Julia Alekseyeva talks about her graphic novel Soviet Daughter and her family’s experiences of living in the former Soviet Union.
Gareth Evans: What would you say is the central message to your book?
Julia Alekseyeva: I think there are several overlapping messages, but the one that ties best with the reason I wrote it in the first place was that I wanted to give readers a visceral understanding of what it was like to live in the Soviet Union, which I feel people don’t quite understand, at least in the United States. My goal was for readers to be able to really feel what it was like to live during that time, and to be able to empathise with people from that period.
GE: Why did you decide the best way to achieve this was with a graphic novel?
JA: I think the most selfish answer would be to say that I love drawing, and I never considered it being anything else because I’ve always wanted to combine text and image in this way. I think it could also have been an animation, honestly, but that requires a lot more funding, which I didn’t have.
I definitely thought that it needed to have both text and images because I thought that that visceral quality of truly feeling what it was like to live in the Soviet Union would really only be possible with imagery. There is so much visual culture from that period that I find really interesting and I thought would help with the entire project.
GE: You’ve mentioned before that you wrote Soviet Daughter after discovering your great-grandmother’s memoirs. Did the dialogue come from those documents or did you use your own words?
JA: At least 80 percent is her story (obviously the interludes about my life are my own words) but I would say that something like 96 percent of the book is directly from her memoirs. The only time I added something else was when my editor said that Americans wouldn’t understand it, and then I had to lengthen the sentence a little bit to explain it or add a footnote.
Soviet speak is full of these strange acronyms that most people don’t understand. So I had to do a lot of explaining about all the acronyms, what pioneers are. Growing up inundated with this kind of language, I’d forgotten that this is something hat not everybody knows about. And even if it is something that most college educated people would understand, like what the Red Army is, my editor did a really good job of saying well actually there are people who might not understand it. So that four or five percent that didn’t come from her writing is just explanation.
GE: What was the reason behind including your own life story in intervals between chapters?
JA: That is a great question. I originally hadn’t planned on including very many, or I wanted them to be relatively sporadic. A big part of why I thought about including them in the first place is that so many people do have strong memories and feelings that they have about their elderly relatives that aren’t in their immediate family. I thought it would be useful to have that so people would have an easier way of bonding with this character if they were obviously like their great grandmother, or their grandmother, or their great uncle or something. But beyond that I was just encouraged by a lot people to include more of them.
I met Hillary Chute a couple of times, who wrote these two wonderful academic texts on graphic novels that are completely changing the field of the academic study of graphic novels. I just had coffee with her a couple of times, and once she read through the first draft of my first two chapters. She said, “These parts I want to hear more about, this is really interesting. I would love to hear more about your life like this”. And then I realised that people actually cared about my life. It isn’t something that I thought would be interesting. But the more people I showed it to the more they wanted to hear about that part of it. I was encouraged by a lot of people to include a lot more contemporary perspectives.
GE: One thing I thought was interesting was how you were able to work with time. Early on in the book you mention your cancer, which came as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. Then later on in the book you show that the Chernobyl disaster was what convinced your great-grandmother to move to America. What was it like to be able to explore time in a non-linear fashion?
JA: I definitely wanted the not-entirely-chronological aspect in order to give a more holistic picture. I think when you start off from the beginning and you go to the end chronologically you tend to forget things, and I don’t know if this is true for everyone but its hard to maintain a big picture perspective.
Including those interludes and drawing from events in one part, and having them recur in another part I thought would give a more total image of this history and this time. So much of Russian and Ukrainian history now has a lot to do with the Second World War, and so much of that has so much to do with pre-revolutionary racism. History doesn’t work in a linear way either I think. There are always things that came back up and are laid bare by certain events. I wanted it to evoke that same way that history functions. In the same way that history recurs I wanted events to recur in the book as well.
GE: Were there any stories that you wanted to include but couldn’t?
JA: Yeah, there were. For one, there are a lot more playful, funny events that happened during the golden years great-grandmother’s life. Like Pre-War when she is just hanging out with her friends, there are a lot of funny stories. But in the interest of also having time for major historical events I had to put all of them in one chapter, as opposed to drawing them out.
Originally the work was around 225 pages, and I had to get it down to 192, just because of the way Microcosm prints books. And so that was a lot of really painful editing. Talk about “killing your darlings”! I had to kill so many darlings! I also had to remove some elements from my own childhood.
