The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks written by Igort is a graphic novel that tells two distinct stories. The first one is of a forced famine in Ukraine that was shepherded by the USSR between 1931 and 1932. The reason behind such a course of action was due in part to the people of Ukraine not wanting to become communists. So, in response Russia fashioned a plan to starve them out. The tale is exhibited through a series of flashbacks from people who lived through the event as they share their accounts.
The narratives are bleak and dark describing a very dangerous time. Food dwindled, compelling people to search for alternatives so they could survive, some of which include resorting to cannibalism. Aside from the lacking foods, you had the Russians who came about, rounded up folks—men, women, children, and even the elderly—to conscript them into work for upwards of 18 hours a day in freezing conditions. During this one-year span, between six and seven million people had died. The survivors painted a deeply drab portrait, while simultaneously there are others that looked back at the era with fondness because everyone had a job and, at the very least, could afford the basic necessities.
There are a lot emotions illustrated in this story. On one side of it, you feel extremely sorrowful at effects this repression was causing on innocent people. Millions of people were dying when there was absolutely no reason for it to be happening, no legitimate reason; it was essentially the murder of millions. On the other side, you have those who wholeheartedly depended on such abuse for their livelihoods, a side where such criminal acts improved lives. I remember distinctly feeling angry, empathetic, awed, and even speechless as I read these accounts.
The second story is a story about the Chechnya/Russian conflict in relation to the death of Anna Politkovskaya, who was a Russian reporter that was not afraid to share the reality of the atrocities committed by the Russian army against the Chechnya people. The author sat down with friends of the reporter, where he learned that Chechens were treated worse than animals. Innocent men were sent to prison on false accusations. Whilst in prison, they are beaten horridly; more often than not these beatings resulted in the prisoner’s death.
This second half of the novel is grotesquely vivid with gruesome details, all from the mouths of survivors. It really gives you something to contemplate. I have read fiction about some of the nightmarish events that occurred here, believing naively that things like this couldn’t possibly happen in real life. But as I come across more and more accounts from wartimes, I recognize my childish foolhardy at such a notion. The torture and torment the many innocents faced is brutally real and a haunting fact of what life is like during a period of war, a fact most folks either don’t know existed, or don’t want to acknowledge.
The art is monochromatic with simplistic drawings, which is an impeccable complement to the sorrow and coldness that emanates from the unfriendly narratives presented. The author sketches for us a photograph of a land that essentially spawns brutality into people. Soldiers go off to war to become heroes but end up growing into figures that torture horrendously, with psychological scars running so deep that healing is merely out of the question; there is no point of return for them, no normalcy. I feel as if the black and white illustrations shield the audience from being unable to stomach the ruthlessness of these events, while making them inexplicably lifelike.
All in all, The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks consist of tales that must be told, as more awareness of these events is always compulsory. With a bit more attention to the overall structure of the novel I believe that it would have had a much more fluid presentation. The comic is perfect for those interested in Eastern European politics, Russian history, or if you want to learn about an appalling era to understand the deep affects that war has on a country’s citizens. It is not an easy book to absorb, by far, and in all honesty it shouldn’t be easy, but it’s definitely worth reading; three and a half stars out of five.