January 10th, 2017
A review copy was provided from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Soviet Daughter is a graphic biography of a women named Lola, born in 1910 to a poor Jewish family outside of Kiev. She lived through the Bolshevik revolution, the civil war, the Stalinist purges, and the Holocaust, all the while doing her best to support her family and raise her children. For some time she even worked for the NKVD (which would later become the KGB). We learn that Lola wrote her memoir herself, but instructed her family not to read it while she was alive. After she passed, her great-grandaughter Julia Alekseyva used her inheritance to adapt her story into Soviet Daughter.
To put it simply, Lola’s story is incredible. It’s almost impossible to imagine what she went through and what she survived. And because of that it would have been easy for Julia to only focus on the darker moments in Lola’s life. Thankfully, she struck a good balance between the positives and negatives, which resulted in a richer comic overall. The comic shows that Lola’s life wasn’t easy and she worked very hard, but she still embraced life and every opportunity that presented itself. For every terrible memory — like being evicted from her home in the middle of winter for being Jewish – there was a time she remembered fondly — like falling in love.
Interwoven with Lola’s story is that of this comic’s creator. These interludes detail Julia’s own coming-of-age story as the daughter of immigrants in Chicago during the shifting political climate of the early 2000s. These short vignettes of Julia’s life from 2002-2009 were the weakest part of this comic. Meant to connect her life in America with her great-grandmother’s life in Eastern Europe, she intended them to show that despite the decades that separate them and the circumstances they were raised in, they were actually more alike than you would expect. At one point in Soviet Daughter, Julia writes, “It is said that Lola’s generation — called the ‘G.I. Generation’ — is closest to Generation Y (‘millennials’) in sentiment and personality.” This is a compelling argument to make, and through this comic she definitely laid the foundation to build upon it. For example, we learn that for much of her life Lola was an active member of Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League). Through this organization she made many friends, with whom she attended many social events, such as parties, concerts, author readings etc. Lola really valued this membership and embraced all the opportunities it presented. Julia parallels that with her own interest in politics and the social events she attended in her youth such as parties, Gay Pride parades, and Lollapalooza.
But ultimately Julia could have done more to highlight the similarities between them. Some lines she drew felt weaker than others — watching The Daily Show in the early 2000s isn’t quite the same as Lola’s activities with the Communist Party. These stories could have used some deeper analysis and self-reflection to really explore how they drew the two women together. In a similar way, I wanted to see more of their relationship together. It was obvious that Lola was very important to Julia but very few panels had them interacting. The comic was about their own coming-of-age stories but without seeing them together it felt more disconnected than it should have.
The art for Soviet Daughter is done in black and white. It’s quite rough and I found it a tad messy at times which made some panels and scenes a little unclear. Overall, though, I think the art worked for the story Julia was trying to tell. It was very straightforward, which allowed the women’s experiences to take center stage. It felt a little like I was reading someone’s illustrated journal, as it added to the memoir feeling but didn’t draw focus for the stories themselves.
Soviet Daughter was a fascinating read — it could have easily been much longer and I would have happily devoured every page. It feels like there are still so many stories that need to be told from that time period, especially women’s stories, and I’m happy Julia had the opportunity to share Lola’s story with the rest of us.