“United, In Spite of Everything:” A Review of Julia Alekseyeva’s Soviet Daughter


Julia Alekseyeva’s Soviet Daughter is an intergenerational memoir, a graphic novel that weaves the history of Khinya “Lola” Ignatovskaya, Alekseyeva’s great-grandmother from Soviet Russia, with Alekseyeva’s own story of coming-of-age in America. Lola—a fierce, independent, intelligent, and rebellious woman—draws us right in from the very beginning. Although violence, tragedy, and loss color Lola’s life, her headstrong and resilient spirit blazes through these hardships, giving us a heartfelt—but also empowering—narrative. Alekseyeva herself is also an indomitable spirit—Soviet Daughter demonstrates how female badassery can define and even steer family history and legacy, giving us a Marxist feminist analysis of war, labor, and domesticity.

In addition to witnessing the Russian Revolution during her younger years, Lola also gives a female perspective of World War II. Soviet Daughter intervenes into the genre of the androcentric war narrative, illustrating that the positionality of the male solider/comrade is not the only valuable perspective surrounding these events. Lola herself challenges the Marxist distinctions between the “productive” and “reproductive” labor spheres. Although Lola initially begins working in the household as a child and fulfills the feminized role of a reproductive laborer, growing up, she enters the productive workforce—becoming a factory worker and typist—all while still sustaining and supporting her family in the home. Lola shows how these labor spheres are not really separate and that powerful women throughout history have traversed these dichotomous theoretical frames. Lola—and countless other women during war—are not merely “left behind” by their husbands and fathers, but perform key productive and reproductive labor that maintains not only their households, but the very fabrics of the nation-state.

Preview from Soviet Daughter.

This Marxist feminist critique—and the other critical concepts and themes that proliferate throughout this graphic novel—come to life not only through the voices of Lola and Alekseyeva, but through the monochrome softness of Alekseyeva’s illustrations. Both Lola’s and Alekseyeva’s sections are awash in gray tones, resembling watercolor and rainwater, giving us an affectual experience steeped in nostalgic reflection. The black-and-white tones remind us that this is a story about the past, but their softness reminds us that this is also memory, a generational legacy between two strong women separated by almost an entire century. The graphic novel itself—a fairly contemporary genre—further traverses the generational divide between Alekseyeva and Lola. Although history has a tradition of coming alive in decades of books and writing, the visuality and synesthesia of the graphic novel enables Lola’s and Alekseyeva’s history to truly feel alive as we see it, hear it, and are affectually and tactilely swept away by it as we pour over the pages. Soviet Daughter is a graphic revolution—we are not only given a visual family history, but the struggles and triumphs of Lola and Alekseyeva are painfully and corporeally authentic, truly “graphic” for readers. Alekseyeva demonstrates not only the role of women in revolution, but that revolution itself can be embodied in the cultural work of radical women. Although Lola’s story can sometimes be interrupted by Alekseyeva’s own sections, her intervals still successfully bookend Lola’s chapters, demonstrating how “united, in spite of everything” these two women are (6). Time, space, and generation may sever and separate, but the love, acceptance, and understanding between two souls—no matter how far apart in miles and/or age—can create an everlasting kinship.

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