Masha Gessen at The New York Review of Books:
Once upon a time, not so long ago—after the Iron Curtain was lifted and before too many people absorbed a new set of propaganda cliches as their own speech—one could travel to the former Soviet Union, find a person of a certain age, ask a question, and hear the story of an entire life. The story was invariably painful and contradictory, and often a perfect encapsulation of the twentieth century. In the last quarter-century, the number of people of a certain age in the former Soviet Union has dwindled, and the number of those willing to tell their life stories to foreign strangers has decreased even faster. Soon, no one will be left to speak for the Soviet experience.
The Italian graphic novelist Igort went to Ukraine in 2008 and stayed for nearly two years. He met people at marketplaces and on country roads, and drew their lives. “Word by word I listen to the account of an existence that has become an undigested mass,” he writes, at the beginning of one section. “It pushes its way out from the gut. The following is a faithful transcription of that story…” These phrases sum up everything that is good and everything that is not so good about The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death Under Soviet Rule, the new single-volume English edition of Igort’s two graphic books, Quaderni Ucraini and Quaderni Russi. The translation, sadly, is often tone-deaf and downright sloppy—the peculiarly unappetizing language in this passage is just one example. But the stories he has collected are indeed an undigested mass, often a mess, and this is a good thing.