Growing up in the post-Stalin Soviet Union, Eugene Yelchin attempts to understand the seemingly arbitrary rules that govern his life. One incontrovertible truth communicated to him by his father is that people with talent can become exceptions in Soviet society, earning privileges denied to the merely ordinary.
Unfortunately, young Eugene lacks the athletic ability of his brother and the incredible gifts of ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Eventually, his family learns that Eugene does have a special skill; he can draw, even if his pictures resemble, not the real world, but “the world as I wanted it to be.” In his new illustrated memoir, Yelchin looks back with humor, irony, and tenderness at ambivalent relationships with his loving, if imperfect, parents, and his struggle to survive in an oppressive world.
Eugene’s life is both strictly limited and paradoxically safe. The suffocating physical closeness of his apartment, with five people living in one room, is also a source of comforting security. Arranging their makeshift bedding for the night requires Eugene’s father to move furniture as if he were completing a puzzle, a metaphor for the daily machinations of their lives. This frustrated poet, in speaking with his son, sometimes alludes to the terrors of totalitarianism, only to draw back from the truth. Eugene sleeps under his grandmother’s pinewood table; the tablecloth affords him privacy, or at least what passes for privacy in their tiny warren. Rather than complaining, Eugene questions why his father longs for a larger apartment.
While he may be accustomed to the limitations of their home, the ubiquitous antisemitism of their neighbors is a more painful reality. All Jews are “filthy yids” whose loyalty is in question and who are held responsible for conflicts in the Middle East. They are also pressured to remain silent about Stalin’s paranoid targeting of their relatives. Eugene’s father fought against Hitler in the Soviet army but was ultimately discharged because he attained a rank forbidden to Jews. This intense hatred of his people is an undercurrent throughout the book, a part of Soviet life that cannot be rationalized, even in Eugene’s fertile imagination.
That rich imagination, along with the unique talent that his father is relieved to find in Eugene’s drawings, is at the center of Yelchin’s coming-of-age story. Using the only available pencil stub, stolen from his father, Eugene draws on the underside of his grandmother’s table. This surface becomes the ceiling of his “prehistoric cave,” which he covers with pictures.
Yelchin steps outside the narrative to address the reader, explaining that the drawings in his book are not “the exact same pictures. I am drawing them from memory.” Words and images interact with one another, each essential to understanding Eugene’s experience. There is Eugene bundled up in impossible oversized winter gear, his mother’s attempt to protect him from both the weather and bullies. Readers see the young artist at his teacher’s home, painting while surrounded by inspiring volumes of Chagall, Kandinsky, and Malevich. The book opens with a gallery of family portraits, including a faceless grandfather, too dangerous to depict after the government designated him an “enemy of the people.” Yelchin’s genius, which first appeared under the table, is here to enlighten everyone.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.