Igort’s graphic novel The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death under Soviet Rule originally emerged in 2010, but has only just now been translated into English thanks to translator Jamie Richards.
Unfortunately, stories of the long Russo-Chechen conflict do not permeate into mainstream North American news media as often as they should. We get the broad strokes, accompanied by how our presidents or presidential hopefuls plan to work with Vladimir Putin.
We did not hear the story of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and human rights activist assassinated for being critical of Putin’s atrocities in Chechnya. We did not learn about how she felt, seeing the pits Russian soldiers dug in order to imprison live Chechen villagers underground, in the dark, for days. We did not read about Evgeny Myazin, a Russian soldier who, upon witnessing Russian atrocities in the Ukraine, resigned his commission only to be beaten to death and thrown in front of a moving truck to stage an “accidental” death. Gone is the story of Davydenko, a 16-year-old boy from Chechnya who, upon capture by the Russians, was repeatedly raped, humiliated, and mutilated.
Igort presents these fragments of lives, in addition to others equally as tragic, as literary memorials to the unreported and the unsung. His work graphically (and apply all definitions of the word “graphically,” here) takes readers on a journey into hell, a voyage Igort himself endured first-hand interviewing many of the subjects of this book. The bulk of the stops on this tour are in the Ukraine, with the remainder, toward the end of the book, in Russia.
It may be jarring for some readers to hop around in time as much as Igort does. The author does not tell a story that is always linear. Instead, readers will find themselves in the throes of World War II in one section, then in 2004 in the next, then delving into Russian history of the 1700s after that.
The effect of this choice is that one finds herself falling into a trap that may very well be one of the main points of this text: the reader will read a section and think, “The atrocities I’ve just read are so terrible; thank goodness this was so long ago,” only to discover, upon review, that the section in question was set merely a decade ago. By forcing the reader into this realization, Igort highlights the fact that the world really isn’t any less draconian than it used to be. Punishments written about by Dostoyevsky (which Igort reiterates) still plague Russia and the Ukraine today.
We hold dear the saying that “time heals all wounds,” but Igort may wonder, as might have Politkovskaya, if we don’t hide behind that too much. These writers clearly know that there are people in the world who hold open wounds, who infect them further, and who will ensure that the alleged scab of time never forms.
In a book pockmarked by pain, Igort uses a great deal of white space in his work. The reader’s eye has lots of room to roam, especially in certain sections. The whiteness, sometimes on entirely blank pages, creates the snow of Siberia, the escape from horrific pictures, the space to contemplate – whatever the reader may need. In this, Igort has given us a nightmare, in all its fragmentation and abstraction.
Except this nightmare is real.
Igort’s work has the power to educate, inform, activate, and impact readers effectively. His drawings are raw and rudimentary, so much so that the font of the text, a neat style that is about two stops away from Comic Sans in italics, strikes one as almost too much of a juxtaposition with the work’s content. This does not, however, dampen the gripping nature of the stories told.
This work is recommended to anyone who is a student or teacher of Russian or Ukrainian history (more comics in the classroom, please!), and anyone who wants to try to dream of a better future for a place where, as Igort writes of two people living on the Ukrainian steppe, “Sadness comes on suddenly whenever the subject of the future comes up. Because Seryozka – Sasha – and his girlfriend don’t know how to live on this land; they don’t know what to do with this land. And they don’t dream, either, because no one taught them to. There’s no hope – only stupor.”
The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks, written and illustrated by Igort, is available from Simon & Schuster, retailing for $28.00 U.S./$37.00 Can.