By illustrating her great-grandmother’s journals, Julie Alekseyeva raises a voice for the women of the Soviet Union often lost in a misremembered history.
Soviet Daughter is the story of two women, Khinya “Lola” Ignastovskaya and her great-granddaughter, and the book’s creator, Julia Alekseyeva. The main chapters are spent learning about Lola’s life, in her own words. Sandwiched between this narrative are interludes in which Julia examines her own life, as well as where Lola’s story is headed, what convinced her to leave her homeland, and how she found life in America.
Lola was born in 1910 and spent most of her life in Kiev, living through one of the most chaotic centuries of her nation’s history, constantly dealing with hunger, illness, war, and death. Through all of this the strength of Lola’s spirit shines through, with Soviet Daughter painting the picture of a woman who struggles with the harsh realities of the world around her, but who is more than capable of dealing with them.
Even when times are at their bleakest Lola never allows herself to be beaten down. In this way Soviet Daughter celebrates the capacity of women like her to persevere. She taught herself how to read, and would go on to work as a secretary for the People’s Commisariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD, the progenitor of the KGB, which Putin is currently working to resurrect) in order to support her family.
Meanwhile, the main theme of the interludes is one of identity. Alekseyeva recounts her difficulties with her identity growing up as a Ukrainian refugee in America, and her complicated relationship with her Jewish heritage. Over the course of these intervals Alekseyeva the creator comes to find her voice as Julia the narrator, and, once found, it serves to deliver the closing message of the book.
Through Julia, the reader has another perspective through which to view Lola, and lessons learned in Lola’s story are passed on into Julia’s. In one interlude Lola passes on romantic advice based on an experience she has in an earlier chapter. Late in the book Lola talks about fears that were realised in an earlier interlude. In this way the impact and influence that Lola had on Julia is made apparent.
“It is a story in which women make sure they are heard.”
This connection between Lola and Julia forms the heart of the book. Because Lola has such an important role in Julia’s life, the events that shape her have indirectly shaped Julia too, and so it is easy to see Soviet Daughter not as two stories, but one. It is the story of a family; of how far that family has come. It is a story in which the women make sure they are heard.
Above all else, Soviet Daughter is a very personal tale, written from the perspective of the women whose lives it explores. Thanks to this and the honesty of the writing it feels like the reader is getting to know them and talk to them, rather than merely being told about them. By the last page, the people within feel as real to the reader as people whom they have met, not simply abstract figures with whose life story they have become familiar. This is backed up by the artwork, which is at its best when focusing on the facial expressions of its cast. Their eyes have a light in them which shines through the page and their facial expressions have been granted great depth.
At the end of the book Alekseyeva writes that “not even time can kill an idea”. Through Soviet Daughter we come to see that the many experiences of its women have not weakened their ideals; they have only served to make them stronger.
Soviet Daughter is a call to arms as much as it is a memoir. It ends with a message, reminding the reader that they can use their voice to go out and change the world just as the people who came before them have done. In a time when vital progress on important issues such as women’s reproductive rights or equal rights for members of the LGBTQ community looks close to being undone this message couldn’t be more important.
Images from Microcosm Publishing.
Find out more about Julia Alekseyeva’s creation process in our exclusive interview.