her with a cruelty born of bewilderment, or perhaps of her own generational traumas. Fulfilling a lifelong fantasy of escape, Alekseyeva finally leaves for Columbia University. Soon she becomes an activist, not unlike Lola was in her time.
Alekseyeva inadvertently reenacts darker family history as well. In particular, the Holocaust and Chernobyl haunt the narrator long after her family settles in the US.
For all our talk of trigger warnings and safe spaces, we often fail to understand one of trauma’s central truths: that its roots may precede the sufferer’s birth. So much of what troubles and haunts us–self-loathing, resentment, a feeling of hollowness or inefficacy or of being fatally flawed, even physical illness–is rooted in our parents’, our grandparents’, our great-grandparents’ life experiences, in how those experiences changed them, their epigenetics, and their child-rearing practices. Soviet Daughter’s two echoing first-person accounts make this unusually clear.
Nonfiction books that explore the transmission of familial trauma include It Didn’t Start With You, by Mark Wolynn, who built in part upon the work of Bessel van den Kolk, author of The Body Keeps The Score. On the graphic side, Art Spiegelman’s post-Holocaust masterpiece Maus is built on his father’s memories and the way they haunt Spiegelman himself. In Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, in contrast, Alison Bechdel makes only brief references to her parents’ back stories to hint at the roots of her own psychic injuries. Brilliant though her books are, one wishes she’d delved as deeply into her ancestors’ lives as Spiegelman and Alekseyeva have. To understand the present, we need more stories from our families’ pasts.
Jenny Blair writes about science, medicine, and other neat things. Formerly an emergency physician, she practiced in ERs large and small and taught young physicians with an NGO in Indonesia before switching to full-time writing and editing. Her passions include cartooning and graphic novels, permaculture, and improv comedy, as well as the importance of place. As a fan of alternative housing and kinship models, she makes her home in Michigan with several friends.