“Other Russias is the brilliant first collection of graphic journalism by artist and activist Victoria Lomasko. A fixture at Moscow’s protests and political trials, Lomasko illuminates the inequality and injustice at the heart of contemporary Russian society and gives voice to Russia’s many voiceless citizens. Not content to remain in the capital, she travels the country, visiting schools in dying villages; interviewing sex workers in foundering industrial towns; teaching children at juvenile prisons to draw, all while drawing their stories. Her portraits allow readers to see these people as more than words on paper and to see them as she does: with dignity, compassion, and love. Other Russias is an urgent and poignant work by a major talent.” – blurb from the publisher’s website.
I suggested this book to my book club because a member said they wanted to read more nonfiction. I’d heard of this book via my husband, and I wanted to know more about the civilians of Russia and Ukraine given the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even if you’re already familiar with the modern Russian sociopolitical landscape, this book has a lot of interesting vignettes of daily life from different angles, so it’s still probably an interesting read. It’s a very quick read and has relatively little text for the number of pages. It’s published by the leftist magazine N+1, which I feel good about supporting by purchasing the book.
I’m not sure that the illustrations actually really helped me understand the accompanying text more. My book club companions and I expressed feeling like we were reading it “wrong,” like we were somehow supposed to get more out of the illustrations. The drawings aren’t terribly detailed, which is to be expected since they were drawn on the spot from life. It’s probably hard to do illustration in the moment at an event and not want to revise it a bunch before publication in a book. But maybe that’s just me, as I am a perfectionist.
The parts of the book that were most memorable to me, a few weeks after finishing the book, are the supermarket slavery and the trucker and park preservation protests. The supermarket slavery part was incredibly harrowing and horrifying. I had no idea that was a thing, and it’s deeply disturbing to learn about how few options the victims have for justice of any kind. Finishing that chapter was a big “I don’t know what to do with this information but I feel bad doing nothing” moment. I guess in general I would have liked some information from the author about what concerned readers could do, if anything, e.g. organizations to donate to. But I understand that putting that information in print could be sub-optimal because such information may become stale quickly or draw attention from bad actors. In reading about the trucker and park preservation protests, it stood out that both groups of people expressed sardonic gratefulness for the causes that brought them together because the protests were a rare opportunity to get to know their neighbors and form a tight-knit community.
Overall the book felt like a good primer on a lot of macro- and micro-level aspects of Russian daily life. You don’t really need a lot of context to get something out of the vignettes, although there were times when context would have helped. The author seemed to assume that readers knew a good deal about Pussy Riot and their arrest, and there were so many different political affiliations mentioned in the book that I quickly lost track of them. It was interesting to hear about the Orthodox church’s political presence and the vehement anti-political stance of most Russians even when they were participating in political protests, the latter of which feels parallel to American attitudes (“politics shouldn’t get in the way of friendships” etc, even though a lot of American ‘politics’ are focused on existential and civil rights). Most Americans probably don’t really know anything about Russia’s people. We only know about Putin and his warmongering against Ukraine, and most of us only know as much about that as is shown in American media. It was heartening to read that a lot of Russians don’t support Putin. My favorite portrait in the book was the one of the elderly woman saying “Where can I get hold of a machine gun to kill Putin?”
If anyone has any recommendations for similar (e.g. anecdotal, immersive nonfiction that doesn’t have a lot of dry, textbook-y historical content) books about Ukraine or by Ukrainian authors, please let me know in a comment.