21 March 2016

Graphic Novel Review: The Ukranian and Russian Notebooks

Full title: The Ukranian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death under Soviet Rule
Author/artist: Igort
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Year of publishing: 2016

This book e-book was requested by me on NetGalley


Written and illustrated by an award-winning artist and translated into English for the first time, Igort’s The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks is a collection of two harrowing works of graphic nonfiction about life under Russian foreign rule.

After spending two years in Ukraine and Russia, collecting the stories of the survivors and witnesses to Soviet rule, masterful Italian graphic novelist Igort was compelled to illuminate two shadowy moments in recent history: the Ukraine famine and the assassination of a Russian journalist. Now he brings those stories to new life with in-depth reporting and deep compassion.

In The Russian Notebooks, Igort investigates the murder of award-winning journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkoyskaya. Anna spoke out frequently against the Second Chechen War, criticizing Vladimir Putin. For her work, she was detained, poisoned, and ultimately murdered. Igort follows in her tracks, detailing Anna’s assassination and the stories of abuse, murder, abduction, and torture that Russia was so desperate to censor. In The Ukrainian Notebooks, Igort reaches further back in history and illustrates the events of the 1932 Holodomor. Little known outside of the Ukraine, the Holodomor was a government-sanctioned famine, a peacetime atrocity during Stalin’s rule that killed anywhere from 1.8 to twelve million ethnic Ukrainians. Told through interviews with the people who lived through it, Igort paints a harrowing picture of hunger and cruelty under Soviet rule.

With elegant brush strokes and a stark color palette, Igort has transcribed the words and emotions of his subjects, revealing their intelligence, humanity, and honesty—and exposing the secret world of the former USSR.

The Ukranian and Russian Notebooks is the first graphic novel I've read in my entire life. It's also the second book about Life under Soviet rule that I have read since I started this blog. The first was, of course, Voices from Chernobyl: the Oral History of Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich.

For this review I'm actually going to share my first impressions that I wrote down after finishing this book:

"I should never have read this book before bedtime. When I was finished, I was left emotionally drained and with all the facts and images the author had dumped on me. He dumped this horrible load on me and left me there, alone, to process it all."

When you're starting a book with the words "Soviet" and "death" in the title, you know you're not in for an easy read. Especially if the the stories in the said book are all real. You can't just turn off your emotional tap as soon as you're done reading. Terrible things happened to these people, and you're left wondering how and why. It's one thing to read about Holodomor or torture of Chechen civilians in a newspaper. There it's a fact, and you just accept it. It's too far away from you. It's a whole other thing to read a first-hand account of a person whose life has been directly affected by these atrocities.

And as if the stories in this book weren't shocking enough, the author goes an extra mile and illustrates them. They're black-and-white illustrations, but they're so vivid and realistic, and they add to the reading experience. In some cases, I think, the illustrations aren't that necessary. Sometimes it's enough to just read about a certain horrible event that took place to get the full picture. But for the most part, these grim illustrations work. They make you face reality, by coaxing your imagination.

You can also tell, just by looking at the pictures, how moved the author was by the stories that these people shared with him, and how they have affected him emotionally. You feel like he's opening up his soul in these illustrations.

Like I wrote in my review for The Voices of Chernobyl, this is an important book. Not just because it's about a chapter in human history that is too atrocious to be forgotten, but because it's told by people who actually lived it.

When it comes to history, I prefer first-hand accounts to the history books written by professional historians. I always want to know about the individuals behind the facts and statistics. Historians can alter and falsify history to serve certain political agendas, but they can't change the personal experiences.

I can't rate this book based on content and subject matter, but I can rate the execution. And it is excellent. Igort has basically taken horrific real-life experiences and turned them into a comic book. And he has done it with utmost care and respect. This is a fantastic book created by a man with a lot of talent.

I definitely recommend it.  

My rating: 5 stars

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