Soviet Daughter by Julia Alekseyeva

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Julia Alekseyeva’s graphic memoir Soviet Daughter is a tightrope act of balance between the political and the personal. Spanning one hundred years of family history, war, and revolution, Soviet Daughter brilliantly leverages the graphic novel as an elastic, illuminating form.

We meet Julia in 2010 at the funeral of her great-grandmother, Lola. Like another Russian author, Alekseyeva intuits that happy families do not make for particularly interesting stories: her first words are “Family is an odd thing. The people we end up closest to are not whom we’d expect.” We learn that following her family’s emigration to the United States in 1992, “an unnavigable rift” formed between family members, with the exception of Julia and Lola. The ensuing chapters are adapted from Lola’s memoir, interspersed with stories that illustrate Julia’s own coming of age. In the final panel before entering Lola’s memoir, we see an adult Julia clutching Lola’s book against her chest, arming herself with inherited history and memory. She seems wary but determined: “It’s a story of our two generations, separated by 80 years—but somehow united, in spite of everything.”

This sense of an unlikely union is the book’s guiding heart, but Alekseyeva does not focus on drawing neat parallels. Instead, she allows Lola’s words to guide the story, and her own interludes provide poignant commentary that focuses on her kinship with her great-grandmother and the events that led her to share Lola’s worldview. Lola’s memoir begins with her birth in 1910 and her early awareness of the dangers of being Jewish in Kiev. Alekseyeva transitions from Lola’s memory of a flood to her father’s obsession with the Beilis Affair—in which a Jewish man was framed for the murder of a child under the charge of Blood Libel, “a claim that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christian children to use their blood for holiday rituals.” And so Lola’s earliest perceptions of the world are colored by danger and violence.

As the reader follows Lola through childhood and into adulthood, Alekseyeva gives equal weight to Lola’s social life and her socio-political context. The result is an honest and authentic telling of life in the Soviet Union preceding and during the Holocaust and Second World War. Lola’s voice is plainspoken, but Alekseyeva compensates for this with lush, imaginative illustrations that connect the reader to Lola and give further insights into her world. Alekseyeva’s brilliant pacing—transitioning from fast-paced small panels to visually rich larger illustrations—heightens the urgency of Lola’s story. When Lola tells of her parents’ brutal deaths—burned alive in a barn in North Caucasus—Alekseyava portrays the scenes as full-page illustrations, evoking the enormity of the massacre and the breathtaking betrayal of the villagers who thought that they could appease the Nazis by murdering Jewish evacuees. In another full-page illustration, Alekseyeva draws neat lines of unmarked gravestones. Above the cemetery, in the sky, is Lola’s family tree, an X through the names of all the fallen relatives, and in tiny lettering in the lower corner is Lola’s stoic commentary: “But what could I do? I had to keep working, for my own sanity, and for others.”

There is an emotional minimalism to Alekseyeva’s work that allows for the moments of reflection to resonate. As Julia’s own personal history progresses—her family’s immigration to the United States, her isolated adolescence, her struggles with Jewish identity, the solace she finds in literature—so does the reader’s awareness of the parallels between Julia and the independent, free-thinking Lola. Julia grows into a politically engaged young woman with a hunger for adventure and innovation; her own stories would make for a fascinating book, but when coupled with Lola’s, they mark how Alekseyeva was influenced by her great-grandmother, sometimes unknowingly. Touching on her isolation from her more traditional mother and grandmother, Julia remarks that in her own view, “Happiness wasn’t quiet and calm, a few close friends, a comfortable job. It was the unknown and exciting: enormous parties, passionate and ill-fated love-affairs, spontaneous trips to far corners of the world.” We see that Alekseyava shared this definition with her great-grandmother. She also notes the parallel attitudes between Lola’s generation and millennials: “Of course, I didn’t know this at the time Lola was alive. It was just a feeling of closeness, something that bonded the two of us more than other members of the family. An idealism, maybe. A desire for something—anything—out of the ordinary.”

Soviet Daughter is a labor of love, a memoir, a personal history, and a political history—an achievement of both visual and written storytelling. But what elevates Alekseyeva’s work even further is its relevance to today’s political climate. Soviet Daughter reminds us of the horrors of the past, and soothes those of us disheartened by current politics. At the book’s end, we see Julia as an activist, attending a meeting: “After all, governments might change, the historical period might shift, generations might differ. But nothing, not all the guns and pepper spray and police batons in the world, not even time, can kill a true idea.”

Catherine Carberry is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Guernica, North American Review, The Collagist, Sou'wester, Indiana Review, and has been broadcast on National Public Radio. More from this author →