Once upon a time, not so long ago—after the Iron Curtain was lifted and before too many people absorbed a new set of propaganda cliches as their own speech—one could travel to the former Soviet Union, find a person of a certain age, ask a question, and hear the story of an entire life. The story was invariably painful and contradictory, and often a perfect encapsulation of the twentieth century. In the last quarter-century, the number of people of a certain age in the former Soviet Union has dwindled, and the number of those willing to tell their life stories to foreign strangers has decreased even faster. Soon, no one will be left to speak for the Soviet experience.
The Italian graphic novelist Igort went to Ukraine in 2008 and stayed for nearly two years. He met people at marketplaces and on country roads, and drew their lives. “Word by word I listen to the account of an existence that has become an undigested mass,” he writes, at the beginning of one section. “It pushes its way out from the gut. The following is a faithful transcription of that story…” These phrases sum up everything that is good and everything that is not so good about The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death Under Soviet Rule, the new single-volume English edition of Igort’s two graphic books, Quaderni Ucraini and Quaderni Russi. The translation, sadly, is often tone-deaf and downright sloppy—the peculiarly unappetizing language in this passage is just one example. But the stories he has collected are indeed an undigested mass, often a mess, and this is a good thing.
The core of the Ukrainian part of the book is four stories: two women and two men, born between 1925 and 1939. Three of them lived through dekulakization—the arrests, deportations, and executions of landed peasants of 1929-1932; Holodomor, the man-made famine of 1932-1933; and the Great Terror of 1935-1939. All of them lived through Nazi occupation in 1941-1944, post-war hunger, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and the disorientation and poverty of post-Soviet Ukraine in the 1990s. Igort dips into the archives for context: figures and occasional quotes from those who wielded power. The numbers, ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions of victims, are mind-boggling, and the quotes are mind-numbing, which makes all of them equally horrific and unretainable.
The living voices and the vivid images in the book are those of the powerless. “Cannibalism became commonplace,” says Serafima Andreyevna, born in 1928. “I remember like it was yesterday. Nineteen thirty-two was the most terrible year of my life.” In Igort’s drawings, distant childhood memories appear as they do in the human mind: stark, devoid of detail, with ragged bits of dialogue thrown in here and there. (His style tends to shift from loose, monochrome sketches in the sections depicting general historical background, to sharper lines and light earth-tones for the personal stories.)
“I had a dream the other night,” says Nikolay Vasilievich, born in 1926, at the end of his story, a catalogue of personal and social miseries that deplete his ability to cope, and to live, step by insurmountable step. “I saw myself in the sky, up on a cloud. I didn’t have wings, but I did have glasses.”
The form of the graphic novel is ideally suited for this view of history from below. The drawings and layouts show what the author saw and heard as he might have seen and heard it: Soviet leaders and teacups on a table are depicted in equal detail, just as the stories meander from household traumas to historic ones. Igort rarely reminds the reader of his own presence, but the gaze, and the imagination at play, are consistent from story to story, and they belong to an outsider. Occasionally, this outsider resorts to stereotypes of Russian culture—he seems to believe, for example, that Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gogol are omnipresent in contemporary Russia and Ukraine—but these associations also serve to remind the reader that this is not a traditional reporting project. Just as the title indicates, these are the notebooks of someone who has devoted two years of his life to looking, listening, and struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Ukraine is generous with its stories, enabling Igort to convey both the complicated texture of individual memory and the last-chance nature of his own experiment. Russia seems to have been less accommodating, perhaps because Igort had less time there. He covers (rendering the book’s subtitle, “Life and Death under Soviet Rule,” a bit misleading) the war in Chechnya, the Gulag, two of the most horrific terrorist attacks in recent history, the theater siege in Moscow in 2002 and the Beslan school massacre in 2004—and some of the murders of journalists and human rights defenders. The single anchoring story of this part of the book is that of a young man who volunteered to fight in Chechnya and emerged damaged in body and soul. This first-person account, though, came to Igort by way of an online forum, and this is perhaps what robs it of the sense of presence so palpable in the Ukrainian part of the book. The other major Russian story is that of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whom Igort also never saw, because she was killed in her building in Moscow in 2006. A nostalgic observation breaks through the lifeless language of the translation: “Anna was infused with the ethical sense that spills out of the pages of nineteenth-century Russian literature,” writes Igort. “Anna’s was a better Russia.”
Igort had already finished both The Ukrainian Notebooks and The Russian Notebooks (which were first published in Italy in 2010 and 2011, respectively) when the unimaginable happened, a war between the two countries they dealt with, lending the combined English edition a macabre kind of meaningfulness. In an epilogue, Igort returns to Ukraine with words that bear repeating two years later:
September, 2014. Given the severity of the current situation, I feel obliged to publish a drawn postscript. Right now, a bloody war is afflicting the Ukraine. Hastily characterized as “civil war” by Western media, it is not that the inhabitants of the Russophone areas are against the Ukrainophone ones—it is actually a war of invasion by the Russian Federation, an invisible, undeclared war, conducted with an enormous deployment of resources by soldiers without stripes and tanks without flags. Under armed threat, a sham referendum was held, which won by a landslide, and Crimea was annexed to Russia. The Kremlin then lit the fuse on the eastern regions. Using infiltrants, they provided the arms and means to unleash a fratricidal inferno.
The story of this “fratricidal inferno,” which Igort draws from both of sides, using both first-hand interviews and online sources, is as brutal as anything else described in the book. Igort’s reading of Russia’s recent history is centered almost entirely on the war in Chechnya, and the postscript reads like its continuation. He mentions, as fact, the existence of a syndrome among soldiers who have returned from Chechnya, an irrepressible addiction to violence. Yet the reader already knows that the story began much earlier. The account now reads like one of a continuum of violence, from Holodomor to the Second World War, Chernobyl, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the war in Chechnya, and back to killing in Ukraine. It is still an undigested mass.
Perhaps that is all that these stories can be—a kaleidoscope of unrelenting horror, of arrests, executions, wars, and wars, executions, and arrests, where the only human feature is the living voices of the people telling the stories—except it is stories of utter lack of humanity that they are telling. It is Igort’s paradoxical accomplishment that of all the images and lines with which he bombards the reader, none is more haunting than his own dedication: “To Serafima Andreyevna, who saw and survived.”
Igort’s The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death Under Soviet Rule is published by Simon and Schuster.