Igort’s The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks exist in the same vein as Mausand Persepolis. All three are graphic novels that humanize humans rights struggles in the Ukraine and Russia, Europe during the Holocaust, and Iran, respectively.
Compared to Maus and Persepolis, Igort’s drawings in The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks are much more sparse, but, in my opinion, this lends an urgency to the story.
Much of the first section, The Ukrainian Notebooks, focus on the Holodomor. Prior to reading Igort’s work, I had never heard of the Holodomor, an event in which millions Ukrainians were killed by a man-made famine in the early 1930s under the Russian government as part of the larger famine of 1931-1933.
Before discussing the novel itself, a bit of a history lesson is required:
The issue of the Holodomor is very complex, intertwined with the collectivization policies instituted by the Soviet government that allowed the appropriation of nearly everything that farmers owned, leaving them with little for survival and causing multiple revolts. Still, it was not just collectivization that caused the famine.
During the institution of Stalin’s Five Year Plan, implementation was, at best, incredibly haphazard causing vast amounts of grain to remain unharvested or lost in processing as farmers struggled to grow other crops as requested by the government. As a result, grain rations fell far belong expectations.
Death counts of ethnic Ukrainians vary widely from 1.8 to 12 million, though a Court of Appeals of Kiev ruling placed the number of ethnic Ukrainian deaths directly caused by famine at 3.9 million. The Holodomor’s status as a genocide remains contested, as many point out that millions of non-Ukrainian Soviets died in addition to the millions of Ukrainians, though there is evidence to suggest that were specific laws or policies that caused far more lethality in Ukraine, suggesting a specific targeting by the Soviet government. Today, the number of nations that recognize the Holodomor as a genocide stands at 15, though others recognize it as a tragedy.
In addition to the historical setting that Igort details, the much more important aspect is
what we learn about life during the Holodomor. Some victims of the famine became so desperate that they began to consume cats, dogs, horses, and even resorted to cannibalism (alive or dead). Bodies were routinely buried in mass graves, ten to fifteen to a hole, and covered only by a few handfuls of dirt. As horrible as the history is, Igort’s work humanizes as well as informs. In addition to providing insight towards historical documents as well his own firsthand experiences, we hear the stories from people who lived through the Holodomor, through Nazi occupation, and some of the worst periods in the history of Ukraine. The Ukrainian Notebooks speak to the resiliency and strength of the Ukrainian people, and it is a moving, albeit tragic, experience to read.
Note: The digital copy that I had through NetGalley was not without errors. Pages 39 and 46 end with hyphenated words that do not continue on the next page, and it was a bit maddening, since I felt like I was mixing out on pretty important moments. Grammatical errors were also present in bits of dialogue.