In her graphic novel, Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution, Julia Alekseyeva uses grey scale watercolor to bring warmth and individuality to an often-harrowing tale of three generations of a Russian immigrant family.
Alekseyeva came to the United States in 1992 at age four, along with her great-grandmother, Khinya Ignatsovkaya (Lola), maternal grandparents, and mother. They were fleeing both institutionalized anti-Semitism and nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
To find a respite from her critical mother and grandparents, Alekseyeva regularly visited Lola’s apartment for conversation and a glass of tea:
When I was a kid I wasn't allowed to tell anyone I was Jewish. My mother thought the entire world was anti-Semitic. I was told that I wouldn't get into good schools or get jobs. After all, that's what it was like in the Soviet Union.... I couldn't even go to my best friend's bar mitzvah for fear people would “find out”....What did it mean to be Jewish? I didn't know. It felt, more than anything, like a ball and chain. While everyone was constantly discussing my Jewishness, it was actually only around Lola where it seemed natural, beyond discussion - something free from judgment, but not ignored completely.
After Lola's death in 2010 at age 100, the family discovered her memoir, chronicling nearly a century of political turbulence and personal hardships, including a childhood disease, poverty, pogroms, the Bolshevik revolution, and World War II.
Although Lola had to leave school at age 9 to take care of her many younger siblings, she colluded with her brother to continue studying on her own. Her hard work, dependability, and creativity found outlets in theatrical societies, athletic clubs, and communist workers’ clubs, which often sponsored films, concerts, and camping trips. Lola's perseverance and resourcefulness – she often could supplement her income working evenings for a Red Army lieutenant. Without knowing it, she, in fact, was working for the NKVD, precursor to the KGB.
In this well-crafted tale of survival, Alekseyeva describes the “unnavigable rift” between members of her refugee family. One poignantly illustrated page depicts Alekseyeva growing from a child to a young woman, punctuated by hurtful phrases uttered by her mother: “You're wasting your life...I'm never going to let you cut your hair!... Demon-child...Your friends all hate you.” On the following page, a smiling child snuggles on her great-grandmother's lap and a caption reads, “Thankfully, there was Lola – my only refuge in a land of monsters.”
Soviet Daughter captures a yearning for community and acceptance across generations. It is both a window into an important chapter of modern Jewish history and a reminder of the needs of people for loving, human connections, especially those who find themselves far from home.
Courtney Naliboff lives, writes, teaches, and parents on North Haven, an island off the coast of Maine. She is a columnist for Working Waterfront, and writes about rural Jewish parenting for Kveller.com.
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