In the wake of her great-grandmother Lola’s death, Julia Alekseyeva and her family received an exceptional inheritance: Lola’s diary. In her graphic novel Soviet Daughter, Julia memorializes a unique relationship and Soviet experience.
Soviet Daughter is centered around Lola’s story, but Julia also weaves in her own experience growing up in 1990s Chicago. Lola was born Khinya Ignatovskaya in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine in 1910, and was raised in Kiev. In frenzied 3 – 5 year intervals, we follow her through a chore-laden childhood in a family of six, her two marriages, her lovers, and two children. This personal history is set against the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution, and later, World War II. Alekseyeva skips over the Khrushchev through Gorbachev years to the next pivotal juncture: the mass migration of Jews from the Soviet Union and Lola’s reaction to the downfall of the Soviet dream. Eventually, the threat of toxic radiation from Chernobyl convinces the family to move to the United States.
Soviet Daughter addresses the Jewish experience over several generations in the Soviet Union. Anti-Semitism appears throughout — in its most deadly manifestations, such as the Babi Yar massacre, and in bureaucratic forms (quotas and restrictions on Jewish students in university). But anti-Semitism isn’t confined to the Soviet Union, and in the U.S., Julia is encouraged by her mother to keep her Judaism secret. Lola, meanwhile, professes a brand of atheism with a belief in the typically Russian notion of “fate.” As she matures and reaches university, Julia encounters a plurality of Jewish religious expression that helps her reapproach Judaism on her own terms.
The mixed-memoir format of Soviet Daughter presents many questions: When does one insert historical events? How does one present documentary material? Alekseyeva makes interesting editorial decisions in response to the unique challenges of the material. Soviet Daughter becomes an act of interpretation and translation. Through her great grandmother’s voice, Julia imagines Lola’s world — one that is, at times, immensely foreign, and sometimes, especially when it comes to the two women’s shared activism, zeitgeist and personality — intimately familiar.
Midway through the novel, Julia visits Lola at an elderly care center. Alekseyeva shows Lola getting up to look through a window, as she draws her great-grandmother’s form in a notebook. The older generation looks out while the younger generation listens. Lola remembers, and Julia reframes and reconstructs from many different angles, the two women connecting and finding a common language across time. It is perhaps this scene that captures the delicate dynamics of Soviet Daughter best. We see pages within the page: Julia’s notebook opens outward to show different pencil drawings of Lola, facing forward, facing away.