Non­fic­tion

Sovi­et Daugh­ter: A Graph­ic Revolution

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

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.

Dalia Wolf­son is study­ing Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture — with a focus on Russ­ian and Judeo-lan­guage lit­er­a­tures — at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania.

Discussion Questions