In the subsequent edits of the book after writing and illustrating it first, I wanted it to be less dramatic. I thought that events spoke for themselves, and so I removed the most painful things, to be honest. Something like cancer I kept because it is a big part of my life, but then there are a lot of painful parts of my childhood that I thought, and my editor thought, would be almost more isolating than I would have intended.
In the end, I think I did a good thing by removing them. But it was hard because it spoke a lot more about the difficulties I had growing up with my family. I won’t really go into it but there were a lot of things that had their emotional tone decreased a little bit to maintain a general tone throughout the book. In future edits I’m actually planning on extending the book another 32 pages. This is only if it goes into reprint, and I don’t really have time to do it now. But my editor and the head of Microcosm were talking about this as something that seems like a very good possibility of happening.
I want to include more contextualisation with Russia and Ukraine. I feel like it is prone to a lot of misinterpretation, especially in the United States with all the anti-Russian sentiment – which I totally agree with. I’m very anti-Putin – but for a lot of Americans I think it is very hard to separate the Soviet Union from Putin. I think it is important to delineate that explicitly, and talk about the recent history.
GE: Has anyone from your family read the book?
JA: I think they have. The immediate response was not too positive. I talked a little bit about this in my NPR interview. It has not been easy. I think it is true of a lot of families that people don’t want their dirty laundry aired. They think that everything in their life is meant to be private, and even though I include very few comments about my living family members I actually did not receive very much positive reinforcement from my family.
This is something I did in spite of my family. All families are different. I am very happy for people who have loving family members who are supportive of them when they achieve certain milestones or success. That happens not to be the situation I am in.
GE: What has the general response from your readers?
JA: I’ve had a surprisingly positive reaction. I really thought (especially when I was writing) that people would call me a communist or that people would say I was a traitor. The worst actual criticism I’ve received is that either it wasn’t explicitly political (which I disagree with), so it is from people that want me to spell out exactly what I wanted to say politically (which wasn’t the point of the book).
The other criticism came from people who came in with a very different understanding of Soviet culture and Soviet life, and placed their own ideology on top of Soviet Daughter. In their summaries of the book they stated things that weren’t really true, because they were things they were taught.
But the vast majority of feedback that I’ve received has been actually surprisingly positive. Something I did not expect was how emotional it was for people. I was very emotional writing but I think that reading it has made people want to tell the stories of their own families. Almost every day I’ve had people sending me messages, telling me something they’ve experienced with their great-grandparents or their grandparents. It gets people onto this on to this nostalgic track. They would internalise it and use it to reflect their own stories, which I think is really interesting, and I want them to tell their own stories. It has been very evocative for people.
GE: Why has the image of the Soviet Union endured for so long after its dissolution?
JA: The Cold War is a big part of it. Even going to school after the Cold War was over, in the 90s in Chicago, I remember my sixth grade social studies teacher sitting everyone down and being like, “Do you want doctors and garbage men to make the same amount of money? Well that’s communism”. It’s really just ingrained, and sort of stupid. I think it has a lot to do with what has been passed down by their families.
Like the anti-union legislation in the 70s. It is only recently that the word “socialist” has stopped being almost a curse word. Especially after the rise of Bernie Sanders I think that the culture is changing now. I’m pretty excited to see this, even though I am not excited about this administration whatsoever I’m at least excited by this push back.
GE: Soviet Daughter ends with the message that we can go out and change the world. What advice would you give to people who want to do that?
JA: Getting involved in politics, running for office. As I was first thinking about writing this book I was trying to organise a union for graduate school. Since I left the union has blossomed into something like 400 members. They actually had a vote on the union.
The vote didn’t go into the union’s favour but almost half of graduate students wanted it to happen. There will be setbacks but, as a result of everyone trying to get this union, campus culture has changed. It has become less “Let’s see how many things we can get these graduate students to do for free”, and more “Hey, we deserve to be paid for our labour. We won’t teach your classes for free. We won’t go another year without health insurance”. Even on a micro-level like that I think someone could slowly change a small part of the world, which escalates into a bigger part, much like the butterfly effect.
To find out more about Julia Alekseyeva’s powerful family memoir, read our review of Soviet Daughter in our International Women’s Day issue of the Ink newsletter.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.