Survilo (2019)

Read this in Russian

St. Petersburg-based Olga Lavrenteva (b. 1986) belongs to a resolutely post-Soviet generation of comics artists turning to a traditionally marginalized art for new avenues of expression that include depictions of the nation’s historical disasters—part of what I term Russian comics’ twenty-first century “Nonfiction Turn.” In her fourth published work, the comics biography Survilo (Boomkniga Press, 2019), Lavrenteva delivers her largest (over three hundred pages) and most painfully trauma-focused piece of graphic narrative. Based on the memories of her 93-year-old grandmother, it follows the arrest of Valentina Survilo’s father and the family’s exile during the 1930s Stalinist repressions, her return to Leningrad in time to experience the city’s horrific 900-day siege by the Germans during World War II, and her father’s posthumous rehabilitation by the state. Survilo traces the—at times inexplicable—will to live under unimaginably nightmarish conditions, as well as the post-traumatic repercussions and profound fear that forever grips those “lucky enough” to have survived. The book functions as well as a retrospective account of the entire Soviet era: what it did to its citizens’ psyches and how those still living (along with their children) must cope in a stark new capitalist reality – in this it recalls the work of the Nobel-winning chronicler of twentieth-century Russian horrors, Svetlana Alexievich. In short, Survilo and other recent comics like it are fashioning new platforms for previously taboo discussions of the traumatic Soviet past, at the same time breaking new ground for the expressive potential of comics in Russia. Russian critics and readers have responded overwhelmingly positively to Survilo, with Lavrenteva’s work landing on a number of 2019 Top Ten lists. In talking it up to people, I always call it “the Russian Maus.”